European Affairs

The isolation has also created a curtain of ignorance about changes in the rest of the region behind which Milosevic, like some odd Wizard of Oz, continues to manipulate and to rule.

The indictment of any likely inheritor, including Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, has driven Milosevic into a corner, where the safest place for him is precisely where he currently sits. In real ways, given the Kosovo war and its aftermath - including NATO's lip-service attitudes toward the murder and exodus of Serbs in and from Kosovo and its cavalier attitude toward Yugoslav sovereignty, which it pledged to honor - American policy is promoting harder-line policies in Serbia.

American policy is perceived in Serbia as highly personalized, vindictive and antithetical to American democratic values. Washington is seen as promoting revolution against a despised but legitimately elected leader, not political change through democratic choice.

That revolution is supposed to be assisted by the American-promoted deprivation of the Serbian people, by their lack of heat, gasoline and food, while Washington opposed European efforts to provide such essentials even to opposition-run towns.

Such a policy, however you judge its morality, is strengthening the importance of the least attractive political option - the ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj. Seselj is sometimes dismissed as a Serbian Zhirinovsky, the Russian ultranationalist whose star has now waned, but Seselj is much smarter, much more rational and a much better grassroots politician.

To remain in power, Milosevic has placed his bets on Seselj as a coalition partner, in part because Milosevic himself fears losing important parts of his own constituency to Seselj, not to the democratic opposition.

Even Milosevic's own Socialist Party of Serbia, the former Communist Party, is trying to think beyond him. Some party activists believe that Milosevic won in 1990-91 on his own merit, but that the party organization has given him any later victories.

But those who dare to look beyond Milosevic fear they will lose part of their membership to Seselj, and only a smaller part to Vuk Draskovic, the semi-opposition leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, who draws his strength more from the anti-Communist Chetnik traditions of World War II and his Serbian nationalism than from his doubtful liberal credentials.

Even Draskovic believes firmly that electoral success for his party, in coalition with others, must mean the winnowing away of Socialist voters - not their alienation.

Unless the West is careful and does more to convince the Yugoslav population of its goodwill toward them, a post-Milosevic universe may be worse than now. While Seselj remains an unlikely Serbian leader, he is becoming more entrenched as a power-broker.

The democratic opposition is still divided, largely discredited by its own acts since 1996 and 1997, and still based more on personalities than policies. Even in "free and fair" elections, its victory would by no means be a foregone conclusion.

What was also bombed was the pro-Western, democratic option.

So it is important to understand that the clumsy and public American embrace of the opposition - its open meetings with opposition leaders to plot against the regime - represent a kiss of death in a country still stunned by 78 days of bombing.

State propaganda, hardly unsophisticated, has had a field day. Accusations of Western manipulation, of opposition figures acting as puppets and traitors, resonate and feed Seselj's rhetoric while helping Milosevic to justify both the war and his continuation in office on patriotic grounds.

What's worse, according to opposition leader Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party and the most important figure in the Alliance for Change, the American aid provided is both late and small.

Misjudgments begin with the nature of Milosevic himself and of his structure of power. They will persist if Washington continues to see the regime in Belgrade as built solely on Milosevic, or see him as a dictator ruling solely by fear and the instruments of power.

In fact, he has elections, does not command a popular majority and remains in power through his masterful ability to build coalitions - even if he builds them through the seduction of power and money and blackmail.

As even Djindjic says over and over again: "Milosevic isn't a criminal. He isn't even the cause. He's a consequence of our history."

The point of American policy ought to be to promote internal political change, and that means understanding where Serbian politics is headed, and the pressures upon it.

It should mean opening up the country, not shutting it down. It should mean reconciliation with the Serbian people, even as visa and travel restrictions remain in place on the key figures of the regime.

Serbia is not bipolar. It is not caught between the opposition and the regime. Besides the Seselj factor and smaller nationalist groups, the democratic opposition has consistently failed to unite. There are also sharp rivalries on the local level between Milosevic's party and the essentially artificial construct of the Yugoslav United Left (JUL) party of his wife, Mirjana Markovic.

In a post-Milosevic Yugo-slavia, her party would probably disappear, killed off by her husband's party, with the aid of everyone else. But the Socialist party would not disappear, and it remains the only party with a real grassroots political machine. The only opposition party that even tries to compete in this way is Draskovic's, and in the countryside, he is perceived as a monarchist, nationalist and Chetnik, an anti-Communist, not as some democratic liberal avatar.

But in the universe of parties - there are some 170 opposition parties - important possible coalition-makers are Seselj's party on the far right and the moderately nationalist party of Vojislav Kostunica, the Democratic Party of Serbia, in the center-right.

In a fair proportional system, Kostunica, who might get as many as 350,000 votes, could in coalition push the democratic parties over a majority in parliament.

In general, the Socialists have been getting a fairly firm 1.3 million to 1.4 million votes, while Draskovic tends to get a fairly firm 720,000 to 780,000 votes. It is Djindjic and Seselj whose vote totals tend to swing dramatically, and that has depended on how much Milosevic himself has favored them with airtime and support.

American policy should be aimed, therefore, at promoting those like Draskovic and Kostunica - or not harming them - while trying to undermine Seselj and Milosevic.

That should not mean treating Serbian patriotism or national feeling as aberrant, evil or fascist; it should mean trying to distinguish between the Serbian people and leaders like Milosevic and Seselj, who try to wrap themselves in that patriotic, nationalist feeling intensified by the war.

There was a patriotic homo-genization, even among the opposition that despises the regime, during the NATO air war. Milosevic and Seselj should not be allowed to succeed in appropriating it for themselves.

Washington should be careful with national pride, let alone with Balkan borders and regional stability. American policy should not mean promoting the breakup of what remains of Yugoslavia by giving Montenegro false encouragement.

It should not mean the independence of Kosovo, which will create a festering sore, like the Sudetenland, and could mean a new war, whenever NATO leaves, from a post-Milosevic leader. Don't forget that the whole Serbian myth of Kosovo revolves around the unswerving effort to regain lost territory - even after 500 years of Turkish occupation, or, perhaps in the future, after ten years of NATO occupation.

Let Kosovo, for which the West now bears total responsibility, be a model for Serbia, not a fist in the face.

Now, people are so poor and desperate that they have lost the sense that change is possible. "It's much riskier to be for change now than ten years ago," a Croat political scientist in Belgrade said. "To lose your job now is a life tragedy."

One student took his doctorate and taught as a professor in a Smederevo high school. He was fired six years ago for criticizing the local authorities and has nowhere to turn for redress. "People simply feel that if they are in conflict with the regime they will lose," he said.

That concern, explicit in polling data, has reduced people's willingness to demonstrate. The regime has fostered such fears, with cameras filming rallies, sudden investigations by the financial police and ordinary police visiting homes to check documents.

In a large recent poll of Serbian attitudes, nearly two-thirds of respondents were unhappy with the regime. But some 70 percent said they were frightened to participate in demonstrations - compared to only 40 percent in 1996, when Belgrade saw 88 days of pro-democracy protests.

Today, 90 percent fear a decline in living standards, while nearly as many fear new inflation and the loss of their jobs. Some 80 percent fear civil war and 70 percent, hunger.

In the eyes of Serbs, the United States first saved Milosevic and solidified his position after the Bosnian fiasco by making him the sole guarantor of peace and stability in the Balkans under the Dayton agreement and thereafter. It was certainly easier then to deal with a single authoritarian figure that could say yes, and get the Bosnian Serbs into line.

But Serbs in many ways still see Milosevic as Washington's man. And they certainly feel the sanctions that remain on their country - which were intensified with the Kosovo crisis and the desire to finish off Milosevic for good - as blunt weapons that hurt them, not Milosevic, his wife or his cronies.

They feel they were punished because he was Washington's helpmeet for Bosnia and the Americans wanted to preserve him in power. Now they feel they are punished because the Clinton Administration sees his demise as crucial to a successful end to the shortcircuited war over Kosovo.

They feel with good reason that they are the victims of an American vendetta against Milosevic. They do not buy the argument that the bombing of Serbia was a "humanitarian intervention," seeing it as more about the preservation of NATO and the reputation of American leaders, and they are not grateful.

The isolation of Yugoslavia, by feeding its sense of historical victimization and reinforcing its ignorance, has impeded democratic political change.

Opening up Yugoslavia - restoring diplomatic relations, resuming academic and cultural exchanges, promoting business investment, aiding the independent media in large doses and providing humanitarian assistance - will speed democratic political change.

The risk of politically driven criticism for looking "soft" on Milosevic is real. But a changed policy would damage him, not cushion him. And a failed policy is not worth maintaining out of inertia, given the stakes in the region.

Anti-American feeling, despite everything, is still thin, skin-deep, but raw. These sores should not be left to fester. Washington should mend relations with the people by offering generous humanitarian aid. It should rebuild the bridges over Novi Sad, which had little to do in people's minds with the war in Kosovo, and make sure that people don't freeze to death.

As a Serb friend says: "I wish for a carrot somewhere, instead of ultimatums - a small carrot for a small concession, but a carrot, even if it helped Milosevic in the short run.

I hope for an American gesture that would convince my 16-year-old that not every government in the world is as cynical, mendacious and treacherous as his own."o

This article is adapted from a chapter in a forthcoming book to be published by the Aspen Institute.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number III in the Summer of 2000.