Slobo's Endgame: An Electoral Backlash Has Milosevic Reeling, but the Old Survivor Isn't Likely to Go Quietly. Why the Strongman Is on the Ropes

Newsweek, October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Slobo's Endgame: An Electoral Backlash Has Milosevic Reeling, but the Old Survivor Isn't Likely to Go Quietly. Why the Strongman Is on the Ropes


Throughout the night, Vojislav Kostunica stayed in his tiny office, often secluded from his advisers, lost in silent contemplation. Just outside his door, a handful of trusted aides milled about Democratic Party of Serbia headquarters, anxiously monitoring state-run television and taking phone calls from fieldworkers at polling stations across the country. The first results came in from Serb enclaves in Kosovo, and, predictably, showed overwhelming support for Slobodan Milosevic. But by midnight the mood was changing. Returns trickled in from Belgrade, Nis and other cities, and the news was electrifying: in almost every corner of Yugoslavia, Kostunica was trouncing Milosevic. Soon the headquarters filled with euphoric supporters, and someone brought in a chocolate cake. At 4 on Monday morning, with darkness just lifting over the shabby streets of the Serb capital, the emotionally drained candidate stepped into the salon and greeted the press. "This is a great victory for Serbia, Yugoslavia and our people," Kostunica declared. "This is the dawn of our freedom."

As Serbs flocked to the polls in record numbers last week, the entire nation seemed to be awakening from a collective hypnosis. After 13 years in power, four wars and the reduction of Serbia to an impoverished pariah state, Milosevic went down to his first-ever electoral defeat. He was undone by a self-effacing democrat barely known to the outside world a month ago, a moderate nationalist whose reputation for incorruptibility and opposition to NATO during the Kosovo war had made him popular with all sectors of Serb society. Kostunica won 51 percent of the vote against 36 percent for Milosevic, according to opposition monitors. The astonishing result punctured Milosevic's aura of invincibility. The Milosevic regime was "broken in a fundamental way," said a senior U.S. official. "This is a mammoth thing. This is like the wall falling." But Milosevic is a ruthless survivor, and as the week wore on, it became clear that predictions of his demise were premature.

The Serb leader's first gambit came swiftly. On Tuesday night the government-controlled Federal Election Commission rejected Kostunica's claim of outright victory. Milosevic loyalists who dominate the commission appeared to have rigged the outcome. They arbitrarily assigned opposition votes to Milosevic. Declaring that Kostunica got 48 percent of the vote and Milosevic 38 percent, the commission scheduled a runoff between the two for Oct. 8. Opposition leaders labeled the count a fraud and called for nationwide protests. But they quickly lost momentum, dithering over plans for a general strike, and seemed divided over calls to boycott a runoff. Their hesitation gave Milosevic time to consolidate his ranks. Milosevic, said his biographer Slavoljub Djukic, is "at his best when he starts to believe that he's at his weakest."

Still, the mood on the streets remained optimistic. On Wednesday night 200,000 people jammed Belgrade's Republic Square, singing "Save Serbia, Slobodan, and kill yourself!" Rallies spread through Nis, Novi Sad and other towns--the most widespread protests against Milosevic ever. "We'll stay out here until we die of old age if necessary," said university professor Zoran Milutinovic. Milosevic loyalists were dispirited. "I don't care anymore that [his] defeat would cost me my job," one senior government official said in hushed tones outside his Belgrade office. "The opposition is strong and they will win, so I just pray that this struggle for power does not turn violent."

Milosevic was largely out of view. Secluded in a cozy Belgrade villa with his wife, the hard-line communist Mirjana Markovic, the cagey survivor was said to be calculating his next moves. Milosevic knows the stakes are high: out of power, he could easily be killed by victims of his misrule or turned over to The Hague to face trial as an indicted war criminal.

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