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Loosening a Tyrant's Grasp

Ten years ago, a historian laid out the West’s, and Serbia’s, options for ridding themselves of Slobodan Milosevic.

by Charles Ingrao 4 October 2010

This week marks 10 years since Slobodan Milosevic resigned office after two weeks of mass unrest sparked by a disputed presidential election. Milosevic stepped down as police joined tens of thousands of students who were marching on the presidential residence and refused to arrest miners who were striking at the country’s largest mine. Serbia’s Constitutional Court had ordered a recount of the 24 September elections, while journalists at a pro-government newspaper signed a petition rejecting one-sided reporting. The president’s instruments of power had fallen away, one by one. Since those events, life for Serbs has improved incrementally, according to the UN Development Program, whose Human Development Index places the country on a par with several of its Balkan neighbors in terms of dozens of criteria including literacy, poverty, health care, and gender relations. In this article, which originally appeared in the Central Europe Review on 4 September 2000 – weeks before that fateful election – Charles Ingrao examined the chances to oust Milosevic by various means.


Over the past decade, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has started – and lost – four wars, while bringing international sanctions that have destroyed the economy, standards of living, and the good name of the Serbian people. Today, his popularity stands at an all-time low of 16 percent, while better than two-thirds of the population want to see a change in leadership.

In the best of all worlds, Milosevic's Socialist-Yugoslav United Left-Radical coalition would be quickly removed in the elections to be held this month – and it is this scenario in which the United States and its allies have placed their greatest hopes and resources. Yet despite Vojislav Kostunica's current lead in the polls, many of the country's democratic opposition despair of ever voting Milosevic out of office. Until recently, both domestic and foreign observers have readily blamed the self-inflicted impotence of their own leaders, who are bitterly divided by their own pretentious ambitions and petty jealousies. Hence, the United States and its allies are prepared to wait for the next round of elections and blame Milosevic's next triumph on the Serbs themselves.

In the meantime, they will patiently adhere to their interim strategy of isolation and containment, treating Serbia as the "hole in the doughnut" of surrounding Balkan states that are striving toward integration into Western Europe. Such a policy of malign neglect ignores the suffering of the Serbs themselves, but it corresponds to the relatively low priority that rump Yugoslavia holds for its own strategic interests.


Yet our awareness of these divisions should not prevent us from appreciating two less obvious but far more significant obstacles to evolutionary change within Serbia. Milosevic's domestic and foreign adversaries have been slow to realize that a democratic change in government will never happen in a state where Milosevic's nomenklatura control the media, make the election laws, and count the votes. Serbia is, in fact, the classic example of a fascist state – like Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, or Galtieri's Argentina – that allows opposition media and parties to operate but never to the point that they actually threaten the regime's hold on power.

No matter how high the opposition parties reach, the regime will always defeat them by raising the threshold just beyond their grasp. Every time they score a major victory, whether by gaining a key endorsement, staging a monster rally, or launching a strike, Milosevic simply strengthens his grip on power by further restricting their access to media and intensifying the carefully calibrated regime of intimidation that includes arrest, assault, and assassination.


Like other authoritarian rulers, Milosevic is sustained at the top by the cultivated self-interest of a well-provisioned patronage system of several thousand functionaries who control every facet of the government and economy. To maintain control, Milosevic has readily pared the ranks of the nomenklatura by firing, and even jailing, insubordinate justices, police chiefs, and military commanders. When necessary, Milosevic has also expanded his base by co-opting members of the opposition, most notably the mercurial Vuk Draskovic, who bolted from the Zajedno opposition coalition in July 1997 in exchange for a position in the ruling coalition and control over Belgrade's municipal government; to this day Draskovic limits his commitment to the opposition because he is reluctant to risk the lucrative system of graft and patronage that he derives from his control over the capital.

In short, the opposition's impotence rests not so much in their lack of quantity, quality, or unity, as in the determination of Milosevic's patronage system to frustrate or intimidate them. So long as it remains confident in Milosevic's grip on power, the existing party, administrative, police, and military hierarchy will be able to turn back any challenge mounted by the opposition, whose occasional successes actually endanger its own ranks more than Milosevic. Hence, the mirage of Kostunica's candidacy, which the regime will neutralize by canceling, stealing, or nullifying the elections, by arranging an unfortunate accident, or by reducing the Yugoslav presidency to its former impotence vis-a-vis Serbia.


A second key to Milosevic's hold on power is the passive support of a silent majority of Serbs who tolerate the status quo, because they are incapable of making an informed choice. Much of the problem stems from over a century of myth-making that has conditioned Serbs to see themselves as historic victims of foreign enemies, against whom they have inevitably triumphed through a heroic stubbornness – hence, Milosevic's ability to mobilize Serbs throughout the former Yugoslavia by appealing to their preconditioned, reflexive paranoia and hatred.

Opposition leaders are less surprised, attributing Milosevic's resilience (and their own futility) to the mass ignorance of Serbian society, which one opposition leader bluntly characterizes as a "nation of peasants." Even before sanctions, only six percent of the population read newspapers. Several opposition figures cite a series of well-known (and possibly accurate) statistics about educational levels within Serbia: whereas three percent of adults have a university education, 60 percent have received no more (and often less) than eight years of primary schooling. Hence their suspicion that a significant proportion of the adult population is functionally illiterate, especially middle-aged Serbs whose education was interrupted by World War II and the immediate postwar period but who now constitute the country's patriarchy.

Such elementary education levels virtually foreclose the ability to question government propaganda or to critically analyze evidence; they also explain the country's heavy reliance on state-controlled visual media for most of its information. Furthermore, they also suggest that, despite the best of intentions, Serbia's democratic opposition – and democracy itself – has limited prospects of success, so long as the regime retains a virtual monopoly on visual media.

Given these obstacles, there are those who believe that only death will deliver Serbia and its neighbors from the bete noire of the Balkans. But what options are there for those who lack the stomach to sanction assassination or the patience to await a more natural demise?


For years, a small community of scholars, human rights activists, and policy planners have insisted that Serbia can undergo a thorough reorientation only after military defeat and occupation. The prospects for such a scenario may have been greatest near the end of last spring's air war, when NATO commander Wesley Clark was days away from ordering a land invasion into Kosovo, which could have ultimately led to a parallel strike against Belgrade from the Vojvodina.

Although Milosevic's belated capitulation forestalled the introduction of ground troops, top U.S. officials concede that there remain contingency plans for military intervention in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.

But war and occupation represent the worst-case scenario for NATO's military strategists and political leaders, none of whom care enough about Serbia and its people to risk the lives of their own soldiers in an invasion and equally troublesome occupation. Their extreme reluctance to intervene essentially leaves in Milosevic's hands the option of creating another humanitarian crisis that would force NATO into a third military operation similar to those in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 – this time, involving ground troops.

If the United States and its allies are to avoid such an unappetizing scenario, they should consider each of the remaining two options as holding open a finite window of opportunity that needs to be exploited if a military "solution" is to be avoided.


A more likely and infinitely more preferable scenario would be Milosevic's removal by domestic insurrection.

"No pain, no gain," says one high-ranking State Department official who readily discounts the prospects of an electoral transition. Such a resolution is easy to envision in countries such as the United States, France, and Great Britain, each of which forged their own democratic systems through violent revolution. Yet nobody in Serbia talks about such a possibility, with good reason.

Four decades of communism have created the ultimate uncivil society incapable of taking responsibility for its own future, much as a century of ethnic narcissism has shifted the burden – and blame – onto other nations or nationalities. The notion of a "Serbian Liberation Army" thus remains beyond the comprehension of even the regime's most dedicated opponents, who remain steadfastly opposed to the thought of urban insurrection, let alone civil war.

Their refusal to contemplate urban insurrection or outright civil war stems both from an aversion to killing other Serbs – even those who brutally murdered so many non-Serbs over the past decade – and from fear of the personal danger involved. As one prominent opposition leader told me, "Everyone wants to join a successful revolution, but nobody wants to be the first revolutionary."

Until recently, rump Yugoslavia's democratic opposition amused itself with fantastic notions of U.S. intervention in default of any coercive domestic initiative to force Milosevic from power; that is, Serb leaders both at home and abroad have often predicted with great confidence (and impatience) that the United States could secure his downfall if it really desired. In November, Serbian opposition leaders meeting in Budapest argued that a stern threat, combined with a much-expanded proscription list, would cow Milosevic's patronage network into removing him. To this day, many talk plaintively about the likely effectiveness of "a single cruise missile" or some other means of assassination, wholly without consideration for legal issues or (international) political consequences.


This aura of sanctified helplessness apparently extends to the Serbian military. Milosevic has minimized the chances of a military coup by both repeatedly purging top commanders and introducing political commissars to the ranks. On the other hand, most mid-level, mid-career officers harbor numerous grievances against Milosevic.

The mutiny of a single Yugoslav Army unit could have a domino effect within the military, especially if it began in a region where there was significant support from sympathetic civilian authorities, most evidently in Montenegro, but possibly in the municipalities of the Vojvodina, Cacak or Nis. Yet opposition leaders despair that the officer corps has "neither the intelligence nor the courage" to mutiny or launch a coup. Their assessment is shared by top intelligence officials at SHAPE [Supreme headquarters Allied Powers Europe], one of whom recently told me that, "You've already heard it from the Serbs; now you're hearing it from NATO: 'The army is not going to overthrow Milosevic!'"


The only realistic scenario for removing Milosevic must address the underlying support that he receives from mass ignorance and elite patronage. Hence the need for an interdependent, two-pronged strategy that would require the cooperation of Milosevic's foreign and domestic enemies.


To their credit, members of the Serbian opposition have identified access to visual media as an indispensable element in their attempt to bring democracy to Serbia. Thus, the head of one Vojvodina opposition party has been lobbying for the construction of a single "Clarity Television" broadcast facility in southern Hungary that could reach much of the Vojvodina. On the other end of Serbia, the head of Kosovo's Serbian Resistance Movement, Momcilo Trajkovic, expresses a desire to build a television tower in northern Kosovo from which to reach southern Serbia; yet, despite repeated trips to Washington, he and his close ally, Bishop Artemije, have not even been able to get sufficient funding or clearance for TV and radio facilities to compete with the numerous broadcast facilities controlled by Milosevic.

Proponents of a visual media offensive recognize the need to staff all programs with indigenous, readily identifiable opposition figures who might have to forgo returning to Serbia as long as the current regime remains in power. They also appreciate the advantage of additional installations along Serbia's periphery that could blanket most of the country, bringing the heretofore silent, stoic majority of the population face to face with the factual record of orchestrated atrocities, military defeats, demographic losses, economic decline, rampant corruption, and international condemnation that Serbia has endured over the past decade.

Such a strategy offers several advantages for Western policymakers: it is less coercive, intrusive, and expensive than other policy options, and it employs Serbian citizens and does not exclude the parallel employment of other initiatives. And, perhaps most importantly, it serves both the immediate, tactical objective of replacing the present regime while addressing the longer-term quest for a systemic solution to the problem of Serbian cultural malaise even before Milosevic's removal.


Despite its merits, a visual media blitz would not address Milosevic's residual control over Serbia's elite, which is motivated primarily by fear (of lost patronage), rather than love (or any measure of trust or respect).

The present U.S. tactic of proscribing members of Milosevic's patronage network represents a crucial step in the process of devaluing the currency of loyalty to the regime but does not offer sufficient disincentives for securing their defection. It should, therefore, be supplemented with a second initiative, namely the establishment of a Yugoslav National Council (JNC) that would be recognized and treated as the sole legitimate representative of the Yugoslav peoples.

Such a body would not be without historical precedent. During World War II, the Axis occupation of most of the continent spawned a half-dozen "governments-in-exile," including one from the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps a more appropriate model would be the Polish, Czech, and Yugoslav "national councils" that were formed during World War I and ultimately recognized by the Allied powers. But a JNC would have an advantage over both models, in that it would already exercise at least some authority in both Montenegro and Kosovo.


Formal, international recognition of the JNC as the sole, legitimate representative of the Yugoslav peoples would pay immediate, multiple dividends. Once and for all, the United States and European Union would be relieved of the necessity of dealing with a regime run by indicted war criminals who have repeatedly used any contacts with the international community to legitimize its existence.

Within Kosovo, the JNC would provide the UN/NATO condominium with an ostensibly legal vehicle for marginalizing and, perhaps, removing those Milosevic loyalists who control local government, patronage, and the media, while jump-starting efforts to empower moderate political leaders like Artemije and Trajkovic. Indeed, by working through the JNC, NATO could even honor its commitment to reintroduce limited Yugoslav police and military forces without admitting Milosevic-controlled elements dedicated to undermining the international presence there.

Montenegro's recognition of the JNC as rump Yugoslavia's sole governing authority would enable the [Montenegrin President Milo] Dukanovic regime to end all contact with the regime in Belgrade, while easing tensions within the republic by simultaneously reaffirming – at least for the time being – its commitment to the Yugoslav federation.

The JNC could also secure a transparent, yet non-controversial source of income for funding its operations by negotiating licensing fees for access to TV and radio broadcast frequencies, or even by taking formal control of FRY assets abroad. Access to funding would enable Montenegro, the Kosovo Serbs, and members of the Serbian diaspora to affect claims to sovereignty within a common Yugoslav framework by creating shadow embassies / consulates, issuing exit visas for FRY residents wishing to travel abroad and gaining admission to international organizations from which rump Yugoslavia and Serbia have been heretofore excluded.


Once invested with the instruments and income of a provisional government, the JNC could establish an alternative patronage system by staffing its own foreign-based embassies, delegations, and broadcast facilities, all of which could serve as a magnet for the multitude of dissatisfied officials who would consider abandoning Milosevic's crippled ship of state if there were a safe place to jump before it sinks.

The incremental, visual transmission of news about the successes of the JNC and the defections from Milosevic's camp would be carefully timed and packaged to give the necessary momentum to a "psychosis of transition" within his patronage system that could quickly lead to regime's collapse.

Indeed, if the establishment, recognition, and investment of a Yugoslav National Council were instrumental in delegitimizing the Milosevic regime, it would have an effect comparable to the World War I Allies' belated recognition of the Polish and Czech national councils in the closing months of the conflict, the bestowal of which quickly persuaded the ruler and statesmen of Austria-Hungary that their state had ceased to exist. And, as in 1918, its establishment prior this critical transition would bequeath on the new Yugoslavia a widely recognized successor government comprising moderate, democratic leaders acceptable to the international community.


Its incumbency would help ensure an orderly transfer of authority without civil war, while simultaneously excluding unrepentant nationalists bent on perpetuating the quest for a Greater Serbia – and the horrendous crimes committed on its behalf. In this way, both the JNC and the concurrent visual media offensive look beyond the immediate problem of Milosevic to the all-important aftermath of his overthrow. In short, a JNC would strike at the weak link in Milosevic's chain of command – those supremely amoral but rational men around him who are not tied by any bonds stronger than the access to power and wealth that his patronage brings and who will desert him only after they perceive defection to be in their best interest. Of course, Milosevic and his wife would hold out to the last, together with those of their closest associates who are most deeply implicated in a decade of crimes against the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. And they would go to The Hague.

Charles Ingrao is a history professor at Purdue University who has written and consulted extensively on Central and Eastern Europe.
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