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Yugoslav Elections: Stolen Ahead of Time
by George Szamuely (9-22-2000)

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The US Government and its auxiliaries, aka journalists, are salivating at the prospect of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic going down to defeat in Sunday’s Presidential elections. Every day "independent" polls are cited showing his chief opponent Vojislav Kostunica with a commanding lead. Such stories are immediately supplemented with other stories arguing that none of this matters at all since, whatever happens, Milosevic will simply "steal" the election. Quite how he is going to pull this feat off is never spelled out. Milosevic’s villainy is so self-evident that further explanation is superfluous. "If he wins, it’ll be from cheating", an unnamed US official was quoted in a recent Reuters story, "Part of the question will be does he have to cheat little or does he have to cheat big". One has to wonder at this extraordinary US omniscience. There is no US diplomatic presence in Yugoslavia. Americans are not permitted to work in the country. Clearly, the United States does not know the first thing about the state of Serb public opinion.

The point of these stories is to anticipate a possible Milosevic victory and declare it a "fraud" from the outset. This is slightly different from the usual US tactics with elections in other countries. The moment its clients are in danger of defeat, Washington orders them to pull out and claim "fraud". This was US policy during the 1984 Nicaragua elections and earlier this year in Peru. According to Bill Clinton, Milosevic is "capable of stealing" the election. "But if he does", Clinton warned, "we must make sure…that he loses what legitimacy he has left in the world". You have to wonder what on earth the President was talking about. The United States has repeatedly tried to assassinate Milosevic, most notably during last year’s bombing spree on Yugoslavia; US policymakers regularly compare the Serb leader to Hitler; the US-financed kangaroo court known as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, has indicted him as a "war criminal". And here is Clinton talking of his "legitimacy". It has become the favorite word of US policymakers. "If he steals these elections, he’ll be further delegitimized in the eyes of the Serbian people and the international community and that makes his hold on power more tenuous," says James C. O’Brien, special adviser to the president and secretary of state for democracy in the Balkans.

This kind of talk has to be interpreted as a clear threat to use force if, as the US Government clearly believes, Slobodan Milosevic is re-elected as President. It goes together with a sudden flurry of US military activity in the region. The Pentagon announced the other day that it was bolstering the US military presence in the Balkans. A carrier battle group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln left Thai waters ahead of schedule and headed toward the Persian Gulf, thus freeing up another carrier group, led by the USS George Washington, for movement to the Adriatic Sea. Meanwhile, according to Secretary of State Albright Croatia will shortly join NATO in a naval exercise off the coast of Montenegro.

Vojislav Kostunica is enjoying a good press. The stories about him use almost identical phrases. He prefers "thoughtful analysis to strident street protests"; he is "a soft-spoken law professor known for his honesty and modest lifestyle"; his most notable characteristic is "ordinariness"; his "artlessness as a politician are what make him so popular". Apparently his quiet analyses, modesty and thoughtfulness did not stop him from proclaiming the other day that Yugoslavia’s leaders "have stolen years of our lives….And now they are preparing the theft of the century" to secure an election victory.

Kostunica, we are informed, is a Serb "nationalist", albeit of the moderate variety. He is no Western puppet. A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that Kostunica "stayed at home this past year while other opposition leaders were courted in Europe and Washington". The same story had Kostunica arguing that Yugoslavia’s problems needed to be solved in Belgrade: "Nothing came out of the opposition’s cooperation with the West."

Those Western favorites of yesterday like Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Draskovic have been dropped and a new hero has emerged, one to be celebrated for not being them. Yet this is all patently absurd. First of all, Kostunica is the Presidential candidate of the united Yugoslav opposition, which includes figures like Djindjic who have been currying favor with NATO. Second, Kostunica has adopted the economic program—with its IMF-approved bromides of privatization and public spending cuts—of G-17, a think tank "independent" enough to be financed by the US Government. Third, Kostunica’s "thoughtful analyses" of what happened in Yugoslavia betray a staggeringly incoherent mind. In a major speech last April Kostunica denounced the violence "spearheaded by power-wielders in Washington and Brussels. The forms of the external violence are the long-standing sanctions, last year’s bombs and support to Albanian terrorists in Kosovo". Yet he adds, bizarrely: "In order to survive as a people, we have to normalize our relations with the world, but we must neither disregard nor forget the foreign violence conceived by the United States and NATO….One thing is absolutely certain. We cannot free ourselves from the external violence and chains until we get rid of the regime’s internal violence. And we have to do the latter by ourselves, without any assistance from the outside, lest we might replace one serfdom with another". It is hard to make any sense out of this. Serbia has been the victim of violence instigated by the United States. On the other hand, Yugoslavia must restore "normal" relations with the rest of the world. Serbs should never forget the violence they have suffered at the hands of the United States. But that was only a response to the "regime’s internal violence". Change has to be internal, free of "any assistance from the outside". Yet, he is a candidate of the various "opposition" figures, almost all of whom are recipients of substantial funds from abroad. The United States has shelled over $75 million to anti-Milosevic groups over the past three years. Just the other day, the European Union unveiled yet another plan to help the Serb "opposition". This time the EU is forking over aid to schools in towns led by enemies of Milosevic. The idea is similar to the EU’s Energy for Democracy project, which provided heating fuel to two towns last winter. And there are other projects said to be in the pipeline: improving water distribution, garbage collection and other municipal services.

The Serb "opposition" has failed so appallingly, not because of Milosevic’s repression or the rivalries of the various leaders. It failed because it was so blinded by its parochial hatred of Slobodan Milosevic that it failed to grasp what happened to Yugoslavia. It often seems as if these professional Milosevic-haters really believe US and EU propaganda that the Yugoslav leader is all that stands in the way of good relations between Yugoslavia and the West. There is something extraordinarily puerile about this view. Is it conceivable that NATO would have launched an armed onslaught against an ancient European people simply because of Slobodan Milosevic? Is it conceivable that an eight-year long brutal sanctions regime would have been kept in place because of one man? The bombs killed ordinary Serbs; they destroyed Serb factories and bridges, the product of years of labor. Moreover, though Milosevic is invariably described as a "dictator" in the West, there is no question he has won election after election. Yet many of Milosevic’s opponents talk as if someone else should have rightly been in charge in Belgrade over the years, as if Milosevic is there only because he has usurped the nation’s rightful rulers. Indeed, the Milosevic-haters have yet to figure out what makes Milosevic so bad. Is it because he is a virulent nationalist? Or is it because he gave away the store? Did he betray the Serbs of Bosnia, Krajina and Slavonia just in order to curry favor with the West?

The truth is, the United States resolved to build an empire in the Balkans. It sought to create an alternative to NATO should relations with the EU deteriorate in the coming years. And it wanted to build a launching pad for expansion into Central Asia and the Caspian region. Serbia, small though it is, was in the way. It became an enemy. And the United States devoted huge resources to trying to crush this obstreperous nation. Milosevic probably realized as early as 1991 that the West would intervene massively on behalf of Serbia’s enemies. The Germans would adopt the Croats as their clients; the Americans would go for the Moslems—first of Bosnia, then of Albania. From that moment on, Milosevic became the protector of Yugoslavia’s sovereignty. Given Serbia’s obvious weakness Russia’s ineffectual support, Milosevic had little choice but to go the extra mile to placate his NATO enemies, so as to avoid armed attack. NATO aggression against Serbia had been on the cards since at least 1992. Margaret Thatcher was baying for the bombing of Belgrade. Bill Clinton, running for President, was promising to bomb the Serbs and denouncing Milosevic as a "war criminal". But Milosevic also sought to ensure that Serbia did not become a US satellite.

From the beginning, both international law and morality was on the side of the Serbs. There is no internationally recognized right to secede. A poll in a territory favoring independence does not grant anyone the right to go its own way. At best, it is merely the first step to the lengthy negotiations that need to take place over such vexed issues like the rights of minorities, the future boundaries, the disposal of state assets, mutual security and so on. The Serbs of Croatia who had hitherto been citizens of Yugoslavia were under no obligation to accept their new status as citizens of Croatia, particularly as, according to the Croatian constitution, Croatian nationality and citizenship were taken as synonymous. In defending the right of the Serbs outside Serbia to retain their citizenship of Yugoslavia, Milosevic acted entirely in accordance with international law. It was the United States and the West in general that abandoned any pretense at upholding international law and the responsibility of nations to resolve their differences by peaceful means.

Yet where was the Serb opposition during this time? To be sure, they made pro forma criticisms of NATO "aggression". But before long they invariably resumed the much more agreeable—and easier—task of denouncing Milosevic. They rarely if ever presented a credible alternative strategy to Milosevic’s. Indeed, they did not seem all that unhappy with what NATO was doing to their country. What concerned them the most about the bombing last year was that it strengthened Milosevic’s position at home. A month after the bombing, Draskovic, Djindjic and Djukanovic were happily chatting with and taking instructions from US officials.

Let us look at the nature of some of Milosevic’s "opponents". Otpor, which enjoys very favorable publicity in the West, for instance advocates Yugoslavia "opening-up to all international organizations (UN, OSCE, etc.) and states, especially to those in the Balkans region, coupled with complete compliance with all international rules and regulations, including full cooperation with The Hague Tribunal For War Crimes." Now, it has hardly been Serbia that refused to "open up" to international institutions. It was the United States and the EU that imposed sanctions. It is the United States that tirelessly pushed for bombing. And it is the United States that is today seeking to expel Yugoslavia from the United Nations. As for the Hague Tribunal, this was created for the exclusive purpose of intimidating the Serbs into compliance with US commands. Such facts make no appearance in standard "opposition" accounts of recent Yugoslav history. It is much better—and certainly more lucrative—to stick to fairy tales about big, bad Milosevic.

Otpor advocates "compulsory and fair privatization, the establishment of a free market economy, and the opening of the economy to international financial organizations and international investment." Even the IMF prefers to eschew the use of ugly words like "compulsory". On Kosovo, Otpor urges the "establishment of true institutions of democracy within a framework that guarantees the highest level of territorial self-rule under strict supervision of international civil and military forces that always respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of FR Yugoslavia". This piece of almost totally meaningless verbiage—how can "strict supervision of international civil and military forces" of Kosovo be compatible with "territorial integrity and sovereignty of FR Yugoslavia"?—is word for word the official position of NATO. It is extraordinary that Otpor does not even attempt to argue that once Milosevic is out of the way, Kosovo would be returned to the rule of Belgrade. This would clearly be unacceptable to its Western patrons.

Serbia’s "Democratic Opposition" recently presented a "Proposal to the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe to Organize a Regional Funding Conference for the Reconstruction of Post-Milosevic Serbia". It was crafted with assistance from G17 PLUS. "We, the democratic opposition in Serbia", it declares resoundingly, "are fully aware of high expectations by the international community. We shall do everything in our power to carry out all-inclusive reforms for the benefit of Serbia’s citizens." In other words, it is taken as self-evident that the "international community" wants what is best for "Serbia’s citizens". "International community", one assumes, does not include Russia, China or India. The program is full of the usual IMF bromides of "privatization" and "fiscal stability"" "We…have no…choice but to employ part of privatization proceeds for stabilization purposes, leaving the rest for domestic investments in economic reconstruction and public debt servicing. Privatization is therefore our great concern and a commitment to swift and efficient privatization is crucial for economic reconstruction. Nevertheless, the first political priority for the new reformist government will be to address the issue of the fiscal deficit. That will require the change of both the current tax and public expenditure policies." Get set for the usual IMF policies of drastic public expenditure cuts, whereby people are to be sacrificed for the sake of a "successful" economy. The inevitable hardships are commendable for they will surely make Serbia "competitive" on world markets. "Radical fiscal reform will demand hard political decisions for the reduction of expenditures, changing the priority in public spending and measures to increase the effectiveness of tax collection". "Hard political decisions" will mean the use of force to crush dissent. Then we will witness an amazing transformation. The United States will emerge as chief advocate of political repression in Serbia.

So what would happen in the event of a Kostunica victory? The European Union has promised to lift some sanctions and provide economic reconstruction aid if Milosevic goes down. Significantly, the United States has promised no such thing. It is extremely unlikely that we would let bygones be bygones. At a minimum the United States—and this goes for a Clinton, Gore or a Bush Administration—will demand the surrender of Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague. Kostunica has said he will not comply with such a request. He may however have little choice in the matter. Having already accepted every other piece of advice the West has proffered, it would be odd for him to balk at this one. This may provoke a civil war, which could draw NATO in to finish the job it has signally failed to do so far: turn Serbia into a client-state. In fact, NATO intervention is probably the most likely outcome. A Kostunica regime will soon be denounced as rabidly "nationalist". Unless he abjectly surrenders to the United States, he will simply be known as "Milosevic with a human face". The United States will probably try to provoke him mush as it has Milosevic over Montenegro, over Kosovo, over Vojvodina. Kostunica, however, almost certainly lacks Milosevic’s cunning. He could well take the bait and find his country under assault. George Soros’s International Crisis Group—very influential in Western policymaking circles—attacked Vojislav Kostunica last year for holding "steadfast to his ultra-nationalist, defiant posturing". According to the ICG report, Kostunica has "cultivated the image of a moderate standing in contrast to the extremist policies cluttering the political landscape. In truth, Kostunica’s long-held views about the possibility of co-operating with ultra-nationalists and including them in governing coalitions betrayed his underlying extremism….While his phrases were far less antagonistic than Arkan’s and even a shade more subdued than Seselj’s, Kostunica made it clear on the eve of the peace breakthrough that his sympathies lay with the regime." NATO’s war on Yugoslavia is not over. At the moment, the man most able to defend that country’s sovereignty is none other than Slobodan Milosevic.

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