Balkan Express
by Nebojsa Malic

December 14, 2000

Déja Vu

Two leaders face off in a hotly contested election race, one which will determine the fate of their nation. One is a leftist liberal, entrenched in power, relying on a police apparatus and propaganda; the other a conservative, enjoying an advantage in funding and promising to restore dignity to office of the president. There is a vote. But the results are contested, ballots are miscounted, and the Supreme Court intervenes to resolve the election. United States, December 2000? Try Yugoslavia, this September.

Slobodan Milosevic’s government claimed the election was too close to call. The opposition protested, claiming outright victory. While Vojislav Kostunica was offering a recount ("Goodwill gesture" from Yugoslav opposition could end impasse, AFP, 29. September 2000), Milosevic was insisting on holding a runoff election. When Zoran Djindjic and his cohorts running Kostunica’s campaign refused to consider such an option, the Yugoslav constitutional court (US Supreme Court’s counterpart) annulled the election results (see NY Times, "Belgrade Court Annuls Vote That Was Milosevic Setback" by Steven Erlanger, 10/5/2000). This provoked a demonstration in front of the parliament that led to the overthrow of Milosevic and the inauguration of Kostunica as Yugoslav president.

On the face of it, the similarities are eerie. Knowing that the United States was deeply involved in this chain of events, they become downright sinister.


A week before the elections in Yugoslavia, a NATO naval expeditionary force was moored off the Yugoslav coast; the US-funded Montenegrin regime boycotted the election; and Madeleine Albright asserted that the vote would be "stolen" weeks before any ballots were actually cast. Then the Washington Post ran a front-page story detailing the "$77 million U.S. effort to do with ballots what NATO bombs could not – get rid of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic" [US Funds Help Milosevic’s Foes in Election Fight, John Lancaster, 9/19/2000, A01] .

Kostunica promptly denounced the US for meddling, but his convincing lead quickly melted away. As Milosevic thundered against "traitors and foreign mercenaries," the Post just about admitted his allegations were true!

Four days later, Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: "Even if, as almost everyone expects, Mr. Milosevic simply declares himself the victor, Washington is hoping that angry voters will take to the streets in a way that eventually drives him from office, much as Ferdinand E. Marcos was ousted in the Philippines in 1986." (US Anti-Milosevic Plan Faces Major Test at Polls, September 23). When the masses did exactly that on October 5, everyone seemed surprised. Soon thereafter, Kostunica’s coalition partners began boasting how they had planned a violent overthrow of Milosevic. Was it just them?

No, according to the Washington Post. This Monday, amidst the US electoral controversy, the Post published another report, detailing how the United States planned, funded and ran the campaign against Milosevic this past fall.


Michael Dobbs, author of the article, claims that Americans and US-paid consultants crafted the strategy to vote Milosevic out of office; that retired military officers taught Otpor activists how to organize demonstrations; that US taxpayers funded 5,000 cans of spray paint used to scrawl opposition graffiti across Serbia; that President Clinton’s own pollsters – Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, Inc. – were involved in crafting pro-opposition polls before the election.

It is startling and sickening to read how the US operatives exploited Milosevic’s greatest weakness – his soft spot for the democratic process. Says the Post,

"Had Yugoslavia been a totalitarian state like Iraq or North Korea, the strategy would have stood little chance. But while Milosevic ran a repressive police state, he was never a dictator in the style of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. His authority depended on a veil of popular legitimacy. It was this constitutional facade that gave Serbian opposition leaders, and their Western backers, an all-important opening."

Milosevic’s greatest weakness was that he was not ruthless enough? Such a supreme irony, indeed, especially when coming from the same media house that has denounced Milosevic as another Hitler and gleefully published editorials advocating the complete destruction of Serbia during the 1999 war.


The September 19 article described US meddling in Yugoslav elections as "similar to previous campaigns in pre-democratic Chile, South Africa and Eastern Europe." But Dobbs dwells on "extraordinary US effort to unseat a foreign head of state, not through covert action of the kind the CIA once employed in such places as Iran and Guatemala, but by modern election campaign techniques."

None of the countries and regions described above have profited from US involvement. Quite to the contrary, it had profoundly negative consequences. Guatemala plunged into a 20-year, bloody civil war. In Iran, oppression of the people by the American-dominated regime spawned the Islamic revolution. South Africa and Eastern Europe have seen their state institutions disintegrate, and have plunged into abject poverty. In Chile, US-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet was responsible for numerous crimes against its citizens.

Based on this record, extensive American involvement in Yugoslav and Serbian elections ought to cause every freedom-loving human being to cringe with disgust. By definition, it flies in the face of everything that has ever been said about democracy, responsibility, freedom of choice and international law – to mention just a few major points.

The US government may argue that its meddling helped the Serbs. The jury is still out on whether Kostunica’s presidency has made things better, though. International recognition is hardly a compensation for famine, economic collapse and fuel shortages that have descended on Serbia after Milosevic’s fall. Kostunica’s election may yet prove to be a beneficial development for the Serbs, plagued as they have been by ill fortune throughout the 20th century. But that would come in spite of Washington’s plots, not because of them.


Those who consider Kostunica a US puppet have a hard time proving their case. Though not exactly hostile, he is certainly no big friend of Washington. His government has hardly been a pushover, though it has been very flexible on many issues Milosevic refused to yield ground over the years – such as the UN membership, Yugoslav succession and, to an extent, war crimes.

If he really were a US puppet, how would one explain the persistent secessionism of Djukanovic’s regime in Podgorica, or the ambivalence of NATO in face of the Albanian invasion of southern Serbia? Kostunica’s party has supported the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) in Bosnia, which the US is endeavoring to ban even though it won the elections there fair and square. Kostunica has also insisted on territorial integrity of Serbia and Yugoslavia, while the US has supported separatist demands of its clients in Kosovo and Montenegro, even while publicly claiming otherwise.

There are, however, leaders in Kostunica’s motley coalition that are more inclined to serve foreign interests. Every nation has its share of traitors and sellouts, and it is their direction one needs to look when following the US money trail and the conspicuous interference in Yugoslav and Serbian affairs.

Conspicuous is the key word here. The timing of this article’s publication cannot be an accident. Even in its imperious arrogance, the mainstream American press would never dare publicly announce its government’s machinations in Yugoslavia if doing so would hurt the efforts of Washington oligarchs. It certainly marched in lockstep with the government during American-led terror bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.

The Washington Post’s September 19 article gave credence to Milosevic’s claims of foreign interference and hurt Kostunica’s coalition just a week before the federal elections. Soon after Kostunica took over on October 5, as he was trying to establish legitimacy and convince the people he was not a stooge of NATO, US papers and politicians started claiming credit for his success, praising the policies of bombing, sanctions and separatism – along with propaganda and "democratization" projects such as those detailed in the Post – as being the real reason for Milosevic’s fall.

The newest article detailing the intricacies of the American conspiracy – for how else would one call such a degree of tampering in another country’s elections? – again comes at the worst possible time for Kostunica. Albanian bandits have invaded southern Serbia, Yugoslavia’s economy is tanking fast, and Zoran Djindjic seems poised to sweep the December elections and pull the rug out from under Kostunica’s feet.


Indeed, though the December elections are described as the clash of Kostunica’s DOS and the remnants of Milosevic’s Socialists, the real power struggle will be between factions within DOS – Kostunica and Djindjic.

The Post then dumps a cauldron of investigative pitch on the heads of all involved, eroding Kostunica’s legitimacy and deriding the efforts of the opposition (now government) in changing the politics of Serbia. One is tempted to wonder if Washington wants Kostunica to fail, or at least to be sufficiently weakened to submit to US demands.


Kostunica may be too American for the Empire’s comfort. He actually believes in the constitution, rights and liberties, limited government, patriotism and sovereignty – all issues the current regime in Washington has undermined or sidelined over the past eight years.

If the December 11 article was truthful – which seems likely – then it represents an irrefutable proof that there really was a US plan to overthrow Milosevic and install a friendlier regime, dominated by pro-American politicians. Kostunica might have fit into the plan as a figurehead, intended to be replaced by Djindjic or someone else when the time was ripe.

Apparently no one told him that, since Kostunica went on to become a true statesman and garner tremendous support among the people. His strength now surpasses that of Djindjic’s party, so much that Djindjic needs Kostunica’s support to become Serbia’s Prime Minister after the elections in late December. Hence comes the need to take Kostunica down a peg an attack his honesty, integrity and independence, effectively propping up Djindjic’s power grab. So the Post says:

"To many opposition activists, Kostunica’s denials ring a little hollow. While it is true that his own party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, rejected anything that smacked of US aid, his presidential campaign benefited enormously from the advice and financial support the opposition coalition received from abroad, and particularly from the United States."


Though the full fallout from the Post’s article will only be known in the coming days, one of its unintended consequences was to expose the extent of America’s illegal imperial adventures. Now that it is known the US was so deeply involved in Milosevic’s overthrow, maybe other secrets will also emerge – such as its exact role in the events of October 5, and the extent to which Kostunica’s peaceful takeover and Milosevic’s concession were or were not a part of that plan. Perhaps some day soon, the American public – and the Serbian public as well – will find out what the puppet masters had in mind, and which actors were (or were not) their puppets.


The penultimate irony, of course, is that the US found itself mired in a similar situation just two months later. Could the ballot manipulation in Florida be the consequence of similar practices abroad? The temptation to use the ways and means of empire-building at home are great, especially when the prize is the Empire itself.

But let us be realistic. It is hard to envision masses of angry Americans charging Capitol Hill of the White House and inaugurating the candidate they consider the victor, or the US Supreme Court annulling the election. Alas, neither of the US candidates has the integrity of Vojislav Kostunica or the ruthless political savvy and charm of Slobodan Milosevic. There won’t be any bulldozers on the streets of Washington any time soon, and more’s the pity.

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