Faint Hopes in the Balkans

Faint Hopes in the Balkans

Policy makers in Washington need good news in the Balkans, but have never been willing to lay out the resources necessary to make things turn out well. Instead, they have searched for good guys, effective leaders who might bring good news on the cheap. First they embraced the Bosnian Muslim leader Alia Izetbegovic; then moved on to the ultra-rightist Croatian nationalist Franjo Tudjman; then to Slobodan Milosevic (the “indispensable” person for the Dayton agreement); then to the Kosovar Albanian “freedom fighter” Hashim Thacqi (a favorite of Madeline Albright); then to the president of that smugglers’ paradise Montenegro; and most recently to the new president of Serbia, Vojislav Kostunica, an Orthodox Christian believer who is a conservative legalist and a “moderate” nationalist. Kostunica won last year’s election, but the results were contested by Milosevic and his regime and had to be enforced by an impressive mass mobilization of students, coal miners, and small-town industrial workers. It was these groups, not the moderate and liberal opposition parties the West backed (but always in a miserly way) that stormed the parliament and television headquarters and disarmed the police. The best of the opposition parties did participate: the two social democratic parties (Social Democratic Union and the League of Social Democrats in Vojvodina) and the Civic Alliance were in the forefront of the demonstration, but the mass of demonstrators were people who had never participated in politics before—the youth of OTPOR (Resistance) and the blue-collar tough guys, the metal workers of Kragujevac and the hard-rock coal miners, who served as the shock troops of the anti-Milosevic coalition. It was their grim faces that convinced the police to lay down their arms.

In a second election, on December 23, the Serbs overwhelmingly supported a heterogeneous anti-Milosevic grouping of mostly small parties, giving it two thirds of the Serbian legislature. But before we cheer too loudly—and we should certainly cheer, because the defeat of Milosevic’s kleptocratic and authoritarian regime is an indispensable step toward democratic reform—we should note that our natural allies on the scene, the folk who drove Milosevic out of office, are restrained in their joy. These actors—the students and workers, OTPOR and the independent trade unions—are cautious for several reasons. For one, they were not overjoyed when a major figure in the new regime, the mayor of Belgrade, stated that the three bases of the regime are anticommunism, Orthodox religion, and monarchism—and was then rewarded by being appointed ambassador to the United States.

The Orthodox base is clear enough, although more than 25 percent of the population is non-Orthodox, and many of the Orthodox are nonbelievers. There is a major offensive by this most tribalist of Christian churches to consolidate its place in public life. Not only is religion being introduced into all the schools, but one of the first state visits of the new president, in the company of the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox church, was to Moscow to visit President Vladimir Putin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church. His next important visit was to the Serbian monastery on Mount Athos (in Greece), where he was accompanied by a large entourage of post-Milosevic “democrats.”

The new regime is moving at a snail’s pace to deliver its war criminals to the international court in the Hague; nor is it in any hurry to punish war crimes committed by Serbian military and paramilitary units in the long and bitter war of Yugoslav succession in Serbian courts. At best they will try Milosevic’s gang at home for crimes in Serbia, but won’t send them to the Hague to be tried. Unless they deal with the killers at home, the Serbs cannot begin to clear their public life of the accumulated cultural and political debris left by a decade and a half of chauvinist nationalism and Mafia-like corruption. So far, the post-Milosevic democrats and their allies in Serbia are following the bad example of the post-Tudjman Croat democrats in refusing to start an indispensable housecleaning. That means that notorious killers remain free, waiting for a comeback. And a national-populist comeback is, alas, not out of the question. Both post-authoritarian regimes (in Croatia and Serbia) inherited devastated and looted economies at a time when there was little likelihood of generous aid for reconstruction. The advent of the second Bush administration reduces the odds on any sort of help.

How one can rebuild democratic institutions (or, more accurately, build them from ground zero) given unemployment figures of 26 percent (Croatia) or 40 percent (Serbia) and no immediate prospect of economic improvement is a mystery, would be a mystery even to solid governments of the democratic left. Serbia and Croatia now have coalitions in which neoliberalism is the dominant ideology despite the presence of social democrats. That is why most experts predict stormy weather, which will be made even more dangerous by the wrong-headed mantra of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund: privatize and marketize. That policy has already devastated the schools, medical system, and economy of Croatia. Serbia is even more vulnerable.

The prospects for stable democracy are grim—even if the crisis in relations with the reluctant junior partner of the Yugoslav federation, Montenegro, were to be settled in a peaceful way; even if the Albanians in southern Serbia can be persuaded to stop their constant military provocations; and even if Serb nationalists can be kept from disrupting Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is already clear that Albanian violence in southern Serbia will be used to postpone any attempts to confront Serbia’s nationalist demons. The fact that similar violence in the Basque Country and Northern Ireland has not been dealt with quickly or “cleanly” by far more prosperous and sophisticated countries cannot even be mentioned in the present overheated political world of post-Milosevic Yugoslavia. Instead, the Albanian attacks are treated as an urgent and solvable problem, which pushes everything else off the political agenda.

What comes next is unclear. But it seems certain that the standard U.S.-West European formula won’t work: it isn’t going to be possible for a moderate liberal regime to introduce market capitalism into the devastated economy and society of Serbia. The more relentless the introduction, the more relentless the failure. Radical democratic and egalitarian programs are called for, and we don’t yet know whether the social forces exist to sustain them. Except for some promising but small social democratic parties in Serbia, Montenegro, and Vojvodina, the main actors will have to be the independent trade unions, the students, a few courageous journalists, and (maybe) the new nongovernmental organizations.


Bogdan Denitch is the director of Transitions to Democracy, a nongovernmental organization active in Croatia, former Yugoslavia, and Bosnia. He is chair of the Socialist Scholars Conference.


Lima