The Last Revolution

The last revolution was also the strangest.

On Thursday, October 5, as Serbs stormed the parliament in Belgrade, waving flags from its burning windows, and seized the headquarters of state television, which an opposition leader had once christened “TV Bastille,” it looked like a real, old-fashioned European revolution. The storming of the Winter Palace! The fall of the Bastille!

Now, surely, the last East European ruler to have remained in power continuously since the end of communism, the “butcher of the Balkans,” would go the way of all tyrants. There were fevered reports that three planes were carrying Slobodan Milosevic and his family into exile. Or that he was holed up, Hitler-like, in his bunker. Would he be lynched? Or executed like Ceausåüescu? Or commit suicide, as both his parents had done? “Save Serbia,” the crowds were chanting, “kill yourself, Slobodan.” Fired by images of revolution, and all the bloody associations of “the Balkans,” hundreds of journalists piled in for a grisly but telegenic denouement.

Instead, late on the evening of Friday, October 6, Milosevic appeared on another national television channel to make the kind of gracious speech conceding election defeat that one expects from an American president or a British prime minister. He had just received the information, he said, that Vojislav Kostunica had won the presidential election. (This from the man who had spent the last eleven days trying to deny exactly that, by electoral fraud, intimidation, and manipulation of the courts.) He thanked those who voted for him, but also those who did not. Now he planned “to spend more time with my family, especially my grandson Marko.” But then he hoped to rebuild his Socialist Party as a party of opposition. “I congratulate Mr. Kostunica on his victory,” he concluded, “and I wish all citizens of Yugoslavia every success in the next few years.”

Neatly dressed, as always, in suit, white shirt, and tie, he stood stiffly beside the Yugoslav flag, with his hands crossed very low in front of him, like a schoolboy who had been caught cheating. Or like a penitent before the priest that his father once aspired to be. Sorry, father, I’ve cheated in the elections, ruined my country, caused immeasurable bloodshed and misery to our neighbors—but I’ll be a good boy now. It was incongruous, surreal, ridiculous in the pretense that this was just an ordinary, democratic change of leader.

Yet that is exactly what the new president also wanted to pretend. President Kostunica told me later that Milosevic had telephoned him to ask if it was all right to make the broadcast, and he was delighted, because he wished to show everyone in Serbia that a peaceful, democratic transfer of power was possible. Earlier that same evening, Kostunica had appeared on the “liberated” state television, gray-suited and sober as ever, fielding phone-in questions from the public, and talking calmly about voting systems, as if this were the most normal thing in the world.

Yes, I found young people celebrating in front of the parliament building that night, blowing whistles and dancing. But most of the friends I talked to—people who had been working against Milosevic for years—expressed neither ecstasy nor anger, but a blend of wry delight and residual disbelief. Was he really finished?

That was nothing to the bemusement of the world’s journalists. Heck, wasn’t this supposed to be a revolution? But the revolution seemed to have started on Thursday night and stopped on Friday morning. No more heroic scenes. No bloodshed. The Serbs had failed to deliver. They had disappointed CNN, and ABC, and NBC. The Palestinians and Israelis were more obliging. They were killing each other. So half the camera crews left for Israel the next day. Those who stayed went on wrestling with the question: What is this?

A very odd mixture it was. On the same morning that President Kostunica moved into the echoing Federation Palace, just a few minutes before receiving the Russian foreign minister, one “Captain Dragan,” a legendary veteran of the Serb insurrection in Krajina, was marching into the Federal Customs building with a bunch of armed men and a Scorpion automatic under his arm. He was there to expel Mihalj Kertes, the close Milosevic henchman who controlled so many shady deals through the Customs. Captain Dragan told me Kertes was trembling, and begged abjectly for his life.

On Saturday Mr. Kostunica had to stand around for hours in the shabby reception rooms of the 1970s-style Sava Center, waiting for newly elected parliamentarians from the opposition and Milosevic’s Socialist Party to resolve their wrangles and allow his formal, constitutional swearing-in. Meanwhile, a shock troop of the “red berets,” State Security special assault forces, including veterans of Serbian actions from Vukovar to Kosovo, was seizing the Interior Ministry. But they were doing this on behalf of the opposition to Milosevic. Or at least, one part of it.

As the political parties met for coalition talks about a new federal government, self-appointed “Crisis Committees” in factories and offices sacked their former bosses—in the name of the people. One minute I watched the paramilitary leader and radical nationalist Vojislav Seselj denounce the revolution in a session of the Serbian parliament. The next I was examining the pistol that Captain Dragan took from the hated Kertes. Lightweight, with a handsome, carved rosewood butt. Five soft-tipped bullets, and one ordinary one.

Yet all the while, Milosevic was quietly sitting in one of his villas in the leafy, hillside suburb of Dedinje, consulting with his old cronies. On my last day in Belgrade, I drove past these houses on Uzicka Street, hidden behind high walls and security fences. Somehow I could not find a doorbell to ring.


What was this Serbian revolution? Obviously, much is still unclear about the Serbian events, which have inevitably been compared with the Polish “self-limiting revolution” of 1980-1981 and the Central European velvet revolutions of 1989. But my very preliminary reading is that what happened in Serbia was a uniquely complex combination of four ingredients: a more or less democratic election; a revolution of the new, velvet, self-limiting type; a brief revolutionary coup of an older kind; and a dash of old-fashioned Balkan conspiracy.

First, the election. What many outsiders failed to appreciate is that Milosevic’s Serbia was never a totalitarian regime like Ceausåüescu’s Romania. That is one major reason why his fall was also different. Yes, he was a war criminal, who caused horrible suffering to the Serbs’ neighbors in former Yugoslavia. But at home he was not a totalitarian dictator. Instead, his regime was a strange mixture of democracy and dictatorship: a “demokratura.”

There was always politics under Milosevic, and it was multiparty politics.* Even the regime had two parties: his own and his wife’s. Tensions between his postcommunist Socialist Party of Serbia and her Yugoslav United Left contributed to the crumbling of his power base. But the opposition parties and politicians now coming to power, including Vojislav Kostunica, have also been involved in politics for a decade. True, there was police and secret police repression, up to and including political assassination. But there were also elections, which Milosevic won.

They were not free and fair elections, of course. The single most important pillar of his regime was the state television, which he used to sustain a nationalist siege mentality, especially among people in the country and small towns who had few other sources of information. That is why one of his earliest political opponents, Vuk Draskovic, already in 1991 called it TV Bastille. But there were also embattled independent radio stations and privately owned newspapers. People could travel, say almost anything they liked, and demonstrate in the streets. Opposition parties could organize and campaign, and their representatives sat in parliaments and city councils. Another way Milosevic stayed in power was to maneuver among them, to divide and rule. That same Draskovic, for example, accepted power in the Belgrade city government—and, by all accounts, the accompanying sources of enrichment.

Money played a huge part in the politics of this poor and now deeply corrupted country. And when I say money I mean huge wads of deutschmarks stuffed into the pocket of a black leather jacket, or carried out of the country in suitcases. The frontiers between politics, business, and organized crime were completely dissolved. Milosevic’s hated son, Marko, was a businessman, and a gangster. Among many other properties, he owned a perfume shop in the center of Belgrade called, appropriately enough, Skandal. On the night of Friday, October 6, I stood with a crowd contemplating its charred and plundered ruins. He fled to Moscow, taking with him Milosevic’s grandson Marko.

The ruling family was at the heart of a larger family, in the mafia sense. Yet the godfather still preserved the outward constitutional forms, and periodically sought confirmation in elections. With the help of TV Bastille and a little quiet vote-rigging—but also because he could count on a divided opposition and a significant level of genuine popular support.

Only against this background can one understand why, in early July, Milosevic decided to change the constitution and seek direct election for another term as president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. We know now that this was a fatal mistake. Few thought so then.

Why did he lose the election he himself called for September 24? The first and most unequivocally heartwarming part of the answer is: the mobilization of the other Serbia to defeat him. Against the collective demonization of “the Serbs,” after what “they” did in Bosnia and Kosovo, one cannot say often and firmly enough that there was always this other Serbia. There are Serbs who have spoken, written, organized, and worked against Milosevic from the very outset. Their struggle was different from, but no less difficult or dangerous than, the struggle of dissidents under Soviet communism. Soviet dissidents risked imprisonment by the KGB. The Serbian dissidents risked being shot in a dark alley by an unknown assailant. They were not numerous, but they were always there.

One of them is Veran Matic, a thickset, black-bearded, phlegmatic man, always to be found in his office tapping away at a slimline laptop. With a dedicated team of journalists, and a lot of financial aid from the West, Matic built up an independent radio station, B92, which was seized by the authorities at the beginning of the Kosovo war—but continued to provide news on the Internet. He also developed a network called ANEM, supplying independent news and current affairs programs to provincial radio and television stations not under Milosevic’s control. Now, while TV Bastille denounced Kostunica and the opposition as NATO lackeys and CIA agents, this network calmly informed the country outside Belgrade about the true facts of the election campaign. There were also less well known journalists who went to prison for printing what they thought to be true.

Vitally important was the student movement called Otpor, meaning “resistance,” founded in 1998 as a more radical successor to the student protests of 1996 and 1997. One activist told me that the Otpor members learned at seminars organized by Western-funded nongovernmental organizations how rights campaigning and civil disobedience had been organized elsewhere, from Martin Luther King to last year in Croatia. These were students majoring in Comparative Revolution. But they added a hundred creative variations of their own. For example, they would appear in the long lines for sugar and oil with T-shirts saying “Everything in Serbia is OK.” Under their distinctive clenched-fist banner, they confronted the police again, and again, and again. More than 1,500 Otpor activists were arrested during the last year.

Like civil society activists in the Slovakian elections that toppled Vladimir Meciar in 1998, they organized a campaign to “rock the vote.” Popular rock-and-roll concerts were combined with the message to get out and vote. They dreamed up a slogan, “Vreme je!,” “It’s time!” or “Now’s the time!”—which just happens to be exactly what the crowds chanted in Prague in 1989. Then they found an even better one, “Gotov je!“—“He’s finished!” That became the motto of this revolution, plastered on Milosevic posters, written on caps and banners, scrawled as graffiti on city walls, and roared from a hundred thousand throats.

Many others in this world of independent activity—what in Slovakia they call “the third sector”—contributed to the cause. Independent pub-lic opinion pollsters, some of them American-funded, did regular surveys that suggested Kostunica was winning. There were countless campaign volunteers and independent election monitors. Millions of Western dollars have been wasted in “civil society” projects all over postcommunist Europe, but this time, in this place, it was surely worth it.

Secondly, there was the fact that the very disparate opposition parties finally united. Not entirely, to be sure. The largest single opposition party, Vuk Draskovic’s Serbian Renewal Movement, refused to join. Moreover, the Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic called for a boycott of the election, thus allowing Milosevic to take virtually all the remaining Montenegrin vote. But still, eighteen parties got together in a Democratic Opposition of Serbia. Much the largest of them was the Democratic Party headed by the long-serving but also compromised and unpopular opposition leader, Zoran Djindjic.

The third reason Milosevic lost was that Djindjic and others managed to subdue their own squabbling egos sufficiently to agree on the candidature of Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of the small Democratic Party of Serbia, which had split from the Democratic Party in the early 1990s. Kostunica was reluctant to stand—he self-mockingly says of himself that he was the first undecided voter—but the choice was perfect. For he had a unique combination of four qualities, being anticommunist, nationalist, uncorrupted, and dull.

Kostunica never belonged to the communist party. A constitutional lawyer and political scientist, his 1970 doctoral thesis was on the role of the opposition in a multiparty system. He subsequently translated The Federalist Papers and wrote on Tocqueville and Locke. He was fired from Belgrade University for opposing Tito’s 1974 constitution as unfair to the Serbs. Unlike most other opposition leaders, he had never even met Milosevic—until, on Friday, October 6, the commander of the army, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, arranged a brief encounter between outgoing and incoming presidents. “So,” Kostunica proudly told me, “I met him for the first time when he lost power.”

He was a moderate nationalist, who had supported the Serb Republic in Bosnia and fiercely criticized NATO’s war over Kosovo. Unlike Draskovic or Djindjic, he had never been seen hobnobbing with Madeleine Albright. He had stayed in Belgrade throughout the bombing, whereas Djindjic had fled to Montenegro, fearing, perhaps rightly, for his life.

He was uncorrupt. I have rarely seen a more spartan party office than his. He lived in a small apartment with his wife and two cats, and drove a battered old Yugo car. Again, the contrast was acute with other opposition leaders, especially Djindjic and Draskovic. With their smart suits and fast cars, they were widely believed to have their hands in the till—in the time-honored fashion of most politicians in the post-Ottoman world.

His great disadvantage was thought to be his dullness. In the event, even this turned out to be an advantage. Again and again, people told me that they liked his slow, plodding, phlegmatic style. It was such a welcome contrast, they said, to all the heroic-tragic histrionics of Milosevic, but also of many of his opponents, such as the ranting Vuk Draskovic. “You know, I want a boring president,” one leading independent journalist told me. “And I want to live in a boring country.”

And then, Kostunica wasn’t so dull after all. Energized—as who would not be?—by finding himself at the head of a crusade for his country’s liberation, he produced some brave and memorable moments. His “Good evening, liberated Serbia,” on the night that parliament and television were stormed, will go straight into the history books.

Of course we can never know the exact compound of motives that made at least 2.4 million Serbs put a circle next to the name of Vojislav Kostunica on Sunday, September 24. But two striking partial explanations were offered to me.

One concerns the NATO bombing. I asked politicians and analysts when they thought the revolution had begun. Several said, often through pursed lips: well, to be honest, at the end of the Kosovo war. During and immediately after the war, there was a patriotic rallying to the flag, from which Milosevic also benefited. But it was too absurdly Orwellian to hear state television proclaiming as a victory what was obviously a historic defeat: the effective loss of Kosovo, Serbia’s Jerusalem. Economically, things got worse, and every demand to tighten the belt was justified by the effects of the bombing. The miners in the Kolubara coal mines, whose strike was to give a decisive push to the revolution, told me their wages had sunk after the war from an average of about DM150 a month to as low as DM70. The reduction was explained as a tax for postwar reconstruction. But it made them furious.

Then, as Veran Matic puts it, Milosevic “fought the election not against us but against NATO.” Yet that didn’t work either, because at some deeper level people thought, “Well, he lost against NATO, didn’t he?” If Matic is right, then Kostunica was an unconscious beneficiary of the bombing he deplored. This explanation is highly speculative, of course, and can never be proven. But it would not be the first time in history that war had helped to ferment revolution.

The other partial explanation is less dramatic, but also convincing and important. It is that a great many people who in the past had voted for Milosevic simply decided that enough was enough. The leader had lost touch with reality. Having been there so long, he was to blame for current miseries. It was time for a change. It was, says Ognjen Pribicevic, a longtime Milosevic critic, like what happened to Margaret Thatcher or Helmut Kohl, after their eleven or sixteen years of power. The comparison with Thatcher or Kohl may seem startling, even insulting. But it’s a useful reminder that for many Serbian voters Milosevic was not a war criminal or a tyrant. He was just a national leader who did some good things and some bad things, but now had to go.

It was those people, finally, who brought the vote for Vojislav Kostunica just above the 50 percent needed for him to be elected in the first round.


So that was the election. Already on the night of Sunday, September 24, a sophisticated and independent election monitoring group—another part of the foreign-funded “third sector”—told the opposition that Kostunica had won, and people danced in the streets of Belgrade until the early hours. But everyone knew that Milosevic would not concede defeat. He would probably try to “steal the election,” fraudulently claiming extra votes from Montenegro and Kosovo. This was only the end of the beginning.

Sure enough, Milosevic had the Federal Election Commission declare that Kostunica had won more votes than him, but not enough to secure victory in the first round. There would have to be a run-off second round on October 8. The opposition now took a giant gamble, against the advice of many Western politicians and supporters. They said: no, we will not go to the second round. Instead, by orchestrating peaceful popular protest, they would force Milosevic to concede that he had lost the election. And they set a deadline: 3:00 PM on Thursday, October 5.

The election campaign already had elements of revolutionary mobilization, like that of the Solidarity election campaign in Poland in the summer of 1989. Revelection, so to speak. But now things developed more clearly toward a new-style peaceful revolution. People came out on the streets of Belgrade and other towns for large demonstrations. The opposition knew that would not be enough. After all, in 1996-1997 Milosevic had survived three months of large demonstrations. So they called for a general strike. And they appealed to all the citizens of Serbia to come to Belgrade on Thursday, October 5, for the demonstration to end all demonstrations.

The general strike was very patchy at first. But in one central place it took hold: in the great opencast coalfields of Kolubara, some thirty miles south of Belgrade, which provide the fuel to generate more than half of Serbia’s electricity. It was inevitably compared to the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, birthplace of the Polish revolution in 1980. And to visit the Kolubara mines was indeed to be transported back to the mines and shipyards of Poland twenty years ago. The same plastic wood tables, potted plants, lace curtains, endless glasses of tea, and folk music coming over an antiquated radio. The workers in blue overalls, with unshaven, grimy faces and rediscovered dignity.

Here, as there, one of the massive fortresses of communist industrialization—some 17,500 people are employed in the Kolubara complex—was finally turning against its makers. Here, as there, a vital role was played by the more skilled workers and technical staff, who had connections to the democratic opposition: the semiconductors of revolution. People like the thirty-six-year-old engineer Alexander Karic, dubbed the Lech Walesa of Kolubara. “But there are many Lech Walesas,” he said, “we are all Lech Walesas.” Sitting in a café, wearing blue overalls and a bright orange baseball cap proclaiming “1+1=2”—the slogan of Orwell’s hero in 1984, picked up by an election monitoring group—Karic confided that his favorite pop song was a hit by the famous Yugoslav group Azra. It celebrated the Gdansk strike of 1980.

As in Gdansk, economic grievances helped trigger the strike, but the workers immediately subordinated their local and material demands to the national and political one. When the commander of the army, General Pavkovic, and the government minister accompanying him offered to double the miners’ wages if they went back to work, they insisted that they wanted just one thing: recognition of the election results. There was also solidarity, with a small “s.” On the night of October 3-4, the number of strikers in the minefields had dwindled and police moved in. So strike leaders called on people to come and sup-port them. And they came in by the thousands, from the nearby town of Lazarevac, and from the capital. Outside one of the mines, the police stood in line, but irresolute. Finally, three old men on a tractor trundled toward them, and the police line opened. A scene for a film—or a monument.

One should not exaggerate the similarities with Gdansk; I could add a long list of differences. But the strike at Kolubara had great symbolic significance. It increased the revolutionary momentum, and further broke down the barriers of fear. What followed was purely Serbian.

Early on the morning of Thursday, October 5, great columns of cars and trucks set out from provincial towns, from Cacak and Uzice, from Kragujevac and Valjevo, from the rich plains of the Vojvodina in the north and the Serbian heartland of Sumadija in the south. The convoy from Cacak, headed by its longtime opposition mayor, Velimir Ilic, had a bulldozer, an earthmover, and heavy-duty trucks loaded with rocks, electric saws, and, yes, guns. They literally bulldozed aside the police cars blocking the road. Other convoys also broke through police blockades, by a mixture of negotiation and muscle.

Many of those who came to Belgrade were ordinary people from opposition-controlled cities, sometimes better informed than their counterparts in the capital, because of the local independent television and radio stations, but often materially worse off than the Belgraders, and so more angry. However, among them were also former policemen and soldiers, veterans of the Serbian campaigns in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, tough, with shaved heads and guns under their leather jackets. Men who knew how to fight, and were determined to win this day.

From north and south, east and west, they converged on Belgrade. They joined with the Belgraders who had come out in the hundreds of thousands, further infuriated by the latest absurd and provocative verdict of the constitutional court—which declared the presidential election null and void. So there they stood, massed with flags, and whistles, and banners reading “He’s Finished,” in front of the impressive parliament building where the Federal Election Commission, which had falsified the election results, was also based.

It was three o’clock—deadline for the revolution. Then it was just past three, and someone in the crowd turned to Professor Zarko Korac, a member of the opposition leadership which had set the deadline, and said, “Well, Professor, it’s seven past….”

No one knew what would happen next. Or did they?


What happened between about three and seven o’clock on the afternoon of Thursday, October 5, changed everything. Led by a man in a red shirt, defying police batons and tear gas, a crowd stormed the parliament. Soon thereafter, the nearby state television headquarters was trashed and set alight. A handful of other key media outlets, including the state television studio and transmission center, and Veran Matic’s B92 radio, were more peacefully taken over. Kostunica cried, “Good evening, liberated Serbia,” to an ecstatic crowd, and they celebrated in the streets.

These events invite a moment’s reflection on the relationship between image and reality. Those who stormed the parliament created an unforgettable image of liberation—an image that CNN and the BBC sent around the world. This image then became reality. Taking over the state television was itself another compelling television image: the “TV Bastille” in flames. But it also meant that the opposition now controlled the place that made the images. And that, not the army or police, is the very heart of power in modern politics.

I remember the Polish opposition leader Jacek Kuron saying in Warsaw in 1989 that if he had to choose between controlling the secret police and television, he’d choose television. Our democracies are television democracies. (In the midst of the revolution, we paused to watch Al Gore and George W. Bush conduct one of the television debates that may decide a more normal presidential election.) Milosevic’s dictatorship was a television dictatorship. And television was equally central to the revolution. From teledictatorship, via telerevolution, to teledemocracy.

This was a coup de théâtre that had the effect of a coup d’état. Who was responsible for it? I collected at least a dozen eyewitness accounts of the storming of the parliament, and they differ greatly. Success has many fathers. The ranks of those who did the heroic deed, or planned it, grow like relics of the true cross. About such events, the whole, exact, and sober truth will never be known, but there is ample evidence that, beside much spontaneity, there was a strong component of deliberately planned, revolutionary seizure of power.

The mayor of Cacak, Velimir Ilic, described to me how he and his group prepared their trip to Belgrade as if it were a military operation. When I asked one of his vanguard, a burly former paratrooper from the elite 63rd Parachute Regiment, what the object of the operation was, he said crisply: “That Vojislav Kostunica should appear on state television at 7:30 PM.” Before they left, Ilic told them: “Today, we will be free or die.”

There is doubtless some retrospective self-glorification in these accounts, but other witnesses agree that the boys from Cacak were there in the front line, and well equipped to fight the police. A Belgrade friend who was there recalls a youth of fifteen or sixteen standing before the parliament and taunting the crowd: “Do you people from Belgrade need us from Cacak to show you how to take your own town hall?” The provincial lad didn’t even know what the building was, but he was going to storm it anyway.

Cacak was not alone; there were many angry men from other provincial towns. When the first, heavy waves of tear gas were launched by the police, the intelligentsia of Belgrade mostly fled to nearby apartments, or offices, or cafés. Another friend met an acquaintance who said, “This is the biggest funeral ever.” She thought the rising was defeated. But the hard men from the provinces came back into the square. They had no nearby apartments to go to, and they were here to finish the job.

The honor of Belgrade was saved by fans of the city’s leading soccer club, Red Star. They were, by all accounts, also fighting in the front line. They had practiced already in their soccer stadium, taunting the police with chants of “Save Serbia, Kill Yourself Slobodan.” And they knew all about police tactics. Afterward, the new mayor of Belgrade, the historian and opposition leader Milan St. Protic, thanked them for their heroic role. It must be the only time that a city mayor has thanked his soccer hooligans for going on the rampage.

Nor was it only Cacak that had made plans. Cacak’s mayor Ilic was a member of the coordinated national opposition leadership, and others in that leadership made their own preparations. Zoran Djindjic, the Democratic Party leader, and far more important than his modest title of “campaign manager” for Kostunica would suggest, told me that he and his opposition colleagues had their own scheme to take parliament from behind—“but Cacak was too quick for us.” His right-hand man, Cedomir Jovanovic, a charismatic former student leader, was on the spot, wearing a bulletproof vest. Another bulldozer was on the job at their request. And Captain Dragan insists that he received instructions from a close aide of Djindjic to seize the Studio B television station—which he duly did, escorting the security guards to safety past an angry crowd. Several opposition figures say they had their own sources inside the police, passing information to them on police tactics. Some time before 7:00 PM, a commander was heard to say, over a captured police radio: “Give up, he’s finished.”

There are a hundred more pieces of the jigsaw to fit into place: retrospective claim and counterclaim about planned and spontaneous action. But the essential point is established. There was, after Serbia’s 1989 and its 1980, a brief moment of 1917: a deliberate yet limited use of revolutionary violence. It is hard to imagine the breakthrough coming without it. But the remarkable thing is how limited it was, and how quickly the country returned to new-style, peaceful revolution. Within a week, Otpor activists were organizing an action to encourage people to return the goods they had looted from the shops.

One is tempted to say, although the phrase is a dangerous one—recalling as it does Auden’s notorious line about “the necessary murder”—that they used the minimum of necessary violence.


The question remains why the army, and the powerful police and state security special forces built up under Milosevic, did not intervene, instead leaving the ordinary police to throw some tear gas and then give up. For those forces, well equipped and battle-hardened, could easily have caused a bloodbath in central Belgrade—although it would probably only have precipitated a far bloodier end of the regime.

Here we enter the murkiest waters. Among the claims made about the army are that its chief, General Pavkovic, previously known as an archally of Milosevic, refused to order his tanks to roll; or, rather more plausibly, that, on consulting with his senior commanders, Pavkovic discovered that they were not willing to risk using their largely conscript forces against their own people. (Reportedly, a clear majority of those who voted from the army and police on September 24 cast their ballot for Kostunica.)

Zoran Djindjic told me that the feared “red berets,” formally the Special Operations Unit of the State Security Service under the Serbian Interior Ministry, received a direct order to bomb and retake the parliament and television. They did not carry out the order. Instead, two days later those same “red berets,” commanded by one General “Legend” Zemovic (recognizable by the red rose tattooed on the back of his neck), took over the Interior Ministry for—or at least, in cahoots with—Djindjic.

Belgrade being Belgrade, there are even darker speculations. For as long as I have been traveling here, people have been telling me fantastic tales about conspiracies—internal, but also Western, especially American ones. This is the world capital of conspiracy theories. But in this case, I think there may just be some truth in them.

The speculation is that disaffected former members of the army, secret police, and special forces, who had earlier been wondering about trying to overthrow Milosevic, now helped to ensure that he was misinformed and the forces unresponsive. In the case of the army, there is little secret. Two very senior former Milosevic generals, Momcilo Perisic (dismissed as chief of staff in 1998) and Vuk Obradovic, were now leaders of the opposition, and had publicly and privately appealed to their former comrades not to act against the people. But the most important figure mentioned is the former secret police chief Jovica Stanisic, who was fired by Milosevic in 1998, but is still believed to wield much influence on those shadowy Belgrade frontiers where secret police, paramilitaries, businessmen, politicians, and mafia-style gangsters intermingle.

The motives of such men in the shadows? First, “just to screw Milosevic,” as the political analyst Bratislav Grubacic put it to me. Those that Milosevic used and then cast aside were taking their revenge. Second, as a source once close to Milosevic explained: “To save their lives. And their money—you know, a lot of money. Perhaps to keep their freedom too.” And to try to make some accommodation with the new powers that be. Which, in this connection, seems to mean primarily Zoran Djindjic, about whom there are persistent rumors of earlier meetings with the former secret police chief.

I was struck by the fact that when I asked Djindjic why there was not a popular march on the secret police headquarters, like the East German storming of the Stasi, he hastily replied: “No, we think there is valuable equipment there, which every state would need.”

This is all, I repeat, no more than informed speculation. To go further would require an investigation which I certainly don’t intend to make. This was definitely not like Romania in 1989, where a group of people from inside the former regime organized a coup masquerading as a popular revolution. But Belgrade is a city where people do have the most curious connections. And something more than just the patriotic restraint of the armed forces, and the velvet power of peaceful popular protest, does seem to be required to explain the absence of any serious attempt at repression. If a little old-style Balkan conspiracy contributed to that outcome, well, three cheers for old-style Balkan conspiracy.

On that afternoon of Thursday, October 5, one woman was crushed under the wheels of a truck. An old man died of a heart attack. The chief editor of state television and a number of policemen and demonstrators were beaten up. There are unconfirmed reports of two police deaths. That was about it.

Little short of a miracle in a country still ostensibly ruled by Milosevic, and stashed full of guns and men well accustomed to using them.


The combination of these four ingredients—an election drawing on prior multiparty politics, a new-style peaceful revolution, a brief revolutionary coup de théâtre, and a dash of conspiracy—helps to clarify the puzzle that the world’s journalists encountered when they descended on Belgrade. So does the fact that different opposition leaders favored different blends: Kostunica, the Girondin, always wanting to use peaceful, legal, constitutional means, demonstratively starting as he intends to go on; Djindjic, the Jacobin, more inclined to take direct action; while others were somewhere in between.

Four days after Serbia’s super-Thursday the opposition still only had in power, formally speaking, the president. “Yes, at the moment there is only me,” Mr. Kostunica wryly remarked, as we sat in the Federation Palace. He was the one figure in the land who was both legal and legitimate. A fortnight later, as this article goes to press, the opposition has reached agreement with Milosevic’s formerly ruling Socialist Party, and Vuk Draskovic’s Serbian Renewal Movement, on arrangements for a transitional government in the republic of Serbia, where most of the real executive power lies. This seems likely to include some highly compromised representatives of the old regime. Key ministries such as the Interior Ministry are supposed to be controlled jointly. New republican elections are scheduled for December 23, and that will mark the beginning of a new, both legal and legitimate government in Serbia.

Everywhere, you hear the quiet flap of turning coats. In one provincial town, Otpor activists are handing out symbolic tubes of Vaseline to the turncoats. But every new democracy needs those greasy opportunists. People still fear a Milosevic comeback—the vampire rising from the grave—but already leading members of his own Socialist Party are calling for his resignation. His party probably does have a political future, like postcommunist socialist parties elsewhere in postcommunist Europe—but only without him.

The world has rushed in to offer congratulations and help, led by France, both as current president of the European Union and cultivating its special relationship with Serbia. Of course there is a huge task of economic reconstruction: Serbia’s gross domestic product is roughly half what it was in 1989. But, to adapt an economist’s term, Serbia has the advantages of backwardness. Being last, it can learn from all the other postcommunist transitions. Mladjan Dinkic, a representation of the so-called G17 Plus group of economists who were already preparing for a democratic transition, told me they would combine Polish-style shock therapy with a more cautious privatization. And they will receive a lot of Western help too. Why? Because, to put it crudely, Serbia is seen as small but dangerous. (Russia is dangerous, but too large; Bulgaria is small, but not dangerous enough.) That is one backhandedly helpful legacy of Milosevic. A crucial test—this we have learned from other transitions—is whether they can establish the rule of law in a highly criminalized society. That will determine whether Serbia becomes a little Russia or a civilized European country.

Two huge questions remain. First: What country is this? Kostunica greeted “liberated Serbia,” but was then sworn in as President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Montenegro did not recognize him as such, and he has now suggested changing the state name to Serbia-Montenegro—strongly reminiscent of the 1990 proposal for a hyphenated Czecho-Slovakia, soon followed by their “velvet divorce.” After the new Serbian elections, the negotiations on a new relationship with Montenegro will begin. Kostunica has made it clear that he would respect the outcome of a referendum in Montenegro—and, for that matter, in Serbia, for the Serbs will not want to stay together with the Montenegrins at any price, in an unequal or sham confederation.

The other question is: What to do about the past? In the West, this is usually reduced to: What to do with Milosevic? The Hague? Kostunica has repeatedly ruled out extradition. A trial in Serbia? This is what many people in Serbia want. “A Dutch prison would be much too good for him,” was one comment I heard. “Let him try a Serbian one.” Or should he just “spend more time with his family?” “I really don’t care what happens to him,” says Zoran Djindjic. “We have other priorities now.”

But the problem of the past is far larger and more intricate than just the fate of Milosevic. So many people, including a few high in the ranks of the opposition, were formerly servants or supporters of the regime. And then there is the great clash between the one-eyed view of most ordinary Serbs—who see themselves as victims, both of Milosevic and of NATO—and the almost equally one-eyed view of many outsiders, who think of “the Serbs” simply as the villains of Bosnia and Kosovo. A Serbian truth commission would have a daunting task.

These and many other questions are still open. But already now, two weeks on, we can say a few things with confidence about what has ended, and what has begun.


If the Solidarity revolution in Poland was the beginning of the end of communism, this was the end of the end of communism. It was the last of a twenty-year chain of new-style, Central and East European revolutions, each learning from the previous one but also adding new ingredients and variations. And not just in Europe. There are echoes here of the Philippines or Indonesia. And messages, one hopes, for other countries. In a now globalized politics, we have moved beyond the old 1789 and 1917 models of revolution. If it could happen in Serbia, why not in Burma? Why not in Cuba?

Liberation is a big word, particularly for men and women who were semi-free even under Milosevic, and still have a lot of the old regime on top of them—both structures and individuals in authority. But they are a great deal more free, and getting more so by the day. “We just breath more freely,” one acquaintance told me. Moreover, they can at last plan for the future. One definition of a liberated country is a place that people come back to rather than leave. Serbia will now be such a country.

As the Hungarian revolution of 1956 transformed the image of Hungary in the world, so this Serbian revolution will change that of Serbia. Unlike the Germans in 1945, the Serbs have liberated themselves. If they can go on to address the problem of the past themselves, that reputation will be even better.

This is the end of the Balkan wars. Kostunica cares passionately about the lot of his fellow Serbs in Croatia (the very few that are left there), in Bosnia, in Kosovo (where he wants to see more Serb refugees return), and in Montenegro. But he is a man of peace, and he will pursue Serbian national interests by negotiation. The only people who might possibly want to start a Balkan war now are Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia; if NATO, with its thousands of troops in Kosovo, cannot prevent that, then it might as well turn itself into a cookery club.

This is also the end of Serbian imperial dreams. I talked in Belgrade to the writer Dobrica Cosic, who is credited by many with fueling those dreams in the 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences—although he denies it. Sitting in the headquarters of the Serbian Academy, he told me that the point now was simply to build a modern Serbian nation-state. If even the Montenegrins wanted to go their own way—although, he dustily added, Montenegrinness (Montenegrinity? Montenegritude?) was an invention of Stalinist nationalities policy—so be it. Let them go. The Serbs must get on with building their own state.

If that is what happens—and my own hunch is that it will—then we will be close to the end of an even longer and larger story: the two-centuries-old, delayed, and long-interrupted process of the formation of modern European nation-states out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

That, in turn, poses a great challenge to the West, but above all to Europe—and specifically to the European Union. For after the fall of Milosevic there is no longer any external obstacle to our building a liberal community not just of fifteen but of thirty democratic nation-states. Now we really do have the chance, but also the daunting task, of building that “Europe whole and free” which George Bush, Senior, memorably invoked in the last twilight of the cold war.

Quite a lot to have happened between three and seven o’clock one Thursday afternoon.

—October 19, 2000

  1. *

    *An invaluable guide to the intricacies of those politics in Robert Thomas, Serbia Under Milosevic: Politics in the 1990s (London: Hurst and Co., 1999). Politicians, businessmen, and consultants now rushing to Belgrade should consult Thomas’s index, to learn a little about the past of those they are about to cozy up to.