The Yugoslav Elections: Predicted Scenarios and the U.S. Response

Oct 16, 2000

When the Balkans Forum was launched in September, little did the participants imagine that when the Forum reconvened on October 16, Serbia would have a radically altered political landscape. Last month we heard former ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmermann describe President Milosevic as the main obstacle to peace and democratic change in the Balkans region -- one that would not be easily removed. What a difference a few weeks makes. After a bloodless revolution, Milosevic is at long last out of power, and Serbia has a new president, opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica.

Addressing our October forum, speakers Harold Hongju Koh and Aleksa Djilas concurred that Kostunica's victory marked a significant step toward peace and democratic reform in the former Yugoslavia. However, they differed in the amount of credit they were willing to assign the United States for that outcome. Koh, who serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, argued that U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the region were already yielding promising results, such as Croatia's new law supporting the return of all refugees regardless of ethnic background. Djilas, author of The Contested Country: Yugoslav Unity and Communist Revolution, 1919-1953 and currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, critized aspects of U.S. policy toward Serbia, especially its role in the 1999 NATO bombing.

But the two speakers as well as the forum participants agreed that in any case, the new president's power would be sorely limited for the foreseeable future, expressing concern about the region's continuing economic, political, and social problems.

Specifically, forum participants discussed:

Kostunica's surprise victory

Most Western analysts, including those who attended last month's Balkans Forum, expected Milosevic to win Serbia's October elections. Forum participants said the West had failed to take into account the interplay of several key factors:

  • Impact of external aid. The U.S. government provided an estimated $77 million to strengthen the democratic opposition in Serbia. The money was invested in institution building, education, and technical assistance. Meanwhile, U.S.-based NGOs like the National Democratic Institute, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, provided training for Serbian activists and voters as well as conducting public opinion polls prior to Serbia's parliamentary elections.

  • Western media and diplomatic communications blitz. Through various means, the West was able to telegraph a clear and consistent message to the Serbian people that the defeat of Milosevic would result in the lifting of the economic embargo and the reestablishment of Serbia's diplomatic relations with the international community.

  • The vitality and determination of the Serbian opposition. The real impetus for change came from the Serbian people themselves, something Western observers completely underestimated. Polling data from a year ago demonstrate widespread unhappiness with the former leader, who stepped up his repression campaign in the wake of the 1999 NATO bombing. In response, Serbia's eight opposition parties formed a coalition, which then held massive public meetings and demonstrations promoting a single message: non-violent social change.

The next steps

According to most forum participants, the next steps toward democratic consolidation in Serbia must include:

  • the end of repression;

  • the promotion and support of a free media;

  • the promotion and support of an open society; and

  • a new government consisting not soley of experts but also of people who participated in the revolution.

From a U.S. perspective, it is important for the new Yugoslav leadership to signal its intention to honor the Dayton Accords, other prior agreements, and international norms. Meanwhile, the international community can offer Serbia its patience as well as a long-term commitment of aid.

Future challenges

Forum participants concurred on the top three areas of major concern demanding policy makers' immediate attention:

  1. The future of Montenegro and Kosovo. The United States supports a Yugoslav federation in which Serbia seeks political solutions to its problems with its reluctant junior partner, Montenegro, and with Kosovo. As far as Kosovo is concerned, the United States continues to back UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Likewise, the United States still favors a democratic Montenegro within a democratic Yugoslavia. Kostunica's announcement of a new round of parliamentary elections in December will hopefully provide an opportunity for Montenegrans to participate in the Serbian federal government.

  2. Prospects for democracy. There are many challenges to democratic reform across the region. Kosovo -- now one of the most homogeneous societies in the Balkans -- has major problems resulting from increased organized crime. On the positive side of the equation, displaced Kosovars are now returning, schools have reopened, progress has been made toward disarming the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the independent media has been revived. Serbia cannot of course resolve the issue of Kosovo alone. Albanians and other actors in the region must work with the Serbs to prevent a relapse into violent conflict.

  3. The fate of former President Milosevic. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has indicted Milosevic as a war criminal. Most forum participants agreed that Milosevic's conduct toward Kosovo Albanians makes him guilty of crimes against humanity and that he should be tried in the Hague. However, one participant demurred, expressing concern that the Tribunal -- similar to NATO -- was essentially a creation of the United States, thus would apply justice inconsistently. (It is inconceivable for a U.S. or NATO soldier to be indicted by the court.) Another participant charged that the international tribunal has not targeted other Balkans leaders who are known to have committed crimes because it is not in American interests to do so.

    In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Michael Ignatieff argued that the key to Milosevic's fate lies not in blackmailing the new government but in convincing the Serbian people that the charges against their former leader are justified, thus that handing him over to the ICTY is in the country's long-term interests. Citing this article, one participant cautioned that while the international community is right to support President Kostunica and the process of democracy in Yugoslavia, it should not do so at the expense of justice.

See also:

  • John Lancaster, "U.S. Funds Help Milosevic's Foes in Election Fight," Washington Post (19 September 2000), p. A01.
  • Michael Ignatieff, "The Right Trial for Milosevic," New York Times (10 October 2000).
  • "Post-Kosovo Serbian Politics: Missed Opportunities for Peace", transcript of a 10/5/99 Woodrow Wilson Center talk by Aleksa Djilas.
  • "UN War Crimes Tribunal Delivers a Travesty of Justice," by Robert Hayden (February 2000 commentary for

The Balkans Forum was a series of monthly dialogues co-sponsored by Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, Search for Common Ground, and the Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. This brief was prepared by staff at the Council's former Conflict and Prevention Program and at the Search for Common Ground. The opinions expressed at the forum do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsoring organizations.

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