The Last Revolution

Vojislav Kostunica
Vojislav Kostunica; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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