icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Serbia: The Milosevic Regime on the Eve of the September Elections
Serbia: The Milosevic Regime on the Eve of the September Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Kosovo-Serbia Agreement: Why Less Is More
The Kosovo-Serbia Agreement: Why Less Is More
Report 99 / Europe & Central Asia

Serbia: The Milosevic Regime on the Eve of the September Elections

The regime in Serbia has recovered its footing after the 1999 war with NATO and remains as hard-line as ever. Learning and gaining experience over the years has enabled the regime to “improve” its performance and become more efficient.

Executive Summary

The regime in Serbia has recovered its footing after the 1999 war with NATO and remains as hard-line as ever.  Learning and gaining experience over the years has enabled the regime to “improve” its performance and become more efficient.  Most analysts in Serbia agree that Milosevic will be able to stay in power indefinitely.

The process of internal consolidation after a lost war and loss of Kosovo has been mostly successful.  The Serbian state security apparatus is pervasive.  Its only task remains to secure the rule of federal President Slobodan Milosevic; the enemy is whatever threatens that rule.  Information collected is used selectively to intimidate, blackmail or inflict political damage on opponents.  The police are estimated now to be 80-100,000 strong; their consolidation was completed in June.  New laws have given the police new power and the Law on Terrorism is expected to further enhance their authority and legal power.

Despite claims of victory over NATO forces last year, the whole affair was a sobering experience for the Yugoslav army.  The changes at the top that followed were successful in securing control over the top layer of the military, but not of the whole structure.  The regime cannot count any more on the army as a reserve in case of civil unrest and other Serbian internal problems.

Of the two ruling parties—the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) and Yugoslav United Left (JUL)—the SPS has more members (600,000) and seems to still enjoy considerable support in rural communities due to overwhelming propaganda and skilful use of tradition.  It has, however, lost urban support both to the opposition and in the past couple of years to JUL.  Some of the best SPS cadres are disappointed and looking for a way out.  JUL, now with 200,000 members, has been on the offensive and gaining new ground in the government, media, education and business sectors at the expense of the SPS.

The regime has strengthened the information sector, and manipulation of the media remains one of its highest priorities.  The government moulds all news about events in Serbia and the world for the use of the public.  Refined over the years, the system has become more sophisticated and very efficient.  The independent media still exist despite all odds, but they are able to reach only a small segment of the population.

The economic sector is organised in a way that allows total control.  The economy remains socialist and centrally controlled.  Official statistics claim that industrial production in the first four months of 2000 increased by 3.4 per cent compared to the same period in 1999, but last year it was 24.1 per cent lower than in 1998.  The budget is financed mostly by customs duties and taxes on illegal imports of oil.  Also a complex set of exchange rates is used to achieve a redistribution of profits and losses in the economy.  Prices are under government control, which may explain the relatively low inflation rate and the stability of exchange rates.  In the first four months of 2000, exports were $111.8 million per month and imports $275.4 million with a projected trade deficit for the year of nearly two billion dollars.  Foreign debt is estimated currently to be above $16 billion.  Despite these problems, government experts believe that they can keep the economy running at the current level.

Milosevic seems determined to keep his firm grip on power for years to come.  He steers the government apparatus and sets the rules, but does not commit himself directly on most policies, so does not suffer the consequences of continuous failures.  He discards people after they have served his purpose.  He has never had close associates and does not trust anyone except his wife, Mira Markovic, the leader of JUL.  Their relationship is based on emotional, ideological and political closeness and mutual trust.  Her participation in running the regime has been steadily increasing and she has become the driving force behind most activities.  She is more ideologically rigid and the ongoing process of “Titoisation” is believed to be her brainchild.

On the foreign policy front, the regime has continued its efforts to reach out to Russia, China, India, Belarus and members of the non-aligned movement.  As far as the U.S. is concerned, Belgrade is waiting for a change of administration.  Officials expect George W. Bush to win the Presidency and to modify the American position, creating an opportunity for contacts.  They feel encouraged by the problems the current administration has encountered with its Balkan policies in Congress and see signs of forthcoming changes.

Preparations for local and federal elections began in May with the take over or muzzling of most independent and opposition media, a crackdown on street protests and demonstrations, closing of the universities and the systematic intimidation of the student-led opposition movement Otpor’s members.  Independent analysts close to the government concluded in early June that the opposition, including Otpor, had been effectively neutralised in the short term.  Prior to announcement of the municipal and federal elections on 24 September, most local observers agreed that it was unlikely that any meaningful resistance and action against the regime could be organised before autumn.  By July, the regime had completed its preparations for the elections, with amendments to the federal Constitution enacted in a single day and allowing two more four-year terms for Milosevic.

In contrast to the internal consolidation of the regime, Milosevic’s popular support has eroded steadily.  This by itself will not lead to change because it has been matched by opposition losses.  The opposition lacks support because it does not offer a comprehensive and appealing program, is divided – as further confirmed by the recent announcement that there would be a second opposition candidate for the presidency – and believed to be as corrupt as the regime; the latter is especially true for Vuk Draskovic’s Serbian Renewal Party (SPO).  The opposition, especially in Belgrade, has also long been on the defensive, reacting only to actions of the authorities. 

A large number of voters remain passive because they don't see an alternative to the Milosevic regime.  With a large proportion of “undecided” voters, the situation in Serbia is very unstable and may easily become volatile.  The present balance, which in overall terms seems tipped in favour of the regime, may change literally overnight.  Brewing dissatisfaction provides a fertile ground for any anti-regime movement.  Unrest may be sparked easily and it could be precipitated by a shortage of food if drought continues or heating fails next winter.  While the opposition is poorly organised to take over in such a crisis, Vojislav Seselj’s Radical Party (SRS) and possibly the SPO may be the likely beneficiaries.  Both parties are capable of mobilising their members quickly and organising armed units.

In spite of claims by opposition leaders that Milosevic can be removed by popular will, it remains extremely unlikely that the opposition can win the elections.  Quite apart from Milosevic’s practiced efforts to foul the electoral pitch, serious doubts remain about the capacity of the opposition to mount a credible campaign.  Opposition leaders, whether united or not, are not held in great respect by the majority of Serbian people, nor is there a consensus behind any one figure as an agent of change and an alternative to Milosevic.  Moreover, almost every candidate and party seeks to compete with Milosevic in his own nationalist arena, thus complicating their relationships with the West and adding to the Serbian people’s confusion about how to reconcile national myths and policies with their desire to integrate into European political, economic and security structures.

Milosevic has regained ground in recent months by consolidating the regime’s internal structures and support, and cracking down on the Serbian opposition parties, independent media and leaders of the student movement.  The 24 September elections are the next step in the Yugoslav President’s bid to secure his continuation in power and acquire a new veneer of democratic legitimacy for himself, his regime and the recent constitutional changes to the country’s federal structure.  The Serbian opposition is committed to preventing this from happening, by fighting Milosevic at the polls.  The international community has so far supported the opposition’s decision to take part in the elections, and has gone so far as to pressure Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic to field candidates of his own, which he has refused to do.  However, the odds remain heavily stacked against the opposition and in Milosevic’s favour.  In the present circumstances, the participation of the opposition and of the Montenegrins in federal elections runs the very real risk of handing Milosevic a sham election victory.

The international community should not lend further support to these flawed and illegal federal elections.   The West’s willingness to endorse phoney elections is an act of desperation, which rests on the hope that if Milosevic blatantly steals the elections the Serbian people will somehow rise up against him.  Much as that would be good for Serbia, it is unlikely to happen.  While no-one can prevent the Serbian opposition from participating in these elections, the international community could and should back the Montenegrin government in its persistent refusal to participate in a poll that seriously endangers Montenegro’s emerging democracy.

Belgrade/Washington/Brussels, 17 August 2000

The Kosovo-Serbia Agreement: Why Less Is More

The 19 April agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is an earthquake in Balkan politics: the ground lurched, familiar landmarks toppled, the aftershocks are still rumbling and the new contours are only slowly emerging.

The two prime ministers initialed a “First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalisation of Relations” in Brussels. The brief, fifteen-point text is the first bilateral agreement between Serbia and its former province; as the title suggests, it’s unlikely to be the last. Curiously neither government has published it, though a reportedly authentic version leaked quickly in the Pristina press.

The spinning has been furious among advocates (the EU and both governments), opponents and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. It is too soon to try to say what it all means. For now clarity comes from focusing on the few patches of firm ground.

There are only two sure things about the agreement, both are very important, and neither is spelled out anywhere in its text. The first is that the Serbian government has given up on keeping northern Kosovo in its system and has ceded its authority to Pristina. The second is that Belgrade has implicitly recognised that Kosovo is a state. These are tectonic shifts, whose effects will be felt no matter what happens with the early attempts to implement the deal.

The New Normalising 

The agreement’s title itself is misleading: ostensibly about “normalisation of relations”, the first twelve of the agreement’s fifteen points cover instead the governance of Kosovo’s Serb-controlled northern region. Only one point is explicitly about bilateral relations, and all it says is that neither party will block the other’s progress toward the EU.

The agreement specifies creation of an “Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities”.[fn]See Crisis Group Report Serbia and Kosovo: The Path to Normalistion.Hide Footnote The dual name is another sign of trouble ahead: for Serbia, it is a Zajednica (union or community) of municipalities, a governing entity newly established by the agreement, while for Kosovo, it is merely an inter-municipal association like one that already exists to help local governments coordinate and share expertise.

What Belgrade and Pristina have initialed is not so much an agreement as a set of principles that must be elaborated before they can be implemented, and the elaboration can be as hard-fought as the agreement itself. Consider the second point:

The Community/Association will be created by statute. Its dissolution shall only take place by a decision of the participating municipalities. Legal guarantees will be provided by applicable law and constitutional law (including the 2/3 majority rule).

The first sentence is silent as to who shall legislate the statute: the Kosovo Assembly (as Pristina prefers), the municipalities in question (which operate under Serbian law) or newly elected municipal bodies (under Kosovo law). The second implies the entity cannot be dissolved by a court decision, which suggests it is to have some kind of constitutional status. The third mentions a “constitutional law”, something that does not exist in the Kosovo system (but does in the Serbian one), and a “2/3 majority rule” of which Kosovo has at least two. It also mentions “legal guarantees”, but not what they are to protect. Most of the other points are as diaphanous as this one, amenable to different readings and needing a lot of follow-up work to give them life.

The Brussels House Style - And Its Limits

Followers of the history of EU mediation between Belgrade and Pristina will recognise this ambiguity as the Brussels house style: get the parties to commit publicly to an agreement whose content is to be filled in later, often by EU officials, out of the spotlight. The advantage of this approach lies in making possible agreements that would be politically deadly if spelled out in black and white. The cost, however, is steep. Both sides can feel cheated, and Belgrade especially tends to squeal when implementation begins on terms that were only implied in the text itself.

Much of the agreement depends on the cooperation of the northern Kosovo Serbs and their leaders, all of whom reject the deal and promise to resist.  This community has a bad reputation these days; they are portrayed as extremists, criminals, or at best simply too few in number to matter. That portrait is unfair: as those who spend time in the North know, its people are little different from their neighbors across the Balkans. Rejection of the Belgrade-Pristina deal comes from a bedrock patriotism that is common to most populations who see state borders shift against their will. Given the near-total absence of law enforcement, the area is surprisingly peaceful; since Kosovo declared independence in 2008 there have been only four fatalities in the North linked to the dispute. During tense times, improvised bombs explode and pot shots ring out, but are meant to warn or intimidate and seldom injure anyone. The only serious confrontations have pitted locals against NATO’s peacekeepers when the latter tried to remove barricades in 2011 and 2012.

While the two governments can, and should, implement a few measures right away, it’s impossible to guess the shape that northern Kosovo government will finally take. The two governments should coordinate the transfer of all security sector staff in Kosovo from Belgrade payroll and jurisdiction to Pristina, which entails: taking existing Kosovo Police (KP) off the Serbian payroll (many have been drawing two salaries, one from each state) and otherwise leaving them alone, and transferring the several hundred (reputed) undercover Serbian officers over to Kosovo payroll. This is less provocative than it sounds, because the “Kosovo Police” brand is widely accepted in northern Kosovo and seen as essentially local, regardless of who pays. It is important the two capitals work together to ensure no interruption in payment and no interregnum during which displaced cops can be recruited by organised crime.

Too much focus on the agreement’s specifics is likely to mislead; many of its provisions will be modified in practice and some may be simply forgotten over time.

Implementing the agreement will require both countries to amend the relevant legislation. One or both may have to amend their constitutions. The issues will have to be aired in public, members of parliament will have to take stands. Early signs are not encouraging. Kosovo’s Assembly approved the deal after a raucous late-night session featuring angry denunciations by the opposition Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination) party, whose supporters rallied outside the legislature. The Serbian parliament refused to vote on the agreement itself, claiming that to do so would constitute recognition of Kosovo; instead, it approved the government’s report on the negotiations. Earlier technical agreements between the two are held up on appeal to Serbia’s constitutional court on grounds that the government impermissibly changed by decree issues that must be regulated by law.

Northern leaders are still stunned by Belgrade’s move, which took them by complete surprise. They have yet to digest its implications, and early reactions bear a distinct resemblance to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and a few signs of depression and acceptance. They seem to hope the deal will die without their cooperation, but have no real plan. Some day soon, should Belgrade start to squeeze them in earnest, the residents of northern Kosovo will face stark choices. Their preference – the status quo, ignoring Pristina and largely integrated into the Serbian system – is no longer possible. There are many things Belgrade can do, starting with money (reducing or eliminating bonuses, cutting positions), and going on to dissolving municipal governments on a pretext and replacing them with more pliant staff, arresting key local leaders on real or trumped-up charges, closing various offices, and even the “nuclear option” of closing the two main employers, the university and medical centre. The limiting factors are legal (as in many ex-communist states, workers have many rights and are hard to fire) and political (they do not want to provoke a televised exodus, even a small one). One ironic component of this story is that Serbia will probably be tacitly encouraged to violate its own laws by the EU to make all this work, as doing it properly – amending all the relevant legislation and regulation – would take much longer than Brussels prefers.

A Self-Governing North, and the De Facto Recognition of Kosovo

The big irony here is that Belgrade’s preferences on implementing the deal are more threatening to the northern Kosovo Serbs than are those advocated by Pristina or the EU, because it is much easier to resist the latter. Serbia wants to form the Community quickly, out of the existing municipal governments; name a senior Serb police officer to take charge of integrating the illegal Serbian security presence into Kosovo institutions; and transfer the existing Serbian court to Kosovo jurisdiction. These steps would bundle the local population and their leaders into a loose Kosovo jacket that could be tightened over time as tempers cool. Kosovo wants to defer forming the Association until the OSCE organises local elections; supervise the transfer of security officials; and dissolve the Serbian court and staff a new Kosovo court. Northerners can easily boycott or sabotage all of those measures and probably remain confident that Pristina would stick to its positions.

The North has fourteen years of experience resisting pressure from Kosovo,[fn]See Crisis Group report North Kosovo: Dual Sovereignty in Practice.Hide Footnote with a large arsenal ranging from community pressure and civil disobedience to organised boycotts, intimidation and occasional pitched battles. But they do not know how to fight Belgrade. In the near term, the stronger Serbia’s influence over northern Kosovo is, the more that territory will integrate with Pristina; and the more Serbia pulls back, the more the North will maintain its independence from Kosovo. The clearest example of this paradox is Serbia’s plan to pass a constitutional law transferring its governing authority over Serbian municipalities to what it calls the “provisional institutions” in its “autonomous province” of Kosovo. Pristina would surely reject such a law and see it as an insult; yet it would leave the North no legal avenue to keep rejecting integration into the Kosovo system.

With or without a Serbian constitutional amendment, there is no way for northern Kosovo to keep saying it rejects the Belgrade-Pristina agreement but is otherwise a normal part of the Serbian legal and administrative system, because Belgrade is transferring it to Pristina’s authority. The North is thinking of three options. It can submit to integration into the Kosovo system, and work to expand the space of autonomy it offers them. It can declare independence, with an aim of negotiating a better deal with one or both of the states that claim it. Or it can strike out on its own without any formal declarations, subverting and obstructing the agreement where it can and hoping for a re-negotiation.

Curiously, all three courses lead toward the same place: a largely self-governing region, with some ties to a Kosovo whose independence it rejects, and with other ties to Serbia. The differences are in emphasis and symbolism, emotionally powerful but with modest practical implications. Pristina and Belgrade should refrain from sudden or provocative moves. So far there has been no surge in violence against Kosovo institutions in the North but that is a risk in the near future, with the North Mitrovica Administrative Office and its staff being the most obvious targets. These should be protected.

There is no point holding elections without significant local support. If the North is firmly opposed, there is a risk of violence against the organisers, and polls that require hefty KFOR protection would be of little use. Belgrade and Pristina need to explain, in detail, what the agreement means for northern Kosovo. They should take the time necessary to prepare the ground.

All previous accords were packaged as deals between Serbia and some external player – the UN or the EU – acting as Kosovo’s proxy. This is the first high level agreement between the two states, and shows that Serbia can deal with Kosovo as an equal. It is a kind of de facto recognition of Kosovo and that may be its greatest long-term significance. Whatever else happens, it is easier today to imagine that Serbia may one day formally recognise the independence of its former province. Yet the thaw in Belgrade-Pristina relations is still fragile and easy to reverse. Both capitals should make improving their bilateral ties the priority, and should not allow lingering disagreements over northern Kosovo to impede them. Better state-to-state relations are much more important than administrative details governing the North.