Analysis: Yugoslavia and the West

Jonathan Eyal

Friday, 22 September, 2000

Yugoslavia's elections will not only decide the country's fate for the years to come; they will also deliver a verdict on the effectiveness of Western policies in the Balkans.
The overwhelming majority of the international community hopes that Slobodan Milosevic, the country's perennial leader, will be defeated in these elections.
But foreign governments privately acknowledge that, almost regardless of the electoral outcome, the dilemmas facing Western policies throughout the region are only likely to increase.
The West has invested a great deal in trying to achieve through the ballot box what Nato's bombing campaign failed to accomplish last year: the removal of Mr Milosevic, now widely regarded as the source of most Balkan troubles.
The US alone allocated more than $10m to this effort in 1999; this has jumped to $25m this year and will rise again to more than $40m in 2001. The European Union has spent an equal amount in similar activities.

Milosevic's power
Most of the money has gone to equipping opposition movements inside Yugoslavia with the necessary resources to fight the electoral campaign. Behind the scenes, Western governments have been instrumental in trying to forge unity between otherwise disparate and fractious opposition movements.
Theoretically, the exercise has succeeded. For the first time since he rose to power, Mr Milosevic is facing a serious opponent in his bid to retain the presidency of Yugoslavia. But the reality is much less encouraging.
Mr Milosevic's regime was never a simple dictatorship. Although his party controls the army, security services and the media, the Yugoslav leader frequently alternates between jailing or intimidating his potential opponents and co-opting them into government.
The aim, however, is always the same - to ensure that the opposition remains divided, providing the trappings of a supposed Yugoslav democracy, with none of the substance.
After more than a decade of such games the country simply does not have many potential leaders who are both of a sufficient stature and moral authority to take over from Mr Milosevic. But Western efforts to remove him from power suffered from additional handicaps.

Hatred of West
First, they are of a fairly recent pedigree: for many years the same Western governments which now wish to see the Yugoslav leader disappear treated him as a "pillar of Balkan stability".
Furthermore, the Kosovo war last year made Western governments hugely unpopular in the country. Nato may argue that it was fighting Mr Milosevic rather than his people, but most ordinary Yugoslavs who experienced the air raids refuse to accept this semantic distinction.
The surest way to be discredited in Yugoslavia is to appear to be a friend of the West; the more Western governments supported opposition movements, the more they made them unelectable.
And, finally, the carrots which the West is prepared to offer are not particularly enticing either. Most Yugoslavs simply do not believe that, even if all the economic sanctions against their country are lifted, their lives will immediately improve.
And the country's citizens also instinctively know that Nato is unlikely to return Kosovo to Yugoslavia's control, or allow for the return of Serb refugees evicted from Croatia or Bosnia during the last 10 years of warfare.

Controlling the count
Mr Milosevic is a master at playing on these sentiments. But it is important to notice than even Vojislav Kostunica, his leading opponent, is a Serb nationalist who has distanced himself from any direct contacts with Nato.
Mr Kostunica may do well in the ballot, but the bet must remain that Mr Milosevic will never accept an electoral defeat. Having presided over 10 years of warfare and massive murders, indicted as a war criminal and regarded as a pariah, he knows he cannot retire to a villa in the countryside to write his memoirs.
In Yugoslavia it does not matter how people vote; it matters who counts the votes. Mr Milosevic will steal enough votes to reassure his re-election, perhaps with a smaller majority in order to retain the semblance of a free ballot.
The key obstacle for Mr Milosevic is, therefore, not the ballot itself, but the reaction of the population immediately thereafter. The opposition is bound to regard the elections as a fraud, and will try to mount huge demonstration against the regime.
Mr Milosevic has faced down similar challenges in the past. Yet his options are now more limited, partly because his economy is in a worse condition and partly because his opponents, cheated and defeated for the fourth time in a decade, are growing more desperate.

Coup risk
There is also the complicating factor of Montenegro, a component but increasingly rebellious part of Yugoslavia, and a republic which may well be tempted to move towards full independence once it is faced with another four years of a Milosevic regime.
The Yugoslav leader's tactic will be to gain time, by offering his opponents a place in the government while dispersing any street demonstrations with force. If he survives the immediate wave of indignation that is sure to follow the elections, he can remain in power for the foreseeable future. But one wrong move could result in a violent uprising, as well as bloodshed in Montenegro.
And the West, as so frequent in the past, will remain an outside spectator.
Western governments may refuse to recognise the election results, but as long as Mr Milosevic remains in control, this is unlikely to matter much.
The West may also choose to encourage Montenegro's independence. But this is a risky proposition almost certainly requiring another war, a complication which the United States may not welcome during its own presidential electoral campaign.
One way or another, however, the Western policy of encouraging a peaceful, democratic reform inside Yugoslavia has failed. The only change inside that country will come violently.
And it will probably resemble the events in neighbouring Romania in December 1989, by being a mixture of a popular uprising and a military coup wrapped into one.
Once this happens the West is likely to be surprised. And none of the people who will succeed Mr Milosevic are likely to be among those whom Western governments so carefully nurtured and financed in the run-up to the current elections.

Dr Jonathan Eyal is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Original article