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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.

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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.

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    *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.

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