Ever since the perfidious assassination of Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic, my fellow fighter in the battle for democratic change, I have pondered what went wrong. What could have been done, what should have been done, to thwart that awful tragedy? The problems facing Serbia cannot be addressed by technical or security measures; instead, they require thorough top-to-bottom changes in our society, especially with regard to one quality crucial to any democracy: stable institutions and rule of law.
For years, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic made all the decisions for the country. No matter what office he held at the time, his word was law. When invited to participate in the Dayton peace talks, Milosevic was the president of Serbia. The idea that a parliament might be necessary to ratify state agreements alarmed no one in Dayton, where the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia was initialed, nor did it bother anyone in Paris, where the Agreement was signed. All too often, the West found it convenient to deal solely with one man, a strongman, while turning a blind eye to the needs of the political opposition and the public at large. Dealing with one man comfortably reduced diplomacy and statecraft to an undemanding routine: the carrot and the stick.
After a long and difficult series of tribulations, The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) was established in the year 2000. It was a somewhat motley coalition of 18 parties embodying diverse political platforms who all shared a single purpose: to end the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. After bearing the burden of international economic sanctions and a 78-day NATO bombing campaign that cost thousands of lives and billions of US dollars in property damage, Milosevic unwisely called for federal, parliamentary, and municipal elections, which the coalition won, even as the battered country teetered on the brink of civil war. But defeating Milosevic, we were soon to discover, was only part of the task, and, in hindsight, it sometimes seemed like the easy part.
After Milosevic accepted first-round defeat and left office, the nation was in chaos. Public institutions were in total disarray. The judiciary was incapacitated and most of the media spineless. The economy, burdened by inflation, was nearly nonexistent, while nearly a million people (in a country of fewer than 10 million) were desperately in need of jobs. Finally, the succession of the republics that composed old Yugoslavia loomed large, an issue clouded by the fact that pre-1991 Yugoslavia was buried in debt. Where and how to begin? Since there were two paths that could be taken, we were faced with a critical decision. The longer path, the legalistic one, called for democratic institutions to precede economic development. The shorter path gave a prompt green light to economic development funded by revenue derived from privatization of state property, plus selected allocation of foreign aid.
Opting for the first path meant creating a strong legislature and an independent judiciary. The executive branch, invariably over-accentuated in authoritarian systems, would be cut down to size. The second path, seemingly shorter, is nearly antithetical to the first. It bolstered the executive in an effort to give it, and its "experts" a freehand in a fledgling economy, cavalierly enacting laws and pronouncing decrees whenever convenient. The second path was, unfortunately, the one taken. With the benefit of hindsight, and having in mind the Djindjic tragedy, as well as the ongoing wretchedness of life for most people in Serbia, I believe the second path not only wrong, but potentially disastrous. While loudly proclaiming "reform," we chose the wrong path and are now lost in the woods. Problems, as I mentioned, were and are enormous. In addition to a burdensome political, economic and social legacy, Serbia had to work out its union with Montenegro. In Kosovo, Serbia's troubled southern province and NATO protectorate, the return of some 230,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians is still an unsettled issue. …