Serbia Under Milosevic

"He's Ruined Our Lives..."

This narrative is adapted from excerpts of "The New World of Power" in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall (Palgrave, 2001).

As Milosevic's wars had whittled down Yugoslavia to a rump state of only Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and the province of Vojvodina, he lavished spending on his military and special police, many of whose officers were later named as war criminals. The regime became what one journalist called a "kleptocracy" in which top officials used their positions to enrich themselves, while unemployment reached 50 percent and per capita income dropped by more than two-thirds since 1989. All this fueled forceful if divided opposition that first showed its muscle in protests during 1996 and 1997. People who saw Milosevic as a rapacious autocrat were as numerous in Belgrade as in Brussels.

Police push back protesters during a December 1996 anti-Milosevic demonstration. Photo courtesy TV B92.

A NATO jet streaks toward a target in Belgrade during the March 1999 bombings.

If, at the century's end, Milosevic was the cause of Balkan instability in general and "ethnic cleansing" in particular, the question was how to bring him to heel. To engage him violently would be to play a game he knew. What he would not have expected, well before NATO's options were narrowed to bombing or capitulating to genocide in Kosovo, was a systematic program to support the Serbian democratic opposition and preoccupy him at home. But that had never been high on the list of possibilities in the White House or Whitehall.

Instead, the drive to pacify the Balkans through diplomacy, which reached its first climax in Dayton, subordinated all other options. Once a treaty became the object, then Milosevic's signature was necessary — and that meant wooing rather than undermining the sponsor of the region's miseries. Desko Nikitovic of the Serbian Unity Congress in the United States claimed that the West "elevated Milosevic to royalty" when Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke refused to deal with other Serb leaders in the run-up to Dayton. Nebojsa Covic, a Serb opposition leader, told the Helsinki Commission that the very source of Milosevic's power in the ensuing period was "the legitimacy given de facto to him by the international community."

Even Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Accords, eventually regretted the West's failure to give timely support to Milosevic's opposition, concluding in his memoir on Dayton that "Washington missed a chance to affect events" by showing support for the 1996-1997 protests. The Clinton administration had sent no senior officials to Belgrade at that time, Holbrooke explained, because it was feared that visits would be misused by Milosevic to pretend he had its support. It was more concerned about what Milosevic might do than what his opponents could do, if they had possessed the means to do it.

Although an earlier opposition movement, Zajedno (the Serb word for together), had fallen apart from infighting in 1997, the elements for a strong movement against Milosevic still existed: The president was unpopular, the opposition had not yet been silenced, international human rights groups were on the ground observing events, and scrappy independent media outlets like the Daily Telegraph were kicking. Moreover, if the opposition had devised or been shown a strategy for taking power through nonviolent action — how to separate Milosevic from his means of coercion, and how to deny him the civilian cooperation needed to rule — it would have had more incentive to remain united.

In mid-1998, hopes were raised for a stronger front against Milosevic when the Alliance for Change was formed. Headed by a respected former banker, it tried to restore the movement's unity, but time was running short as many feared that Milosevic would use trouble in Kosovo to distract attention from Serbia's domestic problems. For Milosevic, it was never about the Kosovars; it was always about himself. Former Prime Minister Milan Panic urged the West in December 1998 to stop dealing with Milosevic and impose sanctions until democratic reforms and press freedom were granted. But two months later the diplomats were talking to him again at Rambouillet, and when the deadline passed for him to act on the deal negotiated there, NATO made good on its threat of military action, in March 1999.

"If the Serbian democratic opposition groups had been helped with the cost of a few American missiles, the situation might be different today," said Desko Nikitovic during the NATO bombing. "I believe Milosevic would have been history already." In 1998, the U.S. State Department gave just $15 million to independent media in Serbia. The 1999 air campaign cost well over $1 billion. Timely, substantial help to the Serbian opposition a few years earlier could well have helped it divert Milosevic from his crimes in Kosovo, and thus averted the human losses and massive costs of the NATO military intervention.

Just days after the air campaign began, policemen raided the offices of independent Radio B92 for the second time, and its editor was arrested. Then, Slavko Curuvija, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, was assassinated by hired Serb shooters outside his Belgrade apartment as he was walking with his wife. The regime also took care to disconnect 30,000 to 40,000 students from the Internet, to limit independent information. "It is not only Albanian human rights at stake, it's mine as well," explained Vesna Kostic, a journalist and former police target. "Milosevic is already moving ahead against the independent press and the opposition. This bombing will mean keeping that creature in power another 100 years..." Her prediction was exaggerated, but her sense of his intentions was exact.

For other Serbs, who — under other circumstances — might have been drawn into a movement to bring down Milosevic, having their nation ravaged by the very alliance many of them had thought they should join was a form of betrayal. Young people spoke openly not of one day rebuilding their country but of emigrating. "He's ruined our lives, the best years of our lives," said one. "We just can't take it any more."