Serbs must be brave, decide Milosevic’s ulitmate fate

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, September 30, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Dictator’s disease is characterized by a sudden loss of hearing and election day dizziness. The condition has caught up with Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, long after it felled Pinochet, Jaruzelski, Ortega, Marcos and many others.

Surrounded by flunkies fearful of telling him the truth, Milosevic too has lost by an unfixable margin an election he thought he could always doctor.

So far the Serb Communist boss has refused to yield power despite the clear defeat he suffered at the hands of a suddenly united, democratic opposition. The standoff in Belgrade seems unequal: Milosevic retains a monopoly on violence; the opposition can respond only with a call for a general strike and nonviolent demonstrations.

But the history of other recent failed dictatorships suggest that the odds have decisively shifted against Milosevic. His mantle of domestic invincibility has been shredded. He is a Balkan Humpty Dumpty who cannot be put back together again.

Two key institutions, the federal army and the Orthodox Church, have refused to support Milosevic’s fraudulent calls for a runoff. Key aides are reported to be deserting him.

"The rats are leaving the sinking ship," his victorious rival, Vojislav Kostunica, told a diplomat in Belgrade on Wednesday. "The doors to Milosevic’s office now operate in only one direction — outward," said a senior U.S. policymaker with access to intelligence reports.

Milosevic still has levers to pull and tricks to play. He may ride out this particular crisis. But the struggle now under way in the streets of Belgrade is larger than Milosevic’s fate. It has become a conflict between the use of violence to gain and preserve power — Milosevic’s modus vivendi for a decade — and the pursuit of nonviolent resistance as a strategy to disarm a brutal ruler.

In Chile, Poland, Nicaragua, the Philippines and elsewhere over the past two decades people power forced brutes out once it achieved critical mass. The United States, Europe and Russia should see that it prevails in Serbia now as well.

Milosevic’s defeat at the polls helps vindicate the Clinton administration’s Balkans strategy, which has been under attack by the GOP on the presidential campaign trail. How to respond to his continuing defiance of democracy and decency is a tricky policy question that Al Gore and George W. Bush should address in detail at their Oct. 3 debate. Serbia is an immediate laboratory in crisis management for the two candidates.

France, Germany and other European Union countries want to recognize and reinforce Kostunica’s victory in the Sept. 24 vote by lifting economic sanctions now. The White House wants to wait until a democratic government is in place. Logic favors the Clinton position.

Europeans and Americans also must adopt a common position on whether they would accept a deal that allows Milosevic to escape trial in The Hague for war crimes in return for him stepping down now.

The final act in the tragedy of Milosevic’s Serbia appropriately belongs to the Serbs themselves. The opposition’s vows to try the tyrant at home should be given a chance. A cosmetic solution, such as Milosevic going to Beijing for diplomatic asylum, should be vetoed.

But no one should doubt that the NATO bombing campaign during the Kosovo crisis, the continuing presence of U.S. and European troops in Bosnia and Kosovo and international economic isolation helped undermine and fragment Milosevic’s regime.

"The people realize who is responsible for the ordeal of sanctions and isolation over the last 10 years," Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser, told me. "And they realize what has to be done to restore life to a country that is dying."

The hope of ending sanctions gives powerful impetus to the opposition’s challenge. Promises of such relief helped unite the opposition behind Kostunica, an unexciting but honest man who has the credibility to lead a mass protest movement.

"Nonviolent resistance succeeds when pursued as an alternative political strategy, when people understand they are there to disrupt, and to cost — to take from the tyrant the ability to command how they live their lives," says Peter Ackerman, who has written extensively on nonviolence and helped create the recent outstanding PBS documentary film "A Force More Powerful."

Ackerman thinks Serbia is now at the "flex point." That is when the "logistical requirements of staying in power get too complicated" for any ruler and the few rats left on board. Milosevic can choose whether he will sink quickly or slowly — but the Serbs have bravely established that sink he will.

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