Suddenly, it all turned nasty. It would have been too good to be true for Slobodan Milosevic to have held an election and then, the next day, pop up on television saying: “Fellow citizens . . . It is clear that the people have spo-ken and I must congratulate my successor as president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” Indeed, true to form, as thousands chanted victory slogans in the streets of Belgrade and across the country, Milosevic said nothing. That’s his style.
“We are on the edge of a nervous breakdown,” e-mailed a friend from Belgrade. “Still no word from the regime. They are in panic and people in panic are dangerous. For two days, I have been crying and laughing at the same time and don’t dare celebrate. I’m going to scream.”
But hours later, word did come from the “the regime”. The opposition was wrong. Their man, Vojislav Kostunica, had not won the election in the first round on 24 September, as they claimed. There would be a run-off poll on 8 October. So, briefly, we glimpsed the Serbia that could have been – and doubtless will one day be. For now, though, the future is on hold.
The opposition claimed that Kostunica had 55 per cent of the vote to Milosevic’s 35 per cent. Then, on Tuesday evening, the Milosevic-controlled Federal Election Commission said the true figures were 48 for Kostunica and 40 for Milosevic. As expected, the opposition rejected these figures, saying they would not participate in the second round, which is exactly what Milosevic wanted. If he runs alone, he will have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
For the past year, Serbia had looked as though it was heading inexorably for a Cuban- or Iraqi-style future. Now we have a new possibility: Burma on the Danube.
It seems that it is widely believed that ballot-fixing is the easiest thing in the world. In my experience, this is not so. In June, I was sent as an official election observer, attached to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), to Montenegro. I observed the count at one polling station that I had earlier watched open. The polling board consisted of members of all parties, who were shown every single ballot cast, as it was counted. The box never left the room. During this latest election, the opposition could reliably claim victory based on phoned-in reports from their people at the polling stations.
Gradually, the story has emerged. Milosevic, isolated and out of touch, was shocked to realise he was heading for defeat. Even more shocked were his ministers and small entourage. According to Zoran Zivkovic, the mayor of the industrial city of Nis and deputy chairman of one of the opposition parties, Nikola Sainovic, the Yugoslav deputy premier, approached opposition leaders after the vote. “Give us the second round,” he said. “How can I tell Milosevic that he lost in the first round?” They replied that that was his problem.
Bargaining, in a rather cruder form than we are used to, is how they do politics in Serbia. But, of course, bargaining with people’s lives, because that is what it amounts to, is precisely why, whatever the exact figures, Serbs have turned against Milosevic and voted for Kostunica. For years, Kostunica has refused the backroom deals offered by the Serbian leader to his opponents.
Make no mistake: the results represent a huge turn. Even the official figures concede that more people voted for Kostunica than for Milosevic. No one doubts that, as Zarko Korac, the leader of one of the small parties that make up the 18-party opposition coalition, said: “Whatever happens, Serbia changed.”
For now, Serbia’s future is on hold. Hearts are sinking, joy turning to despair. Everyone wants to know “what next?” and “how long?”, and no one knows the answers.
Still, let us imagine that Kostunica does become the next president of Yugoslavia. And I choose my countries carefully here; Yugoslavia is Serbia and Montenegro. If Milosevic survives, Montenegro will doubtless secede, maybe dragging the UK into another Balkan war. Most Montenegrins have no desire to separate from Serbia, but they also have no desire to wait out Milosevic. They are anti-Milosevic, not anti-Yugoslav. However, if Kostunica is elected, then the question of independence will almost certainly slip off the agenda.
The choice of Kostunica as the man to lead the opposition was a stroke of genius. Untainted by the smell of corruption, the rather dull constitutional lawyer is a man who could appeal across the board. He is a nationalist, yes, but principled, and not a man prepared to go to war to for what he believes in. A man who wants Serbia’s reintegration into the rest of Europe but who won’t kowtow, either. He has already said, for example, that he has no intention of turning Slobodan Milosevic over to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He believes, as do most Serbs, that it is an anti-Serb kangaroo court, rather than a real instrument of justice.
Gordana Igric, associate editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says she believes that Kostunica, if he comes to power, would be a transitional figure, bridging the Serbia of the past, the Serbia of lies, to the future. She cites the example of Miroslav Filipovic, the Serbian journalist who in July was jailed for seven years for writing about Yugoslav Army atrocities in Kosovo. “Kostunica said that of course, Filipovic should not be in jail, but he also said he should not have been telling lies, either. For Kostunica, there is no question of Serbs ever being guilty of anything.”
For ten years, the rest of eastern and central Europe has been struggling with its transition from communism. What to do with the archives of the secret police, what to do with thousands unemployed? Massive steel mills, circa 1950, are not exactly competitive in today’s world markets. Serbia will have to face up to all of this, and the transition may be harder than it was for some neighbouring countries.
In Serbia, those who have done well from wars and sanctions are very much alive, very rich, and would rather go down fighting, literally, than lose it all in a brave new Serbia. Will it come to fighting? Perhaps.
And what about Kosovo, home to several thousand British troops? Kosovar Albanians affect an utter uninterest in the affairs of Serbia, saying it is a foreign country and they want nothing more to do with it. But this detachment is a political affectation. Milosevic has no greater fans than the leaders of the former Kosovo Liberation Army. If he stays in power, then their path to independence is virtually assured. For them, Kostunica and democracy in Serbia would be a disaster. After all, UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which ended Nato’s bombing campaign last year and saw the Serbians pull out of Kosovo, states that the province is part of Yugoslavia. And that is the western position, unrealistic though it may be. If a new, democratic government comes to power in Belgrade, Kosovar Albanians will be told that they must now seek an accommodation with the powers that be.
We are not yet there yet, and Kosovo, although close to Kostunica’s heart, could not be the first priority of an incoming government. That would have to be to end Serbia’s isolation and to make it, in Kostunica’s expression, a “normal” country again. Large sums of money have already been earmarked for a post-Milosevic Serbia by western governments, but money is not the whole story. After ten years of war and sanctions, and quite apart from questions of guilt and responsibility, the fact is that life for many ordinary people would get worse before it grew better. Defunct industries would have to go. Serbia’s small farmers will find it hard to compete on world markets, too.
The future is far from bright. But at least, last week, we glimpsed it. In the meantime, Petar Lukovic, a veteran Belgrade columnist, was undoubtedly right when he wrote, in the wake of the election: “The situation is as clear as day. It’s ‘Us’ or ‘Them’, and it’s a choice which can only be settled on the streets.”
Tim Judah’s The Serbs: history, myth and the destruction of Yugoslavia is published by Yale University Press (£8.99)