January 12, 2001
Serbia Joins the West
Recently, when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a television interview on ABC's This Week, the subject of the Balkans came up. Madame Secretary's comments went to the effect that the creation of a "united Europe" always been one of President Clinton's top foreign policy priorities, and the fall of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime had brought that grand goal closer to realization. It was almost a relief to finally have that out in the open. Not only is Washington not wary of a European Union an entity with little or no popular legitimacy outside circles of hack bureaucrats and formally educated mediocrities but we actually want one. And Serbia's collapse was an important step. The "double-whammy" the West used to force Serbia to its knees 78 days of round-the-clock bombing followed by intense, behind-the-scenes intervention with dirty money in Yugoslavia's domestic electoral politics created the latest in a long line of poor, broken-spirited countries to go from sovereign nation to de facto region in the "common European home." Uncle Sam's money and muscle won the day again.
On December 21st, I visited Serbia for the first time. The JAT flight from London to Belgrade was notable primarily for one thing you could smoke. I couldn't remember the last time I'd smoked on an intra-European flight, and I had every intention of lighting up this time. Likewise, when we arrived at the Palace Hotel in Belgrade, smoke was drifting up through the yellow lights behind the reception desk as our smiling concierges checked us in. Their friendly expressions would probably fade, I thought, when some robotic official enforcing Nazistic EU anti-smoking regulations snatched their cigarettes away and made them stand out in the cold. Already, the seating arrangement on the plane had changed. The smokers were now at the back, whereas not long before it had been smokers on one side, non-smokers on the other. The reforms were already taking hold, it seemed.
I had traveled to many an ex-communist republic and sampled the foul "cutlets" with canned peas and burnt french fries, but was surprised to find nothing like it in the state recovering from Milosevic's totalitarian nightmare. Instead, energetic waiters beaming pride in their establishment's cuisine brought out myriad dishes I'd never even tasted before. These were the kind of places where you didn't need to ask for a menu. The waiters' faces seemed to say: "Don't worry, we'll take care of you" and you wanted them to. These guys hadn't been trained by some Western chain to saunter timidly over to the table and ask for our orders with sullen voice and feigned cheerfulness. They kept our glasses full and always checked on us at just the right times. Surely this had been an aberration under Slobo?
Anyway, I enjoyed the wonderful food and wine while I still could. Once the Serbs were fully reformed EU members, they'd be buying flavorless tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables grown in chemical soup and shipped in from some Euro-paradise like the Netherlands. No doubt none of what we ate complied with international regulations, and somehow knowing that made it taste even better.
Central Belgrade has a very attractive old promenade of shops and restaurants, and the many secondhand bookstores and galleries surrounded by interesting architecture make it worth a stroll, even in the biting December cold. As of the evening of December 23rd, the streetlamps still worked and several of the bars and cafes looked inviting enough to bring a traveler out of the cold for a little slivovitz. But the signs of reform had already begun to appear here too. The prototype of the bar of the future techno-disco blasting amid trendy, garish décor was visible here and there. These were the kind of places that served bad pizza and other foreign delicacies to the new generation that strutted around in high-top sneakers and acrylic jackets with sport team logos on the back. This was the new breed who would soon learn terms such as "totally" and "y'know" and "like" and "awesome." The imminent full triumph of reform would probably see these impressive human specimens in charge of revamping the old promenade one day.
Exactly. What about democracy? After all, aren't there more important concerns than whether you can smoke, eat food that has a taste to it, be free of loud pop music, and not have to confront pushy, Nike-wearing Bulls fans?
I'd come to Serbia to observe an election. What Western media was billing as the first truly "free and fair" election in Yugoslavia's history was due to take place on December 23rd. Somehow, the West knew in advance that the election would be free and fair, just as it knew in advance that the Yugoslav presidential election in September would be rigged. How did the West know? Well, it just did, that's all. These were the new "democrats" running the show, not that monstrous Milosevic and his "Socialists."
The ballot was going to be exactly the same all across Serbia. Eight party lists would be featured on the ballot, and every citizen of Serbia would vote for one of the lists. The name of the party would appear in bold capitals, in most cases next to the name of the "leader" of the list, also in bold caps. For example, next to the coalition of eighteen "parties" called the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) was printed the name of Dr. Vojislav Kostunica the leader of the "Democratic Party of Serbia" (DSS). But Dr. Kostunica wasn't actually running in the Serbian parliamentary elections because he was already President of Yugoslavia. Rather, the number one candidate on the DOS list, whose name appeared in much smaller type below, was Dr. Zoran Djindjic, leader of the "Democratic Party" (DS). It proved impossible to find anyone outside of DS party headquarters with anything good to say about Djindjic DOS's candidate for Serbian prime minister. Could the idea have been to get Djindjic in office by having people vote for Kostunica?
On the day before the election, I sampled the fruits of the new democratic pluralism that had swept Yugoslavia after the "democratic coup" on October 5th. I started with the DS, whose headquarters is a historic old house in an area of Belgrade where a lot of foreign embassies are. The ceilings are paneled with dark, ornate woodwork and a portrait of party founder Ljubomir Davidovic (1863-1940) hangs in the foyer. As I waited with a colleague for a representative to meet us, who should enter but the black-shirted Dr. Djindjic himself! Slinking in out of the cold with his bodyguards, Dr. Djindjic removed a glove to shake our hands. Wow. So I had finally met the great Serbian reformer and golden boy of the West.
During the Bosnian War, Djindjic had been an avid supporter of the Bosnian Serb leaders indicted for war crimes by the Hague and even called for an Anschluss between Serbia and the Bosnian Serb Republic. In fact, he was a close associate of Bosnian Serb leader Dr. Radovan Karadzic, and was the last Serbian politician to meet with Karadzic before the latter disappeared into "obscurity" in September 1996. Djindjic had ostensibly been an extreme Serbian nationalist, but somehow he avoided Western incrimination and turned into the most "multicultural" and politically correct politician in Serbia! Multi-culti Zoran a man who said in the early nineties that it was "absurd" to compare Milosevic with Saddam Hussein (as Western media, pundits and politicians have done consistently) had magically morphed into a clone of German Defense Minister Joshka Fischer (a doppelganger) and a darling of the States. Some Serbs had told me they were convinced Djindjic was a Western agent, but they were obviously just sore losers. This was truly a great moment, and too brief. The great man scurried up the stairs as quickly as he'd come in.
The DS headquarters were fully reformed. Not only did no one there smoke, but smoking was completely prohibited. Aleksandra Joksimovic, "international secretary" of the Party and a candidate for Parliament, led us to a sterile office for an interview. She could have been Djindjic's sister a round, Martian-like face with blank disks for eyes.
Joksimovic liked to speak in triumphalist phrases, sitting with arms folded across her chest the whole time. The Revolution was not quite over, she said, because "real power" lay at the "republican level." Hmm. So President Kostunica wouldn't have as much power as Prime Minister Djindjic after the election? "After December 23rd," she declared, "we will be able to take actions immediately." The posts in the new government were "already assigned."
What about the allegations that heads of enterprises and other officials throughout Yugoslavia had been forcibly removed (sometimes at gunpoint) without even a pretense of procedure? Well, DOS obviously had to sweep away the filth of the old regime. Yugoslavia, she said, was "second to Nigeria" in terms of corruption, and the new regime would establish a "controlling commission" to "identify those responsible" and root out the evil. "This is not revenge," she said. "Simply justice." The Martian eyes were really gleaming now.
The Socialists would get much less than 38% of the vote this time because last time "they controlled the media." What about reports that DOS had monopolized the media to the exclusion of the other parties, particularly the Socialists? Laughingly, Joksimovic conceded that, of course, the "autocensor" was working in overdrive right now, but that was only to be expected. "Those in the media who defended the old regime enthusiastically will be removed." But what if they defended the regime out of genuine conviction? Clearly, some people were "confused" and the Party would cure them of their illness. "There will be no loyalty except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of "
As my colleague and I headed over to the DSS, we saw politically active young children fulfilling their civic duty by scraping Socialist Party posters off the walls. At DSS headquarters (much less lavish than DS's), we were greeted by young Alexander Popovic, Vice President of the Party, and Durde Ninkovic, whose card described him as "Member of the Main Board." The office suite did look very corporate, so it was probably only natural to have a board member or two about. Here you could smoke, although neither of our hosts indulged. Again, the portrait of Ljubomir Davidovic founder of not one but two parties! "We're always happy to meet with friends," they said presumptuously.
Popovic and Ninkovic were "nicer" than Joksimovic. But they both wore looks like they'd been caught with their hands in the cash register, and it only got worse as the interview went on. "We still don't have a list of all the officials for the new government," said Ninkovic. But Ms. Joksimovic at the DS their main partner in the coalition said most of the posts had already been assigned! "Ask Mr. Djindjic," Popovic piped in. "It was not negotiated at DOS meetings." Really? Who was running this "coalition" anyway?
And what about the issue of Djindjic's popularity? Current polls showed him with an extremely low rating among the people disturbing for a future head of government and most powerful politician in Yugoslavia. "There is a question more important than who presides over the government," said Ninkovic, such as "democracy," for example. "We had to fight for power and take over, so we don't expect anyone to be happy with our government." Very "democratic" indeed.
What about allegations that DOS had received upwards of $100 million in financial support indirectly from the US State Department through front organizations like the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI)? "DSS never received a single cent from the US, and the State Department confirmed this a month or so ago," said Popovic, agitated. Well, if the State Department said so it had to be true. But what did they make of the charges? "You should ask Ms. Joksimovic," said Popovic. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing? "If the DS was receiving money from the US, it was only to address previous imbalances," added Ninkovic timidly. Besides, he said, the money was more like "five or six million dollars." Ah, well that's okay then, isn't it.
So what about the kids outside scraping Socialist Party posters off the walls? "They aren't doing this for anyone else, only themselves," said Ninkovic. Where did they suppose the scraping tools came from? Silence, shrug, giggle. Was there any future for the Socialists in Yugoslavia's political life? "We think we need a left-of-center party in our political life," said Ninkovic. Spoken like a true right-of-center man of conviction.
The clincher came when we got onto the subject of Yugoslavia's integration into international structures like the EU. "If the EU wishes to integrate Yugoslavia," said Ninkovic, "it will have to subsidize our agriculture." He didn't seem to have a very clear idea about what that meant, or about how living costs would skyrocket and leave many Serbs picking scraps out of the rubbish. Already, in one month of "reform," consumer prices had gone up by 23%. "We will negotiate and try to obtain better prices." But did they concede that after NATO's war the sovereignty of their country was forever diminished? "Yes." Did it not concern them that the "freedom and democracy" they championed meant losing power over their internal affairs? At the point when all our questions were met with "Whatever we do will be in the best interests of our people" it was time to leave.
At Socialist Party headquarters, not only were you allowed to smoke, but the representative Vladimir Krsljanin put away quite a few during our meeting. Obviously unreformed, Krsljanin spoke in heavily-accented English as he laid out the plot for us. "The question now is whether there will be any vote in Kosovo at all," he said, handing us copies of the complaints his party had filed with the Central Election Commission, Supreme Court, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "The regime knows that a majority in Kosovo would vote for the Socialists," he said.
In the federal parliamentary elections in September, the Socialists had received about 32.5%, while DOS obtained about 40%. "Barring falsification," said Krsljanin, "we expect DOS to get less." Evidently, shortages of heat, electricity, and basic necessities in recent months would mean that many people wouldn't vote at all.
A domestic NGO called "CESID" which stood for something like "Center for Electoral Systems and Research in Democracy" had received "a lot of Western money and recruited 1,500 observers." There were many instances, said Krsljanin, of CESID influencing voters by handing out booze and drugs. The non-governmental organization called "Otpor" (Resistance) which made such a big splash during the October "Revolution" had adopted a new slogan for its black-fisted posters. The word "Overi," said Krsljanin, literally meant "verify," but had another connotation in Serbian. It was used to denote how the Mafia made sure a body was dead by putting three extra slugs into it. The notorious "climate of fear" attributed to Slobo now seemed to be emanating from a shady youth organization with lots of Western cash. "The official site of USAID (US Agency for International Development) shows the sums spent for what," said Krsljanin. "IRI was the one to deal with Otpor and help them organize," he complained. "And now they're constantly misusing schoolchildren Our complaints to the OSCE have met with nothing."
What did Krsljanin make of the fact that Kostunica was shown constantly on television, meeting with the very Western leaders that had led the attack on his country? (The Leader of the Revolution even stopped off in Switzerland on his way back from meeting loathsome French President Jacques Chirac, although whether this was to make a deposit or withdrawal remained a mystery.) "Kostunica has to play the role of a Yugoslav Gorbachev," said Krsljanin. "He must preside over the disintegration of Yugoslavia." But wasn't Kostunica the champion of Yugoslav sovereignty? "Djindjic said on Kostunica's inauguration day that a Union of Serbia and Montenegro' would ultimately replace Yugoslavia," he said. "Kostunica is no longer needed."
I had no previous Serbian election to compare with this one, only elections in the ex-USSR, usually marked by chaos and squalor. However, there did seem to be a lot of greasy-faced, menacing youths hanging around in the polling stations. They seemed to be fond of operating the little spray bottles and the infrared scanners. People coming in to vote got their right index finger scanned to make sure they hadn't voted yet, and then got sprayed with a little radioactive liquid on the way out. Why don't they introduce that system in America, I thought? Some of the older people were slightly perturbed at having to subject themselves to so demeaning a process, but were usually "persuaded" by the youths.
The CESID observers were everywhere, often sitting off to the side with a list, and their eyes seemed to be speaking the other new Otpor slogan "We are watching you." The clear plexiglass ballot boxes a novelty in Serbia paid for by the West sure helped show the polling station workers how many people had voted. But they could also reveal how they voted. The flimsy ballot sheets were folded in half once before voters dropped them through the slot, and they sat there partially open at eye-level with the "observers" on either side. Some of the older voters looked lost. They fingered the ballot boxes in an attempt to open them and wandered behind booths where others were filling out their ballots before being told to move away. You could hardly blame the poor old souls. With the likes of Otpor "watching" them, they no doubt wanted to make sure they voted for the right party.
Election commission heads had all changed since the Revolution, of course, frequently more hip and casual looking in their leather jackets. But their casual nature didn't extend to procedure. Our stamped ID badges weren't enough for them. Everywhere we went it was "where are your papers?" The unshaven, earring-wearing punks who invariably looked like they were recovering from a night of heavy drug use liked to move in real close when we were talking to the commission chairmen.
The result: an overwhelming victory for the Revolution 176 seats for DOS out of 250. Barely 50% of the electorate was recorded as having voted but hey, who was counting? OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Adrian Severin said afterwards he was pleased to see such huge support for "democratic" forces, but was disturbed by the number of votes cast for "nationalist" parties. The message to the new Serbian leaders, presumably: "We are watching you." One of these nationalist parties was Vojislav Seselj's Radical Party (SRS), which had joined in opposition to Milosevic at the time of the Revolution. The "surprise" was the Serbian Unity Party of assassinated paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic (better known as "Arkan"), also a confidante of Zoran Djindjic during the Croatian and Bosnian wars. Presumably, it helped for Djindjic to face an opposition party led not only by a friend, but by a dead friend. Between them, SRS and Arkan claimed 37 seats out of 250 pathetic, but enough to "disturb" Mr. Severin. Ivan Ivanov, the Foreign Minister of Russia (which under Putin has always shown a willingness to accommodate the West for the right sum), heaped instant praise on the results as a "positive" development for the region.
The blackouts started the day after the election as reform quickly took root. Large public protests against the loss of heat and electricity received fleeting coverage in the press, as if they'd evaporated even without the lights coming back on. Kostunica, the Hero of the Revolution, had already brought up the prospect of Yugoslavia's dismemberment in an interview, and Zoran Djindjic was assuring the public that relations between Serbia and Montenegro would soon be "redefined." I found it hard to believe average Serbs were more concerned with whether Djindjic headed a national or a sub-national government than they were with raw survival or avoiding the effects of depleted uranium from NATO's bombs.
But then maybe that was the point.
From here on out, it doesn't matter what ordinary Serbs want, only the wishes of the Party. Washington and Brussels will call the shots in Yugoslavia now. Serbs do have "democracy" and "reform" though, and prospects for membership in the EU and even NATO loom on the horizon. They can always console themselves with those bright notions while they're shivering through this winter in the dark.
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