Daniel Serwer

In His Own Words: Dr. Daniel Serwer

Dr. Daniel Serwer is Director of the Balkans Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace.

On the expansion of U.S. aid to opposition groups in mid-1999:

It was the emergence of other civil society organizations that were broadly popular — like G17 Plus, like Otpor — that provided a real opening to a broader cross section of the society. And a lot of our funds should go in those directions as well. And we should do this openly. The people in these countries don't always like it done openly and that's something you just have to live with. And there was a certain limited effort, not so much to conceal, but to not publish too quickly the figures on some of these things. And not to identify too clearly exactly who was getting the money. And that's understandable too, but there's a big difference between that and a covert program. These were not covert programs. They were overt programs and they were aimed not at the overthrow of Milosevic, but at building up the elements of a democratic society.

Americans would be furious if a foreign entity provided funding to a political party or campaign in the United States. Why was it acceptable for the U.S. to help the Serb opposition?

In fact, we prohibit foreign funding of American political parties. I think the only way I can justify this is to say, look, you're leveling the playing field when you do this. The autocrat has advantages and these democratically-oriented parties have disadvantages and you're trying to compensate for that situation. Now, if you say to me aren't there are situations where you could see us funding the wrong guys? Absolutely, I could see that happening. It's one of the reasons I think it should be overt because it's much less likely that we'll fund people who are criminals, people who are themselves autocrats, who don't believe in civil liberties. I think that much less likely if this is done openly because our own civil society organizations will protest if we're funding people who are not truly democratic in their orientation. I can't apologize for trying to help democracy in these countries though. It's important for American security. It's important for American foreign policy. But it's also important for the people in these countries, it's not done for purely altruistic reasons, but it does have a very positive impact abroad. Anybody who imagines that we're not better off with what used to be called Eastern Europe as part of democratic Europe today is kidding themselves. And you can't apologize for all that assistance we gave to Solidarity or to others in Eastern Europe.

What was Otpor's effect on the regime?

It really scared Milosevic. I mean, he'd always been able to deal with a leader, a political leader. Intimidate him, buy him off — Draskovic — work with him somehow, bring him into the government — Seselj. You know, he'd always had a personality who was his equivalent. All of a sudden he had this amorphous thing that really did appear to threaten his hold on power. He couldn't put it down. He could close a newspaper. He could close a radio station, though even that was a network so elaborate that he found it difficult to deal with.

But this Otpor thing was really — you couldn't get your arms around it. If you crushed it here, it popped up there. It popped up in his hometown, you know. They wouldn't leave anything alone. You know, you told them that they couldn't demonstrate in the streets and they said the next day that since they had been declared an illegal organization, couldn't demonstrate in the streets, they were going to go turn themselves in at the police stations all over the country, so thousands of Otpor activists are out in front of the police. It's not a demonstration, they're trying to turn themselves in. This thing was really hard to handle. It was clever, it was decentralized, dispersed, and yet somehow it managed to have an intellectual coherence that was very good.

It never got into a deep program, but it did put out its slogans. "Gotov Je" — "He's Finished." Ideas that expressed in very, very few words — it was daring, audacious, bold to say "Milosevic, he's finished." They didn't even say Milosevic. They said he's finished. Everybody knew what they meant. And they did this over and over with different slogans that helped them to keep a kind of coherent whole out of this amorphous organization. It worked extremely well. It was a revolutionary kind of organization. I don't think they can sustain that in a democratic society, but it was appropriate to that moment.

Were the slogans developed with American assistance?

I have every reason to believe that the slogans were homegrown. I don't think they would have been effective. The Americans would have thought up something that, I mean these were much cleverer than what we would have thought up. And they have an edge to them that and they fit in the society in a remarkable way. I don't think foreigners can think that stuff up. I do think foreigners were important in the polling process, for example, because Serbs wouldn't trust each other's polls and it became apparent they didn't even have the habit of polling to find out who might win an election. The Americans did that for them, taught them how to look at the polls in an intelligent way, concluded that a united opposition would do much better than a splintered opposition, recognized that Kostunica was the guy who had not only high positives, but low negatives, and other candidates, though they might have had some positives had high negatives so they weren't very good candidates. All of that, sort of, technology and polling was in part important, I don't doubt that. But I think the intelligence, the enthusiasm, the slogans were absolutely homegrown.

On the role of other opposition movements in Serbia:

I want to underline though, there were others involved. I mean there were the trade unions, there were other anti-war activists involved, there was G17 Plus — an extraordinary phenomenon really because G17 was a group of 17 economists who had been working for years on a modern reform program for the Serbian economy. And in order to do that and connect it to current day reality, they had written about the economy — Milosevic's economy. And they had been the best analysts of this economy and how it operated to keep Milosevic in power. And they, I forget exactly when it was, decided that they could also lead a broader political organization because their interests were both economic and political and they founded something called G17 Plus which became a kind of mass movement as well. It was never as big as Otpor, but it did attract a certain number of people and if my memory serves me correctly, it was the one that wrote the platform of the opposition. The platform that the opposition ran on was written by G17 Plus, not by Otpor which would never have been able to do that kind of thing.

G17 Plus was more the thinking, writing kind of people and Otpor was more the activist, get out on the streets kind of people. And this was also a very powerful combination. They reinforced each other.

There were the independent media, especially B-92 which had been fighting Milosevic for years and years and which had done it not just by being a free radio station and eventually a free television station, but by sponsoring rock concerts. I mean, they had — they too had their sort of popular dimension. And they collaborated a lot with Otpor and G17 Plus. These people found ways of strengthening each other


Did you have concerns going into the election?

Well I was very concerned at that point about two things. I wasn't really concerned about the strength of the democratic opposition, I thought it was pretty strong at that point. But I was concerned about the Get Out the Vote campaign. I was concerned that Serbs would be apathetic. And I was concerned about the monitoring of the polling because I was convinced that if he could possibly win by fraud he would. What I did not understand between July and September was how successful the opposition was being at both efforts. Maybe I should have understood. I got innumerable e-mails telling me it was all right. The Get Out the Vote campaign was going well, the monitoring was being organized. But I, you know, not being there on the ground, not talking to people directly — and during that period it was particularly sensitive obviously — I had my doubts.

You know there were 10,000 polling places. You need at least 30,000 people to monitor 10,000 polling places. Had they really organized 30,000 people? Well, not only had they organized something like 30,000 people, but they had organized this incredible effort to convey the election results to Belgrade almost immediately because they did have positions on the — on the electoral commissions in all of these localities. So that when the fraud occurred, they had numbers that demonstrated the fraud. It was really quite astounding.

In addition, the poll watching was well done. The Get Out the Vote campaign was quite extraordinary, especially among the youth. There was — there were — many more voted than had voted in the past. Minorities voted very heavily and that's an important dimension of the story that hasn't really appeared. I mean the difference between the first round victory for Kostunica and having to go to a second round because he didn't have 50% was definitely minority votes. They were a key factor in — and this was an important thing that the democratic opposition finally opened itself to minority votes and seeing them as an advantage and not as a disadvantage. And the minorities felt comfortable in this democratic opposition, at least comfortable voting against Milosevic in this situation.

Did you expect events of the last year to unfold as quickly as they did?

No, what I saw happening I thought would take a considerably greater length of time. I did not anticipate the election. I did not anticipate that Milosevic would subject himself to a popular election. Because, after all, he cheats. Milosevic changed the constitution to provide for popular elections for the president of Yugoslavia. And I didn't anticipate he would do that. Nobody anticipated he would do that. It was a colossal error of hubris. He thought he couldn't lose, and he thought that the democratic legitimacy would mean that nobody in the international community would ever dare not deal with him again, no matter indicted or not. Even after that, I didn't realize how effective the get out the vote campaign was going to be. I didn't realize how effective the vote monitoring campaign was going to be. And frankly, I didn't realize how effective the demonstrations of October 5th were going to be.

These are things that you can feel on the ground much better than you can feel from afar. I was quite confident it would work, but I wasn't sure that it would work this fall and in fact I was fairly well convinced last fall, I was fairly well convinced that it wouldn't work. That there would be at least another six months to a year of effort to make this work. And frankly, the margin of victory, you know, was very, very small in the first round. I think they would have won a second round too. In fact, they would have won it overwhelmingly and really swept even more of the old regime away, but I don't think it would have allowed a second round. So there were, you know, it was good that it happened when it did. I'm delighted, enthusiastic, happy about that, but I won't say that I anticipated it and I don't believe that the U.S. government anticipated it. In fact, I talked to lots of people in the period in September and no one was saying, you know, they're going to win this election. The odds are they're going to lose, we all said. And you know it'll just be one more step in the battle. We were all surprised. I don't know any American who can really claim to have predicted that Milosevic would fall in-in the autumn of 2000.

Excerpted from an interview with Steve York: Washington D.C., March 7, 2001.