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Goodbye to Yugoslavia?

At a party in the magnificent French embassy in Belgrade to mark the restoration of diplomatic relations, I spoke to a university lecturer on politics. “I say Kosovo,” he told me, “and my students say get rid of it. I say Montenegro and they say if they want to go, they can go. I say, when will it end?” Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs correspondent of The New York Times, was right when he wrote that young Serbs prefer McDonald’s to death in Kosovo. In fact, Serbs are slowly coming to understand that a return to full control of Kosovo, or in fact, almost any relationship with its Albanians at all, is akin to believing either that Israel will take back full control of the West Bank or that Israelis and Palestinians will arrive at an agreement and live happily ever after in a confederation.


Although Milosevic fell from power on October 5, the Serbian opposition had to wait until December 23 to finish the job. This was because the September elections were for the Yugoslav parliament and presidency, while the December elections were for the Serbian parliament and government. The eighteen-party coalition opposing Milosevic’s party on December 23 gained 176 of 250 seats, thereby assuring that the opposition leader, Zoran Djindjic, would be prime minister. Power will accrue to him now, because the Serbian government is, constitutionally speaking, where the real power lies. The Yugoslav authorities led by Kostunica will deal mainly with foreign affairs and foreign economic relations. Kostunica’s influence will owe little to his powers under the constitution, which are limited, and a lot to the fact that he has a popularity rating of 91 percent. The shrewd and suave Mr. Djindjic is only the eleventh most popular man in the country. To his friends and colleagues Djindjic says, “It is not my job to be popular.”

Last summer I went to a wedding in Belgrade. The gypsy band that played in Emir Kusturica’s wonderful Serbian film Underground, an allegory about the breakup of Yugoslavia, was blasting away and the bride and groom were dancing on the table. Everyone else was dancing, dripping with sweat in the summer heat, except for Djindjic, who swayed stiffly back and forth rather like a wobbling plank. One of his former colleagues told me, “He likes to be in control.” Now he will be.

The forty-eight-year-old Djindjic was the éminence grise of the Serbian revolution. He used his contacts in the security services and the military to persuade their leaders not to back Milosevic any longer. If he had not done so then, many of the men who will now be ministers in his cabinet might have been jailed or killed. His friends say he is an arch-pragmatist. His enemies call him an amoral political opportunist. No one doubts that he is ferociously intelligent and a brilliant organizer.

Djindjic was born in Bosnia. His father was a Yugoslav army officer. His first major clash with authority came when, as a high school student in Belgrade, he organized a petition against Tito, protesting the change in the law that made him president for life. In the early 1970s he was associated with Yugoslavia’s New Left philosophers who wrote for the journal Praxis and, until they were banned, held an annual summer school on the beautiful Croatian island of Korcula. In 1974 he worked with students from Croatia and Slovenia to set up a non-Communist student organization, a move for which he was given a one-year suspended sentence for attempting to destroy the constitutional order. After graduating from Belgrade University he left for Germany where he studied for a Ph.D. in philosophy under Jürgen Habermas. He stayed in Germany for most of the 1980s and, in addition to holding jobs in various universities, he also went into the textile business.

In 1989, after he returned to Yugoslavia, Djindjic became a founding member of the Democratic Party, which he now leads. During the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo he opposed Milosevic while simultaneously taking hawkish positions on the Serbian national question, arguing that Serbs had a right to live in one state. Was he acting out of political expediency or deeply held belief? No one knows. Some say that he is a man without emotions, or, if he has them, he keeps them entirely to himself. But he can seem to act impulsively. When Karadzic fell out with Milosevic, Djindjic rushed to give Karadzic his support, publicly roasting an ox with him.

Kostunica advocates moving softly, very softly, in purging Milosevic and his chief followers. Djindjic favors radical action. He wants Milosevic arrested and put on trial; now that he is about to be in charge we can expect, sooner or later, that Milosevic will be. But don’t expect Milosevic to be arrested for war crimes or turned over to the Hague tribunal anytime soon, whatever the US or anyone else demands. The Serbian press is recalling that Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion. The case against Milosevic could begin in the same way. As for war crimes, the pragmatic Djindjic suggests that eventually there could be some form of Hague-sponsored trial, but held in Serbia, not in The Hague. In fact Djindjic is looking for a way to deal with war criminals that will satisfy foreigners, and more particularly the ones that give aid to Serbia, but will protect him from the charge of being a NATO mercenary. If Milosevic, Mladic, and a few others mysteriously escape to Belarus or Cuba, don’t be overimpressed by the ensuing protests from Djindjic and Co.

While what to do with war criminals is a headache for the new authorities, ordinary Serbs are more concerned with the need for jobs and money. Djindjic has gathered a highly qualified team of economists around him and, in the end, the success or failure of the Serbian revolution will largely depend on them. But those who know Djindjic caution that much will also depend on his keeping his own love of money under control. Djindjic and his team will also have to keep under control their urge to hit back hard at the Albanian guerrillas from Kosovo now infiltrating Serbia. So far they have been restrained, but any rash action could cost the new authorities the European and US support they are now getting. The issue of Kosovo itself is simply being put aside, at least for now. When officials of the new Serbia say that they believe that the current international protectorate should continue for the next few years, what they are really saying is: We have no idea how to deal with Kosovo, so you foreigners (Americans, British, French, etc.) can take on the problem for the moment, and pay for it too.

Besides, when it comes to Kosovo, all eyes are now on Montenegro. Western diplomats and Kofi Annan would like to solve the Kosovo problem by creating a confederation of the three regions. But what do they mean? A confederation of three independent states, or three parts of one state? The Kosovo Albanians would violently resist being incorporated into a single state. With imagination, and some muscular diplomacy, a confederation of independent states might be worked out. Some time this year Kosovo’s Albanians will vote for a parliament, but as yet no one knows what its powers will be. Within the next six months, Montenegrins will probably vote in a referendum on independence. If they secede, no one believes that Kosovo can form a confederation with Serbia alone.


In the room in Podgorica where the thirty-eight-year-old President Milo Djukanovic of Montenegro receives his guests is a portrait of King Nikola, the last king of an independ-ent Montenegro, which was forced to unite with Yugoslavia in 1918. When that happened, Montenegrins fought a brief but bitter civil war between those who favored the union and those who didn’t. Montenegrins are divided again, brother from brother, right down the middle. The difference between 1918 and four months ago, before Milosevic fell, is that now, whatever happens, no one is expecting a war.

President Djukanovic says he hopes that the referendum on independence will take place in the spring. After that, he told me, “I see Montenegro with renewed statehood and internationally recognized.” Whatever happens, the name Yugoslavia will probably no longer be used. Kostunica says it is an anachronism and Djukanovic wants Yugoslavia, such as it is, to come to an end. He says it is dead already since his republic now uses the German mark (while Serbia still has the Yugoslav dinar), controls its own borders, and conducts its own foreign and trade policy. This leaves, he says, only the “much compromised” Yugoslav army in the hands of the federal authorities along with, as he remarks dismissively, “air traffic control.” In these circumstances, he says, independence would be only a recognition of reality.

Still, Montenegrins are different from most other former Yugoslavs since many, perhaps most, of them feel close to Serbs while many Serbs trace their origins back to Montenegro. So Djukanovic is offering Serbia a deal. “The first element,” he says, “is independence and an international legal personality for both Serbia and Montenegro; and the second element is our proposal for a union of two independent, internationally recognized states.” He says he would like the union to provide for a common market, a common currency, and cooperation in the fields of defense and foreign policy.

Back in Belgrade, Djindjic has said that he believes it would be better to negotiate terms for a new federal relationship, one that would exclude international recognition for the two separate republics. But Djukanovic retorts: “Unlike Mr. Djindjic I don’t think a solution within Yugoslavia is possible.”

Indeed, it is clear that Djukanovic, who gave sanctuary to Djindjic and other Serbian opposition leaders during some difficult times over the past few years, is irritated by their attitude toward Montenegro now that they are in power in Belgrade. “Why,” he asks, “are they against the establishment of Serbia as a separate state? Does this have to do with Serbian paternalism toward Montenegro, Serbian policy over the centuries…with vestiges of Serbia’s centuries-old imperialism, and their need to treat Montenegro as younger brother whom they have a natural right to control?”

Another basic fact here is that Ser-bia has a population of eight million and Montenegro a population of only 650,000. Aleksa Djilas, the Serbian historian and commentator, says this imbalance means that trying to sort out any new relationship is akin to trying to successfully fuse together Texas and Rhode Island while at the same time giving both equal political importance. It is quite possible that Serbia’s politicians will simply tell Montenegro to find its own way in the world, rather than be bound by some form of union which many Serbs already suspect is a Montenegrin ruse for having the benefits of independence while getting Serbia to subsidize the irritating expenses, including security and diplomacy, that come with it.

Over the last few years Western leaders were happy to support Montenegro as a center of opposition to Milosevic. Now there is a distinct chill in the air as various Western envoys fly to Podgorica to try to persuade Djukanovic not to press for eventual international recognition. The French and Italians for their part have been taking a much harder line against Montenegrin independence than the British. The Italians are fed up with all sorts of smuggling—mainly cigarettes and illegal immigrants—that comes their way from Montenegro and they suspect the criminals have protectors in high places. The French concern is different. As a French official put it to me: “In part, what is happening in Montenegro is our fault. We backed these guys in order to needle Milosevic and now they have had a taste of power. Once you are living as a virtually independent country it’s hard to go back to anything else.” For the French, yet more fragmentation in the Balkans would weaken France’s vision of a strong Europe; and a fragmented Europe, in their view, would help the US to maintain its political dominance.

The second problem is that Montenegrin independence would put an end to the Western fantasy of squaring the Yugoslav circle by packing Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo together in some form of confederation. This argument, says Djukanovic, “is not fair and not rational.” Because there is “an absolute absence of vision in the international community for solving the Kosovo problem, Montenegro is being asked to give up its plans to be an independent state.”

The latest polls show that a tiny majority of Montenegrins are in favor of complete independence, but Srdjan Darmanovic, one of the republic’s leading political analysts, believes that this will rise to some 60 percent by the time of the referendum. In the meantime it is possible that new elections will have to be called before the referendum on independence takes place, since one minor party in the governing coalition has walked out. In fact, if independence is supported by less than 60 percent of voters, Montenegro could be storing up problems for the future. Some 20 percent of the Montenegrin population are either ethnic Albanians or Muslim Slavs, almost all of whom are in favor of independence. But for the sake of stability, independence, should it come, should be seen to have been delivered by a majority of Orthodox Montenegrins.

Djukanovic is keen to soothe international fears about Montenegrin independence. It will, he says, be a necessary precondition for a new era in which the different regions of the old Yugoslavia will come to be integrated in a different way: not by re-creating the old country but by economic and cultural cooperation, and by joint security arrangements. The overall aim, he says, is to make “this region a meaningful part of Europe.” I thought at the time that this was just a politician’s empty talk, but a few days later I noticed a news item reporting that a new basketball league was being formed. Its teams are to come from Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia. It is to be called the Adriatic League. It used to have another name, of course—the Yugoslav League.

—January 11, 2001

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