Milo­se­vic al­lies in power with new look, 15 years on


When ju­bi­lant crowds stormed Bel­grade’s par­lia­ment 15 years ago and ousted Ser­bian strong­man Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic, few could have imag­ined that his al­lies would be in power to­day — and firmly back­ing Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion.

Mon­day marks the an­niver­sary of the over­throw of the late pres­i­dent, whose 13-year iron rule stoked bru­tal eth­nic con­flict and mass mur­der in the for­mer Yu­goslavia, re­sult­ing in in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion and the crip­pling of the Ser­bian econ­omy.

Af­ter Milo­se­vic re­fused to ad­mit de­feat in a Septem­ber 2000 elec­tion, Serbs took to the streets for two weeks, cul­mi­nat­ing on Oct. 5, 2000, when hun­dreds of thou­sands stormed the state media build­ing and the fed­eral par­lia­ment. The largely non­vi­o­lent upris­ing forced Milo­se­vic to re­sign a day later.

“It felt in­cred­i­ble, be­cause be­fore that day we thought David can beat Go­liath only in leg­end — or ‘Lord Of The Rings,’” said Srdja Popovic, a leader of the Ot­por (Re­sis­tance) move­ment that gal­va­nized the upris­ing. “I felt so proud of mil­lions of my fel­low cit­i­zens ready to risk their lives.”

De­spite the ela­tion of many over Milo­se­vic’s down­fall, a decade-anda-half later Ser­bia is run by a clutch of his for­mer ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist side­kicks — but in the to­tally dif­fer­ent guise of pro-Euro­pean re­formists.

Prime Min­is­ter Alek­san­dar Vu­cic, elected last year, served as in­for­ma­tion min­is­ter un­der Milo­se­vic, and has a murky past of fiery far-right speeches dur­ing the 1990s drive for a Greater Ser­bia “cleansed” of Croats and Mus­lims.

Vu­cic’s pre­de­ces­sor and now deputy premier Ivica Dacic was Milo­se­vic’s spokesman, known as “Lit­tle Sloba,” while cur­rent Pres­i­dent Tomis­lav Nikolic is another for­mer ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist who was a min­is­ter while NATO bombs fell on Bel­grade dur­ing the war with Kosovo.

“I re­ally didn’t ex­pect them to still be in pol­i­tics,” said 35-year-old Alek­san­dra, an un­em­ployed Bel­grader hav­ing lunch in the au­tumn sun in Pionirski Park, op­po­site the par­lia­ment where she took part in the his­toric protests. “I feel some dis­ap­point­ment,” she added.

A Dif­fer­ent Path

The upris­ing was or­ches­trated by the Demo­cratic Op­po­si­tion of Ser­bia, a coali­tion of 19 par­ties against Milo­se­vic, but it strug­gled to ful­fil high hopes in a deeply trou­bled coun­try.

A blow to re­form was the as­sas­si­na­tion in 2003 of Zo­ran Djind­jic — then prime min­is­ter and a lead­ing light of the post-Milo­se­vic era.

Milo­se­vic him­self died in 2006 at The Hague, where he was on trial for war crimes. Although his dark shadow may seem to loom large over the cur­rent crop of lead­ers, they had to take a very dif­fer­ent path to get elected.

While Ser­bia is not yet an EU mem­ber, ne­go­ti­a­tions on its ac­ces­sion were opened in Jan­uary 2014, and are widely sup­ported.

Vu­cic has ex­pressed re­morse for his past ac­tions and is keen to be seen as a pro-Western re­former. A land­mark deal reached with Kosovo and the treat­ment of mi­grants pass­ing through Ser­bia un­der his watch have won plau­dits. “I think that na­tion­al­ism as the pre­dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy of the ‘dark nineties’ has been swept out,” said Popovic.

He said the three over­all aims of the move­ment at the time were win­ning free­dom, “stop­ping wars, and be­ing good neigh­bors,” and be­com­ing a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Union. “It seems that those three groups of ideas have be­come not only main­stream, but that they even­tu­ally won.”

‘Creep­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism’

While Vu­cic and his col­leagues have clearly changed tack, some re­main skep­ti­cal about whether their trans­for­ma­tions are gen­uine, or su­per­fi­cial at­tempts to win and main­tain power.

“We see the ero­sion of media free­doms, a cer­tain de­gree of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism creep­ing into sys­tem grad­u­ally,” said Flo­rian Bieber, a Balkans spe­cial­ist at the Univer­sity of Graz in Aus­tria.

He ques­tioned whether Ser­bian in­sti­tu­tions were able to with­hold au­thor­i­tar­ian pres­sure, say­ing no lead­ers since Milo­se­vic have been “in­sti­tu­tion builders.”

In ad­di­tion, close links be­tween busi­ness, pol­i­tics and or­ga­nized crime un­der the late strong­man’s rule “cre­ated power struc­tures that per­sisted un­til to­day,” Bieber said.

Ser­bia has moved far from the pariah sta­tus it en­dured in the 1990s, but the eco­nomic chal­lenges re­main stark.

Youth un­em­ploy­ment has been around 50 per­cent in re­cent years, the av­er­age monthly salary is less than 400 eu­ros (US$450), and for­eign in­vest­ment is much needed. The coun­try will also have to wait at least five years to join the EU.

While the cap­i­tal Bel­grade it­self is bustling and in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar with visi­tors, young­sters ex­pressed con­cern over their prospects and the pace of change. Branka, a 21-year-old work­ing in tele­coms, said many of her friends were keen to move abroad as they strug­gled to find good pay and con­di­tions at home. “It’s sad for us that tourists love Bel­grade more than we do,” she said.

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