Back to Notes on the Role of Serbia




Dear Jonathan Steele

Your recent article in The Guardian was, by comparison with most of what has been written on Serbia in recent months, a little ray of light. You point out that Serbia, prior to the recent Yugoslav election, was not a Communist dictatorship. It was a multiparty democracy with a wide range of freely operating opposition groups (the width of the range was of course the main problem faced by the opposition).

It is I think possible to pursue this line of argument further. If the Serbian revolution consists of the introduction of a multiparty democracy, then the architect of that revolution was ... Slobodan Milosevic. As you rightly point out, Milosevic recreated himself as a Nationalist, which meant that he took on the role that would, normally, in 1989, have been played by the opposition. His strength was that, in addition to introducing a multiparty democracy, he combined the role of opposition/nationalist ­ the role played by Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and by Alia Izetbegovic for the Bosnian Mulsims ­ with the continuation of the Communist tradition, largely personified by his wife.

This left very little room for an opposition. The most effective branch of the opposition in the early days ­ the only one that had a position not at least partially straddled by Milosevic ­ were the monarchists who, I believe, included Kostunica. And is it a coincidence that the King-in-exile, Alexander Karadgeorgevic, returned the day after the election and received a rapturous welcome in Cacak, one of the centres of opposition militancy?

You repeat the common accusation that Mr Milosevic tried to steal the elections. I am by no means sure that this is true. With regard to Serbia itself there could be no doubt as to the election results, owing to the exceptionally fair system that the government had put in place. All results were scrutinised and had to be approved by the Opposition. No room for the sort of misunderstandings that have occurred in the US!

The doubt comes in relation to the votes in Montenegro and Kosovo. These were overwhelmingly in Mr Milosevic's favour. The opposition's calculation that they had won an outright victory was, as I understand it, based on simply disregarding these results. Their justification for so doing was that the elections in Montenegro and Kosovo had been wholly in the hands of Mr Milosevic's supporters. But the reason for this was that the authorities in Montenegro and (quite scandalously) Kosovo had refused to co-operate with the elections.

The situation becomes absurd when we consider that the opposition can only claim a majority in the Yugoslav parliament if they succeed in forging an alliance with Mr Milosevic's supporters in Montenegro ­ the very people whose votes they refused to recognise in the presidential election! This is, I think, why all the theatrical props of a 'revolution' had to be brought into play (when it was perfectly obvious that, in the event of a second round in the elections, Mr Kostunica would win). The problem was that, in and of itself, the election did not change very much. What I assume is happening now is that alliances are being formed which will break up the simplicity of the DOS/SPS confrontation. The DOS is ­ obviously ­ too multifarious to form a coherent governing bloc.

Mr Milosevic has been reviled as the driving force behind Serb nationalist policy over the past ten years. But there neither was nor could have been much disagreement in Serbia over the broad nationalist programme of support for the Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Had Mr Kostunica assumed power in the early nineties he would probably now be facing charges of being a war criminal. The main disagreement between Mr Milosevic and the opposition had little to do with sympathy for the aims of the 'international community'. For example, Mr Milosevic was accused of ABANDONING the Serb minorities in Macedonia, Croatia and Bosnia ­ in particular, to the outrage of many, including the Serb Orthodox Church, of co-operating with the embargo placed on the Serbs in Bosnia.

It is because of his willingness, in the eyes of many Serbs, to betray the Bosnian Serbs that he became the favoured interlocutor at the Dayton talks. At the end of which, as Robert Thomas has pointed out, Milosevic's Socialist Party was presenting itself as the modern, progressive party that would secure Serbia's acceptance into the 'international community' ­ much like the present day opposition. This fell apart because of Kosovo. But what alternative did any member of the opposition have to Milosevic's policy in Kosovo? The only substantially different policy I have seen was partition, as advocated by the great novelist (he really is a great novelist), Dobrica Cosic. And that was even more unacceptable to the 'international community' (in broad outline I believe that the 'international community's refusal to contemplate partition is the source of a great deal of the sufferings of Yugoslavia over the past ten years. The break up of Yugoslavia required, as a natural consequence, the redefinition of its internal boundaries).

The nationalist sense of betrayal helps to explain why a number of old Serb paramilitary leaders played such a prominent part in the 'revolution'. The storming of the television centre was led by 'Kapitan Dragan', a paramilitary who had been active in the early stages of the Republic of Krajina (Judah records that the Milosevics seem to have given a green light to the Croat suppression of the Krajina, indicating that they would do nothing to defend it). If Mr Milosevic is ever put before the Hague War Crimes tribunal it will be necessary to establish his connections with the Bosnian Serb leadership. One of his most important go-betweens was Frenki Simatovic (the 'Frankie' of the chapter in Tim Judah's book on the Serbs called 'Frankie and Badger go to war'). His paramilitary group now acts as a bodyguard to Zoran Djindjic. The Belgrade Red Star supporters club, notoriously a centre of recruitment for Arkan's "Tigers", played an important part in the 'revolution'.

My conclusion to all this is simply that the black and white language used to characterise the Yugoslav conflict and the recent election results in Serbia is wholly inappropriate. Slobodan Milosevic attempted (well or badly) what, in broad principle, any Serb leader in his very difficult situation would have attempted. He is reviled in Serbia because he failed, mainly because of the intervention of the 'international community'. His failure represents the defeat of everything for which the Serbs fought and suffered throughout the whole course of the 20th century, starting with the First World War. In the new situation created by this defeat, the Serbs have chosen a new leader who will spare the 'international community' the embarrassment of having to deal with the old one. That, so far as I can see, is all that has happened.


Yours sincerely



Peter Brooke