Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

October 6, 2000

Kostunica: The Trickster

With each passing day, Vojislav Kostunica’s vaunted "independence" looks ever more threadbare. Though Kostunica loudly criticizes US interference in his country’s internal affairs, he acts in accordance with a script written for him in Washington. Before a single vote was counted following the first round of elections, the United States was proclaiming Kostunica the overwhelming victor and demanding Slobodan Milosevic’s resignation. According to the Democratic Opposition’s current figures, Kostunica received 51.34 percent of the vote, and Milosevic 36.22 percent. According to the Yugoslav Federal Election Commission, Kostunica received 48.96 percent of the vote, and Milosevic 38.62 percent. It seems to have escaped almost everyone’s attention that the two sets of figures are really not that far apart. Last week the Opposition was loudly trumpeting the claim that Kostunica had won 54 percent of the vote. The New York Times suggested that it was 55 percent.

By no stretch of the imagination, however, can 51.34 percent of the vote be described as an "overwhelming" victory. Moreover, given the endlessly repeated charges of electoral "fraud," the case for a second round of voting seems to be pretty strong. Yet US Government officials have from the start insisted that there was to be no second round of voting. Instead, they urged Serbs to take to the streets, hold strikes, engage in civil disobedience, seize mines, and in all likelihood provoke violence. The recklessness of the US position emerged during a State Department briefing on September 28. The Deputy Press Spokesman Phil Reeker was asked: "But if Milosevic goes ahead and there is a second round, a runoff, would you encourage the opposition not to participate?" Reeker’s response: "That is a huge "if" and I am not going to get into the "if" questions because there is no issue here. There is no need for a second round." But that was not the question he had been asked. Another reporter then took up the question: "Well, if Milosevic has – since Milosevic has called the election, by the opposition not agreeing to kind of take part in the election, doesn’t that give him kind of ammunition to say that he’s not, you know, part of the process – a democratic process? And if the opposition did win by such a majority, then they’d obviously win again in a second runoff, so what’s the problem with a second?" An excellent question. Why fear a second round? Reeker’s response: "Because there is no issue of a second runoff. The evidence is clear. Milosevic can say what he wants. This federal election commission, which has absolutely no credibility at all given the fraud that took place, has no standing. It’s very clear that the opposition has challenged the federal election commission then to show their evidence."

Here is a US Government spokesman talking with extraordinary certitude about things that he cannot possibly have any knowledge of. To the perfectly reasonable question as to why Kostunica should fear a runoff vote if he had indeed won the first round so overwhelmingly, a US Government official parrots formulaic dogmas in the manner of a mindless functionary in the former Soviet Foreign Ministry. Remember, the United States had announced in advance of the September 24 ballot that it would be a "meaningless" exercise since Milosevic was planning to "steal" the election. Then when the results came in showing Milosevic coming in second, the US Government immediately declared the results to be indisputable. Thus, a second round would be as "meaningless" as the first round was supposed to be.

The day after this exchange, State Department Press Spokesman Richard Boucher was asked whether the US Government was now urging the Serbs to take to the streets to overthrow their Government. Boucher’s response: "Well, how the opposition presses its case is up to them. But at the same time, I would say you’ve got a government that’s refused to recognize the results of the first round. They’ve closed off media outlets to the opposition. They’ve closed off public commentary to a great extent because of their control of the media. So, people are going to want to express themselves. And we can understand the outrage." The idea that "media outlets" are closed to the opposition would be news to anyone who has ever visited Serbia. There are more dissident publications in Serbia than in the United States. Moreover, how could Kostunica have won his "overwhelming" victory, if he had no access to the media? Boucher was then asked: "But might this get out of hand? Or is there a risk here?" His response: "Nobody is encouraging violence – not we, nor the opposition. But on the other hand it’s quite clear that people need to find a way to press the issue because the issue is not what the opposition is doing. The issue is, why doesn’t the government recognize the results of the first round." This, of course, is the classic apologia for violence – a line of argument that the United States would condemn vehemently were this proffered on behalf of rioting Palestinians, say.

Throughout all of this Vojislav Kostunica has wandered around like a hopeless plodder, a second-rate academic, an amiable figurehead, out of his depth and totally unable to understand what is going on around him. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to act as mediator and to meet in "Moscow both candidates who have gone through to the second round [election]." The Russians had sent observers to monitor the election and rejected Kostunica’s claim that he had won outright. "The Russian policy has so far been indecisive and reluctant, I would say unnecessarily so," Kostunica declared, "It could be described as taking one step forward and one step back. The Russians don’t have a specific and concrete position on the situation in Yugoslavia." Really? One would have thought the position of the Russians was very clear. No need to resort to cute paraphrases of Lenin. The Russians are not prepared to accept Kostunica as the election victor. Therefore, they are strongly opposed to the reckless and cynical US-driven policy of sending people out into the streets to confront the Government’s security forces.

Meanwhile, Kostunica continues to trot out pointless and irrelevant criticisms of the United States, doubtless to shore up his nationalist credentials. "We have to distance ourselves from declarative, counterproductive support coming from the present, departing, American administration which has proved to be absolutely useless for the opposition and democratic forces in Serbia," he pontificated recently, "Consequences of Western policy, above all of the American policy, are objectively such that at the moment they are more helpful to Slobodan Milosevic than to his opponents." Kostunica repeats this line over and over again with the mindless doggedness of the State Department’s Phil Reeker. In an interview with the Serb weekly magazine Vreme, Kostunica was at it again: "The Americans assisted Milosevic not only when they supported him, but also when they attacked him. In a way, Milosevic is an American creation. It is hard to imagine a smaller country and a greater obsession with one personality and persistence in the claim that that person must leave power. Doesn’t the American policy in that way, by observing the whole country through Milosevic himself, only strengthen him?"

And here he is again: "The policy of the current US authorities, whether they praise Milosevic as they have in the past or threaten him with the Hague tribunal as they are doing now, actually supports him. But I think this support will be short-lived." This is headache-inducing. Kostunica clearly thinks that this cute argument enables him to be anti-Milosevic without being pro-American. But the argument is transparently bogus. Using Kostunica’s bizarre logic, one could easily conclude that he himself is part of a nefarious US plot to strengthen Milosevic. After all, boycotting the second round of elections would concede the elections to Milosevic by default. Moreover, provoking civil unrest and even violence would eventually lead to a public clamor demanding reassertion of Government authority. Once again, Milosevic would be the victor.

The Hague Tribunal, he says over and over again, is "more political than legal." Whether it is "political" or not is scarcely the issue; the Tribunal is a travesty of justice and a violation of internal law. The United States, along with its junior NATO partners, set up the ICTY for one purpose only: to keep small powers like Yugoslavia, whether ruled by a Milosevic or a Kostunica, in line. A recent profile of Kostunica in the New York Times stated that in "his criticism of the United States and its policies, there is more than a touch of the continental European view – often articulated by the French – that the ‘hyperpower’ of the United States, with its enormous wealth and capacities, is often unconscious and unheeding of the dignity and interests of other nations. And Americans, he has said, often presume that what they define as good is good for everyone." "Hyperpower" is one of those concepts beloved by the French – at once pretentious and utterly devoid of meaning. What does a "hyperpower" do? Is a "hyperpower" a good or a bad thing? The Oxford dictionary defines "hyper" to mean excessive; "hyperactive" means abnormally active. Now there is nothing essentially wrong with anyone being abnormally active. It is a little annoying for everyone else; that is all. Thus, according to the French, America is abnormally active. This, no doubt, they find aesthetically annoying. As serious analysis, it is of course piffle. Kostunica must be either extraordinarily simple-minded or profoundly dishonest if he subscribes to such nonsense. Why did the United States push for the bombing of Yugoslavia last year? Were too many US policymakers drinking too many cups of coffee? Did Yugoslavia have to endure ten years of sanctions and diplomatic isolation because US policymakers could not work off their excess energy on the basketball courts?

Anyone who has any doubts as to what the United States intends for Yugoslavia should take a look at the FY 2000 Foreign Operations section of the consolidated appropriation bill (PL 106-113). It says there, sanctions on Yugoslavia will remain in place unless the President "submits to the Committees on Appropriations and Foreign Relations in the Senate and the Committees on Appropriations and International Relations of the House of Representatives a certification" that "the Government of Serbia is fully cooperating with and providing unrestricted access to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, including surrendering persons indicted for war crimes who are within the jurisdiction of the territory of Serbia, and with the investigations concerning the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosova." Note the tendentious Albanian spelling of Kosovo. Note that sanctions will not be lifted just because Kostunica takes power in Belgrade. He would have to hand over anyone the Hague Tribunal demanded. Furthermore, the Act goes on, President has to certify that "Serbian federal governmental officials and representatives of the ethnic Albanian community in Kosova have agreed on, signed, and begun implementation of a negotiated settlement on the future status of Kosova." Now, since "representatives of the ethnic Albanian community in Kosova" – the KLA, in other words – will not settle on anything short of independence, US sanctions will not be lifted until Serbia agrees to surrender Kosovo to the KLA.

The Serbia Democratization Act of 2000 (HR 1064), which has just passed the House of Representatives, raises even more hurdles. There is the issue of the Hungarians of Vojvodina, whose cause the US Government is urged to take up. According to the legislation, the Hungarians of Vojvodina are "subject to continuous harassment, intimidation, and threatening suggestions that they leave the land of their ancestors; and…during the past 10 years this form of ethnic cleansing has already driven 50,000 ethnic Hungarians and members of other minority communities out of the province of Vojvodina." The law calls "on the NATO allies of the United States, during any negotiation on the future status of Kosovo, also to pay substantial attention to establishing satisfactory guarantees for the rights of the people of Vojvodina, and, in particular, of the ethnic minorities in the province."

The US Government also intends to pursue the financial claims of the successor states of the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia against the current Government of Yugoslavia. The authors of HR 1064 are outraged that from 1992 to 1999 the Government of Yugoslavia had exclusive use in the United States of the diplomatic and consular property of the now defunct Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Therefore, "it is the policy of the United States to insist that the Government of Yugoslavia has a responsibility to, and should, actively and cooperatively engage in good faith negotiations with the Governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Slovenia for resolution of the outstanding property issues resulting from the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." Thus sanctions will not be lifted until the Serbs are made to fork over a hefty sum of money to States that had seceded from Yugoslavia without engaging in any negotiations whatsoever; that had seized an appropriated property that had belonged to all of the people of Yugoslavia; and had kicked out minorities from their lands without offering them any compensation.

Kostunica seems amazingly oblivious to all of this. If ever there was a man not of the hour, it is he. Zoran Djindjic, his campaign manager, revealed the other day that Kostunica is merely a transitory figure as far as the United States and its paid operatives in Yugoslavia are concerned. Kostunica, he explained, "is a necessary bridge" between the politics of the past and a more modern European future. The Serbs, of course, cannot be told of this "modern European future." They have to be tricked into it.

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