Diana Johnstone analysis of coup

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Oct 13 16:20:56 MDT 2000

WWW.ZMAG.ORG, 11 October 2000


by Diana Johnstone

The "October surprise" that brought a change of power in Belgrade was
actually two events, one superimposed on the other. One was a democratic
election, made in Serbia. The other was a totally undemocratic putsch, made
in the "international community", otherwise known as NATOland.

The democratic election would have been sufficient to oblige Slobodan
Milosevic to retire as Yugoslav President. The majority of Yugoslav voters
had long wished a change in leadership, and Vojislav Kostunica emerged as
an acceptable alternative.

But the NATO-backed putschists wanted more. They wanted two things that the
legal elections could not provide: a dramatic media spectacle that would
fit the Western "spin", and a seizure of power beyond the limited powers of
the Yugoslav presidency.


The Yugoslav elections were called by Milosevic himself. Having been
elected President of Serbia in the country's first multi- party elections
in 1990, the "dictator" had followed the constitutional rules and left the
Serbian presidency at the end of his second term, whereupon he was elected
by the Yugoslav parliament to the mainly symbolic office of Yugoslav
president. Having sponsored a constitutional change which would allow him
to be re-elected, but by universal suffrage, he went on to call early
elections, months before his term was to run out in mid-2001.

Milosevic was lured into this move by advisors pointing to deceptive public
opinion polls indicating that he could win by a margin of 150,000 votes in
the autumn, before winter hardships turned voters against him. This is
similar to the "joke" played on French president Jacques Chirac, who called
the early elections that brought his left opposition headed by Lionel
Jospin into office. In Paris, it is even rumored that it was a French
advisor who urged Milosevic to make this fatal error.

In short, Milosevic was not a "dictator" but a calculating politician
trying to stay in office in a multi-party electoral system he had largely
introduced. Aware that his popularity ratings had long been in decline, he
counted on several factors to help him get the necessary 50% of the vote to
be re-elected President of Yugoslavia. These were the chronic squabbling of
the so-called "democratic" (meaning bourgeois, as the Swedes call the
center right) opposition and the public rejection of its main leaders
(especially Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic);  the fact that
Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic was sure to call for a boycott of the
elections as part of his secession strategy, which would leave only
pro-Milosevic voters willing to go to improvised polling stations;  the
prospect of a couple of hundred thousand solid votes from Kosovo
constituencies (where ethnic Albanians would, as usual, boycott the
election) and from the armed forces.

Aware of its weakness, the opposition which had first loudly demanded early
elections then threatened to boycott them, claiming that they would be
rigged by Milosevic. The NATOland chorus joined in, proclaiming that
Yugoslav elections would not be "fair and free" and that Milosevic was
certain to cheat.

In fact, thanks to a normal democratic system of multi-party supervisors at
polling stations, cheating in Yugoslav elections was nearly impossible in
Serbia proper, except perhaps for the hundred thousand or so soldiers who
vote in barracks. Kosovo and Montenegro offered limited opportunities for
cheating only because of the obstructionism of the separatists. In the end,
Milosevic was a whopping 700,000 votes short. Official results gave
Kostunica over 48% of the vote in a five-man race. This fell slightly short
of the 50% required to win, but indicated an almost certain landslide in
the runoff against Milosevic, who trailed by some ten percentage points.
(Yugoslav electoral law calls for a second round if no candidate wins an
absolute majority in the first round.)

Here is where both sides contributed to a confusion that gave an
opportunity to the putschists to move to steal the election. Apparently in
a state of shock, the government announced the results slowly and without
complete details. The "Democratic Opposition in Serbia" (DOS) backing
Kostunica demanded recognition of a claimed first round victory and
announced it would boycott the second round. This raised the danger of a
second round that Milosevic could win by default. The prospect of two
winners -- one in the first round, the other in the second -- would have
created a dangerous civil war situation, favorable to NATO intervention.
Kostunica's backers argued that since Milosevic had cheated in the first
round, he would cheat even more in the second -- this was not plausible,
but widely believed anyway, as the demonization of the former leader and
future scapegoat picked up momentum.

The DOS thereby moved the contest from the ballot box into the streets,
where "the people" would demand recognition of Kostunica's election. This
prepared the way for power -- and property -- to change hands amid
confusion and violence.

Neither the police nor the Army was willing to support Milosevic against a
patriotic Serb like Kostunica who had won popular support in a legal
election. Their neutrality seems to have been ensured by the influence of
two key figures dismissed by Milosevic two years ago, former security chief
Jovica Stanisic and former army chief of staff Momcilo Perisic, who
retained friends and influence in the police and the armed forces
respectively. The rallying of other figures who had been part of the
Milosevic power structure was hastened by Kostunica's reiterated assurances
that there would be no vengeance. Former Milosevic followers began flocking
to the side of Kostunica seeking protection from his short- run supporter
and long-term rival, Zoran Djindjic, well known as Germany's man in Serbia.
Thus Kostunica gained the Yugoslav presidency both because he was _not_
Milosevic and because he was _not_ Djindjic. But Djindjic has been
strikingly active in grabbing the substance of victory away from the
successful DOS candidate.


It is arguable that Kostunica -- considered the most honest of political
leaders -- could have won the presidential election just as easily (more
easily, some supporters claim) if the United States and its NATO allies had
refrained from pumping millions of dollars and deutschmarks into the
country to support what they called "the democratic opposition". But it is
far less likely that without all that excess cash, we would have been
treated to the spectacle of the October 5th "democratic revolution", when a
large crowd stormed the venerable Skupstina, the parliament building in the
center of Belgrade. That event, presented to the world public as the most
spontaneous act of self-liberation, was probably the single most planned
act of all. It was staged for the TV cameras which filmed and relayed the
same scenes over and over again: youths breaking through windows, flags
waving, flames rising, smoke enveloping what some newspapers described as
"the symbol of the Milosevic regime".

This was utter nonsense. It was like calling Big Ben the "symbol of the
Blair regime" or the Capitol the "symbol of the Clinton regime". But the
Western spinners needed symbols and drama for the latest episode in the hit
TV fiction series of the 1990s starring the "genocidal dictator", Slobodan
Milosevic. It wouldn't do for "Europe's last communist dictator" simply to
lose a democratic election. Something more exalted was needed. So there was
an attempt to revive a hit drama of a decade earlier, the "fall of
Ceaucescu", which was also contrived and staged. If Milosevic and his wife
met the same bloody fate as the Rumanian ruling couple, that would be
"proof" enough for the media that they were equivalent to the dictator
couple of Bucharest.

But they weren't and fortunately it didn't happen quite like that. In
Belgrade there was no equivalent of the Securitate (Rumanian secret police)
to stage the drama. There was only a gang of toughs bussed in from Cacak,
as the town's mayor later boasted to Western media, who led the mob up the
Skupstina steps and easily broke into the scarcely guarded building, which
was systematically vandalized and set on fire, causing considerable damage
to public property. The liberators then went on to smash shop windows and
steal property in nearby shopping streets. This failed to provoke the
bloodshed that would have improved the TV show, but the vandals did their

The fiercely anti-communist mayor of Cacak, Velimir Ilic, told the French
news agency AFP that his armed "commando" of 2,000 men had set out quite
deliberately on October 5 to "take control of the key institutions of the
regime, including the parliament and the television".

"Our action had been prepared in advance. Among my men were ex-parachute
troops, former army and police officers as well as men who had fought in
special forces," he told AFP. "A number of us wore bullet-proof vests and
carried weapons", he added proudly. Ilic said contact was maintained
throughout the action with high police and Interior Ministry officials, but
that president-elect Kostunica was unaware of what was going on. "We were
afraid he'd be opposed", said Ilic. And indeed, when he got word of what
was going on, Kostunica by all accounts prevented the commandos from
hunting down Milosevic and giving their spectacle a bloody finale.

Some of these former "special forces" commandos included veterans of the
civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia. The peak of irony lies in the fact that
such paramilitaries, primarily responsible for giving the Serbian people
the (unjustified) reputation of "ethnic cleansers" and war criminals, were
instantly promoted by Western media into heroes of an inspiring "democratic
revolution". But there is a consistency about it: the same tiny group of
men are able to perform for world media as an exaggerated caricature of
"the Serbs", first as villains, later as heroes.

The ordinary citizens of Belgrade deplored the violence of October 5th, as
they had deplored the violence of the civil wars. And the large crowds who
gathered in Belgrade squares to support their candidate, Kostunica, were
blissfully unaware of how they were being used as extras in an
international TV production.


The law-abiding citizens of Belgrade were also unaware of how the euphoria
in the streets would provide cover for an ongoing campaign of violence and
intimidation aimed at changing the whole power structure in Serbia, outside
of any democratic or legal process. The Skupstina that was targeted for
vandalism was not "the symbol of Milosevic's regime" but a parliament where
the Socialist Party and its allies still had a duly elected majority. The
"democratic revolution" in the streets did not attack a Bastille prison to
liberate dissenters, but the seat of the democratically elected
representatives of the people. The mob ransacked and set fire to the
federal Electoral Commission offices inside the Skupstina, reportedly
setting fire to ballots collected there, making it highly unlikely that the
disputed first round score will ever be satisfactorily clarified.

The spectacle enabled the managers of street violence to claim the
"democratic revolution" as their own, openly attempting to relegate
Kostunica to a figurehead role.

Since then, throughout the country, Socialist Party headquarters have been
assaulted and demolished, officials have been beaten and expelled from
their functions by gangs of "democrats". The most lucrative enterprises
have been seized. Strange parallel governments called "crisis headquarters"
have been set up without any democratic mandate to redistribute property
and offices. The "revolutionaries" can be sure the NATO benefactors of
Serbian democracy will not ask for their money back so long as they target
the left, which is identified only as "the Milosevic regime". The clear
lesson: "democracy" is not defined by elections, but by NATO approval.
Methods don't matter. The end justifies the means.


All through the Yugoslav drama of the past decade, not to mention for well
over a century, internal conflicts have reflected external great power
rivalries. This is still going on.

Among these rival powers, Russia scarcely counts any more. The Russians
have more to lose from the Western absorption of Serbia than the Serbs have
to gain from the Russians, who have been too weak to do anything to stop
the steady erosion of their influence in the Balkans. As one observer put
it, "the Serbs have the impression that the Russians only want to share
their poverty, while the Serbs would rather share American wealth".

The rival powers are now all Western. A few years ago, Paris tried to
support Vuk Draskovic against both Milosevic on the one hand and the German
party (represented by Djindjic) on the other, but Draskovic proved too
unreliable. Today, the implicit rivalry is between Kostunica, supported by
France, and Djindjic, supported by Germany.

This division is a matter of political principle as well as personality,
and relates to conflicting French and German views of the future of Europe.
Kostunica, as is constantly repeated is a "nationalist" or, we could say, a
patriot, who wants to preserve his nation-state, by giving it a new, modern
democratic constitution. As a scholar of American federalism, he would base
a political order for the future Yugoslavia on the American 18th century

For Djindjic, this is old-fashioned nonsense, good only for a transitional
moment toward the dissolution of all the Balkan nations into a modern
European Union where politics will take a backseat to business. Djindjic,
who studied Germany, believes in "civil society" where the private sphere
outweighs the _res publica_, and public political life is reduced to
imagery. Business versus politics could sum up the conflict between these two.

Kostunica plans to stay in office for only a year, just the time to
complete his constitutional reform. Thereupon Djindjic, who could never
have won this election, openly hopes to take over.


For many years, the alternate currency in Serbia has been the Deutschmark,
traded on every street corner by men murmuring "_devize, devize_". During
the weeks leading up to the fall of Milosevic, so many D-marks have flooded
into the country that the precious currency recently lost half its value.
Everyone believes that most of this money flows in through Djindjic. It
seems to have been spent less on the election (Yugoslav election campaigns
are not the expensive affairs run in the United States) than on preparing
aspects of "the putsch" that followed: the forceful takeover of media by
"independent" (i.e., NATO-approved) journalists, of key businesses and
official positions which has been going on since the October 5 arson of the

The European Union has moved quickly to lift some economic sanctions
against Serbia and Madeleine Albright has also proclaimed the need to give
the Serbian people "some dividends out of democracy" and to help President
Kostunica. "We want to support him, we want to get assistance to him. I've
been talking to our European partners. We will be lifting certain economic
sanctions to make sure that the people can recover and the Danube is
cleared," she declared.

Here the key word is "Danube". NATO bombing destroyed Serb bridges and
blocked the Danube to European shipping, much of it German. The priority
for Germany is to reopen the Danube, and it is for this purpose that
important funds will be provided. To be precise, funds will be _lent_:

Western generosity will take its usual form of the "debt trap", and
Yugoslav public services will have to be cut back for years to come in
order to repay the Western powers for rebuilding the transportation
structure they themselves destroyed. The reconstructed transportation
structure will be used to ship other people's commercial goods through the
country to other people's markets. The "democratic dividend" will mainly
benefit German business.

But for the moment, the Serbian voters do not want to worry about that.
They have been bombed, isolated, sanctioned, banned from traveling to other
countries, reduced to poverty and treated as pariahs. Their main "crime"
was to have wanted to preserve multiethnic Yugoslavia and to have been
reluctant to give up all the benefits of self-management socialism in favor
of the "shock treatment" impoverishing people in Russia and neighboring
Bulgaria. Since Yugoslavia was not part of the Soviet bloc, its people were
slow to realize that the defeat of the Soviet bloc meant that they too had
to bow to the dictates of the West. Now they can dream of being "normal"
Europeans again. For a relatively small minority, the dream of prosperity
will no doubt come true. For others, there will be some unpleasant
surprises. But that doesn't matter now. People have had enough of not being
paid their wages more than a couple of months out of the year, of having to
heat only one room, of shortages and travel bans. Young people, especially,
want to live like other Europeans of their generation

"People in Serbia are not looking for the truth", observed Serbian writer
Milan Ratkovic, who lives in Paris. "They are looking for comforting lies."
>From being portrayed as monsters, the Serbs are suddenly being celebrated
by Western media as heroes. They can turn on Western TV and see heroic
images of themselves. "Look," says Ratkovic, "we held out longer than
anybody else in Eastern Europe. Against us, the West had to use all its
weapons and all its tricks." Sometimes the only way to solve a problem is
to change problems.

Louis Proyect
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