Distributed October 2000
Copyright ©2000 by Ana Devic
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 720 Words


Ana Devic

Helping Serbia enter the company of civil societies
If financial aid and political pressures are channeled to help the civic bases of protests against Slobodan Milosevic’s rule – those around the popular youth Resistance movement and other non-nationalistic initiatives scattered across the political spectrum – then what seems like Vojislav Kostunica’s nationalistic inflexibility or the general post-Milosevic inertia will be soon fading away.

A freelance journalist from Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade said he was no fan of Vojislav Kostunica. The only thing that really mattered during Serbia’s October Revolution was that “Slobodan is no longer.” What he and other Serbian citizens supported in the new Yugoslav president is not Kostunica the nationalist but Kostunica the democrat who promises constitutional reform that would affect the whole fabric of the Serbian state and society.

The journalist, myself and other Serbian citizens consider Slobodan Milosevic’s period in power the 13 lost years of our lives. If we are to close that chapter, Serbia must be helped in entering the company of civil societies and stable states from which it was pushed away.

Massive support is needed to introduce the process of radical political and legal reforms in Serbia and to make them visible to all citizens. The lifting of a range of sanctions that have severed Serbia’s links with the world since 1992 would permit the influx of aid for repairing the damaged material and media infrastructure. Ending sanctions also would break the decade-long cultural isolation of the Serbian audiences, which has made them particularly vulnerable to the nationalist paranoia.

Most importantly, the opening of the world to Serbia and the subsequent opening of Serbia to its own cultural and political complexity would make its anti-war dissidents once again feel like citizens of Serbia, instead of “traitors” and “Serb-haters.”

International financial aid to local non-nationalistic political groups and organizations may be the decisive factor in building democratic institutions.

By assisting Serbia, the international community will also inevitably be helping its neighbors – Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo – with whom Serbia, tragically or not, still shares much of its culture and with whom it must settle the accounts of recent nationalistic history and violence.

Outsiders may ask whether Serbia’s inhabitants are prepared to face their past and rejoin international organizations and world economic and political trends.

There are reservations about Kostunica’s unwillingness to aid the International War Crimes Tribunal in apprehending the indicted Milosevic or Ratko Mladic, former chief of staff of Bosnian Serbs. Kostunica has also repeatedly stated that constitutional reform would include the redefinition of the state as belonging to “Serb people” rather than to all of its inhabitants.

The new Yugoslav president has also revealed that the re-establishment of cooperative relations with the United States would be a slow process due to its adversarial role in the NATO bombing campaign.

But the real question is how much can Kostunica’s small political party guide the number one practical task of democratic change – constitutional reform. If financial aid and political pressures are channeled to help the civic bases of protests against Milosevic’s rule – those around the popular youth Resistance movement and other non-nationalistic initiatives scattered across the political spectrum – then what seems like Kostunica’s nationalistic inflexibility or the general post-Milosevic inertia will be soon fading away.

In the province of Vojvodina, the leader of the League of Social Democrats, a regional party seeking to restore the province’s constitutional autonomy taken away in 1989, advised his fellow citizens, “Squeeze your nose and vote for Kostunica.” This exclamation implied that the changes Kostunica had promised to unleash, which would bring about new electoral laws and privatization rules, redefine regional self-government, and restore autonomy of universities, would perhaps make the ideology and persona of the new president irrelevant, and, most importantly, transitory. Appearing on CBS’s 60 Minutes II, Kostunica reversed himself and admitted for the first time that responsibility for war crimes in Bosnia lay with Serb forces. While his cabinet head complained that his statements were taken out of context, it may have demonstrated the Yugoslav president’s ability to recognize and correct his past misjudgments.

This possibility of a fundamentally new form of governance most likely would not direct the independence-geared Kosovo Albanian politicians to consider remaining in Yugoslavia. But it could influence Montenegrin and regional political leaders, as well as myriad fledgling local non-governmental organizations, to play a significant role in reforming the federation and expunging the ideology and practice of exclusivist Serb nationalism from the political arena.

And this possibility – of cultivating in Serbia the idea and institutions of democracy as a changing reality made by its citizens – is what makes Kostunica and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia a coalition to support at the moment.


Ana Devic, a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, conducts research on nationalism in former Yugoslavia.

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