Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

September 28, 2000

Promoting or Deterring Democracy?

Whether or not there is a runoff election, and even whether or not Slobodan Milosevic leaves office in the near future, it seems likely that the political leadership and perhaps even the political atmosphere in Yugoslavia is about to change seriously. It is still unclear whether the change is likely to be better for the people of Yugoslavia or will even make Yugoslavia a less potentially threatening neighbor in the Balkans. Even before the shape of political reality becomes apparent, however, it is worthwhile to explore the question of whether NATO, the United States and the West in general have contributed to change or have deterred it.

Like most sociopolitical questions, of course, it is hardly susceptible to an easy or unambiguous answer. An individual human being is too complex for science in its present state of development to understand completely. A society full of such creatures is even more complex. While cause and effect may operate within societies, they often operate in ways that are not immediately apparent or easily grasped – and you can be sure that adherents of various ideologies, interest groups and theories will be spinning the perceptions even as the changes are occurring, which seldom aids genuine understanding.

The causes of wholesale societal changes or even relatively minor political shifts are usually more multifarious than most analysts acknowledge and often enough have more to do with accident and circumstance than with any intention or plan on the part of actors in the drama. It seems virtually natural that most people will tend to overemphasize their own contributions, or the contributions of those they consider allies or partners or role models in bringing about change perceived as beneficial. This tendency transcends political niches; just about everyone does it. Sorting it all out is the job of the few historians in any generation who possess a rare combination of insight and ability to stand back (rather than being journeyman memorizers and absorbers and transmitters of conventional wisdom), and reasonably perceptive sorting out usually doesnít occur for at least a generation.


The process of taking credit for the apparent/possible rejection of Milosevic by Yugoslav voters has already begun. President Clinton has lauded the "brave" Yugoslav voters, telling a Georgetown University audience that "Despite the governmentís attempts to manipulate the vote, it does seem clear that the people have voted for change. He offered the carrot of an end to economic sanctions if Milosevic actually leaves office.

The chorus over the next few weeks – assuming that Milosevic leaves and the result is perceived as an improvement – can be predicted. The evil and wily Milosevic schmoozed and backstabbed his way to power and stayed there for an inordinate period of time through ruthlessness and canniness. But NATO and the West stayed strong and determined, imposed economic sanctions, punished his ethnic cleansing and eventually pushed him out. The outcome of the game was sometimes in doubt, but toughness and refusal to do business with a ruthless tyrant eventually won out with a victory for democracy, civility and the new world order.

So NATO will feel vindicated, able to argue that the bombing over Kosovo was not only justified but essential to the greater good. The United States will be confirmed in its conviction that being tough and staying the course is the way to deal with troublesome leaders in other parts of the world. The 13-year campaign against the Milosevic regime will be studied for the valuable lessons it can impart about how to bully tinpot dictators into playing ball with the vaunted international community in the future.


There will be an inevitable touch of hypocrisy in this chest-beating. For example, it is at least passing strange, for example, for an American president to shed crocodile tears over the Yugoslav governmentís attempt to meddle with the elections when the United States – openly enough to attract complaints from the Russians – did exactly the same thing. The United States apparently didnít try to train the opposition in how to perpetrate voter fraud, but it did sink a significant amount of the taxpayersí money – the lowest estimate I found was $37 million, with credible estimates ranging up to $80 million – in trying to bolster opposition political forces.

The subsidies to the opposition were bolstered by barely veiled threats that NATO was ready to take more military action against Yugoslavia if voters didnít do the right thing and oust the demon Milosevic. There were also promises of economic assistance (which in practice usually means sizable payments to key elite political players who think they need another Mercedes) after Milosevic was ousted and the threat of harsher economic sanctions if the voters were not properly enlightened or Milosevic managed to steal the election.


It seems likely that much of this money was wasted, at least in terms of bolstering candidates and organizations genuinely amenable to NATO manipulation or influence. As George Szamuely has detailed the U.S., through the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and other organizations, has concentrated on the ever-evanescent "forces of moderation" American diplomats and scholars are always sure are lurking in every country, waiting to arise if they are only vouchsafed enough resources. Much was made of support for OTPOR, begun as a student resistance movement in 1999 and of subsidies for "independent media."

Apparently the way to encourage independent media is to make them dependent on foreign support and subject to foreign control.

Funny thing. It is against US law for a foreigner let alone a foreign government or an "institute" subsidized by foreign taxpayers to donate money to an American political candidate. But this administration, along with most of the foreign policy elite, see nothing wrong with using American money to subsidize and promote specific political candidates in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. They donít see it as imperial arrogance, of course, but as spreading the blessings of democracy amongst the heathen.

Or maybe this administration is simply being consistent in its internationalism – willing to accept Chinese money and spread money around the world as well. If thatís the situation, however, the Clintonites really ought to make the case for repealing the law against donations from foreigners or become more skillful at concealing illegal donations.

As matters turned out, however, the political movements subsidized by the West seem not to have done all that well at the polls indeed, the perception that because of the subsidies they were "NATO puppets" probably hurt them. In short, the campaign to fill Yugoslavian politics with reform democrats of the type who would be comfortable in a UN seminar was a failure. The candidate who emerged with a fighting chance of outpolling Milosevic turns out to be – at least on first inspection – very much the same kind of nationalist, perhaps with smoother edges.


Almost everyone who pays attention to such matters says that Vojislav Kostunica, as Stratfor.com noted in its September 25 weekly update, "derives his popularity from a track record that reflects Milosevicís own. Kostunica is a hard-line Serbian nationalist and a committed opponent of the West. He condemned last yearís war and labeled NATOís prosecution of the air campaign as a series of criminal acts. He has said he would not cooperate with the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. And Kostunica has flatly stated he would not turn in Milosevic, according to the Yugoslav press."

Kostunica has made it very clear that unlike most of the opposition candidates he has accepted no money from the United States, and to some extent that fact contributed to his emergence as a credible alternative to Milosevic. If he does take office he might be more polite and talk with Western diplomats from time to time, but he is unlikely to take orders or to transform Yugoslavia into a model of western-style democracy-cum-welfare-state. He might even be more effectively intransigent and troublesome than Milosevic.

But Kostunica will not be Milosevic, and it is Milosevic as a person US and European international diplomats have invested so much time and trouble in demonizing. So for the short term the replacement and the validation of the Long March against Milosevic might be saleable.


As NATOcrats are making the case that their steely determination has finally paid off, however, cooler heads should consider the likelihood that Western policies have actually delayed the onset of somewhat more democratic, less autocratic policies and procedures in Yugoslavia (assuming, of course, that turns out to be the result).

Start with the sanctions, which like most sanctions did more to make the imposer feel morally superior than to bring down the evil ruler against whom they were supposedly imposed. Indeed, like Castro, Milosevic used the fact of sanctions as a means of bolstering his own personal power, urging the Yugoslav people to rally Ďround the leader the Great Doofus in Washington sought to demonize.

Beyond the unfortunate political impact and even beyond the harm done to ordinary Yugoslavians (not the elite) by weakening the economy, the sanctions had a specifically deleterious effect on the democratic opposition in Yugoslavia. Sanctions essentially wiped out the middle class and the private sector, the oppositionís natural base. They also made it difficult to acquire the tools of political activity – such mundane items as computers, copying machines, bullhorns and the like. The sanctions were also a factor in encouraging young people, the demographic group probably most amenable to (even eager for) democratic change, to leave the country.


The NATO bombing, of course, was no help to the democratic opposition to Milosevic, as many Yugoslav dissidents tried to tell Western leaders. It gave Milosevic a pretext to crack down on the political opposition and on whatever elements of the media were close to independent. And it utterly discredited opponents of Milosevic who had visible ties or chains of money to the countries raining death and destruction on Yugoslavia.

The sanctions helped to make Milosevic, who of course got involved in smuggling and/or protecting smugglers, richer than he might have been. And the push for Sloboís indictment as a war criminal gave him an even stronger incentive to stay in power. As president of Yugoslavia he was unlikely to be sent to the Hague for trial, no matter how bombastically certain NATO leaders might have spouted. As an opposition politician or a discredited former leader ousted by the people, his position would be – perhaps will be – at least marginally more vulnerable.


US and NATO leaders, then, will claim credit if Milosevic leaves power, especially if the leave-taking is accomplished with a minimum of violence. But a case that is at least as plausible and perhaps more compelling can be made that US and Western policies of the last 10 years or so have actually delayed the onset of democratic change and a change in government in Yugoslavia.

The whole discussion assumes, of course, that democratic practices and procedures are inherently desirable, rather than just one of several ways to change one rotten ruler for another – and a handy mechanism for rotten rulers to justify themselves to the people they oppress. That assumption is far from axiomatic. But thatís a discussion for another day.

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