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End of the Road for Slobodan Milosevic?

Branka Magas

Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), formerly League of Communists of Serbia (SKS), is the only Communist party in Eastern Europe to have survived in power since the fall of the Berlin Wall on 10 November 1989. It succeeded in this by incorporating into its ideological corpus virulent nationalism, so denying to the anti- Communist opposition the possibility of legitimizing itself by appearing, at a time of heightened national conflict and Yugoslavia's collapse, as the defender of Serb national interests.

Between September 1987, when Milosevic crushed the opponents of the new orientation in the SKS, and March 1991, when he sent tanks into the streets of Belgrade to end a student demonstration, Serbia's ruling party re-invented itself as a party of vibrant Serb nationalism. During this interval, its leaders organized nationalist rallies; used them to subdue Vojvodina, Kosova and Montenegro; changed the Serbian and Yugoslav constitutions; failed to win a majority at the extraordinary 14th Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia; turned to plotting against the other Yugoslav republics with Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) generals, organized in a party of their own named League of Communists-Movement for Yugoslavia (SK-PJ); transformed itself into the SPS; and won the first multiparty elections in December 1990.

Between June 1991, when Belgrade's war was launched, and December 1993, when it appeared lost, the SPS aided by the JNA attacked then evacuated Slovenia; took almost a third of Croatia; rejected the European Community's proposal for a peaceful settlement of the conflict; occupied two-thirds of Bosnia and subjected it to ruthless 'ethnic cleansing'; earned international sanctions; won the second elections in alliance with Vojislav Seselj's Serb Radical Party; destroyed the domestic economy; failed to persuade Pale to accept the Vance-Owen Plan; and won the third elections in coalition with a number of smaller parties.

Then came the Washington Agreement; the growth of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina; one last fling at winning the war (Bihac); the Croatian and Bosnian military operations 'Flash', 'Storm' and 'Sana'; the fall of 'Republika Srpska Krajina' and the near-fall of 'Republika Srpska'; NATO bombardment and the Dayton Accords. Under the impact of these events, Milosevic's SPS dropped Seselj and turned to its former allies on the left, the SK-PJ, led among others by Milosevic's wife Mirjana Markovic. With the war lost and its political and social base dramatically shrunk, it is relevant to ask whether the end of Milosevic's rule is now in sight.

The plotters

The SPS was formed on 17 July 1990 by fusion of the League of Communists of Serbia with its front organization: the Socialist Alliance of Working People of Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic was elected the new party's leader. The SPS proclaimed itself to be a party of the left, committed to a 'regulated economy based on equality of different forms of ownership' and a state based on 'the rule of law and social justice'. The party also saw itself as a defender of Serbian state and Serb national interests, a party of peace and prosperity, and a 'barrier against the right' - whose victory, allegedly, would bring about poverty and war. It retained the organizational infrastructure of both the Communist party and the Socialist Alliance, and therewith the control over the economy; the administration; the police; what was left of the JNA; state and civic institutions such as the media, universities, veterans' associations, trade unions, and other 'forces of the left' of which by far the most important was the SK-PJ.

The SK-PJ was formed by JNA generals and army intelligence service officers at about the same time as the SPS. With the SPS restricted to Serbia, the SK-PJ was designed to support a planned military coup throughout Yugoslavia. Its committees were formed rapidly, as cells within the army or from members of the former League of Communists of Yugoslavia. Unlike the SPS, however, the generals' party did badly in the first elections, and spent the next two and a half years on the margins of Serbian political life.

The SPS inherited from the League of Communists of Serbia the view (shared by the JNA command) that the 1974 Constitution had destroyed Yugoslavia by confederalizing it. By making the Yugoslav republics de facto sovereign states - through the principle of consensus for all key decisions at the federal level, and the primacy of republican over federal laws - it had not only undermined Yugoslavia, but also irretreivably damaged the national, political and economic interests of both Serbia and the Serb nation. In Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosova, Serbs were allegedly denied national rights and left unprotected. The answer lay in a unified and strong Serbia, a tightening of 'democratic centralism' within the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ), a great reduction of republican power, and a recentralization of the federal state.

In the late 1980s, the SKS therefore sought the convening of an extraordinary congress of the SKJ at which such changes would be accepted and legitimized. In advance of the congress, however, it overthrew by unconstitutional means the leaderships of Vojvodina (October 1988), Kosova (November 1988) and Montenegro (January 1989), and unilaterally amended Serbia's own constitution (March 1989). These acts destroyed the entire Yugoslav constitutional framework and delegitimized the work of the federal government and assembly.

At the SKJ's 14th and last congress, held early in 1990, the conflict was focused on constitutional issues, but deeper institutional changes were at stake. Two poles emerged, one represented by the Slovenian party, the other by the Serbian. The Slovenian party realized that Communism was at an end, that the economic system should be changed as soon as possible, and that multiparty elections provided a painless way of relinquishing power. The Serbian party, for its part, was against radical institutional changes of the political or economic system: it was not prepared to accept the liquidation of its party organizations in the enterprises, depoliticization of the army and security services, or the introduction of a multiparty system. Its leaders argued that the introduction of a parliamentary system would lead to Yugoslavia's break-up.

This view was shared by the Communist party organization in the JNA. The generals believed that Yugoslavia could survive only as a state 'with a socialist orientation', and that those believing the country could be transformed into a 'civic and western-type European state' were only leading it into civil war. The proponents of parliamentary democracy simply 'did not understand the national question in Yugoslavia'. The Serbian Communists and the JNA generals agreed that Yugoslavia was possible only as a Communist party state. They further agreed, ominously, that the 'anti-Communist and anti-socialist front' in the other republics was 'anti-Serb'. And they also agreed that Yugoslavia as a confederation of the six republics was unacceptable, because this was not a proper state, while the Serbs wished to live in a single state with single citizenship, borders, leadership, army, market and currency.

At the start of 1991, the two leaderships began discussing the introduction of a state of emergency to solve the growing political and social crisis. The army made plans for overthrowing the new governments, first in Croatia and then in Slovenia, 'by a combination of political and military means'. In the republics they considered to be 'hesitant' - i.e. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia - the governments would also be brought down, by organized demonstrations and rebellions: i.e. by applying the same method with which the Serbian leadership had brought down the governments in Vojvodina, Kosova and Montenegro. In pursuit of this policy, reliance would be placed on the 'forces that were for Yugoslavia': i.e. the leaderships of Serbia and Montenegro, the Serb parties in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, and, of course, the SK- PJ. Milosevic differed from the army only in thinking that Slovenia should be left in peace and the main effort directed against Croatia. The JNA's plan for introducing military rule in Croatia envisaged an institutional and political strengthening of the Serb- held krajina in Croatia, and support for its secession. The plan involved also the removal of Ante Markovic's impotent federal government and closure of the federal parliament. At the same time, at Milosevic's request, the army agreed to protect the Serbian leadership from domestic opposition (which it did when it deployed tanks on the streets of Belgrade on 9 March 1991).

The military coup was scheduled to take place on 15 March 1991. The army, however, cautioned by its partners in Moscow, eventually decided against it, especially given that the Yugoslav state presidency voted by majority against an army take-over. In early April 1991, at Milosevic's insistence, the army nevertheless prevented the Croatian police from pacifying Knin and retaking other places in Croatia under rebel Serb control. Together with the Serbian representative on the Yugoslav state presidency Borisav Jovic, Milosevic told the generals that 'any other course of action would be a betrayal, which in this case would cause the fall of the Serbian leadership and hence also of the JNA'. The two parties then agreed that the army would 'defend future borders of Yugoslavia' and make them 'permanent'.

From fascist to Communist allies

After 9 March 1991, the generals' party SK-PJ withdrew from public life. Milosevic remained the unquestioned authority for the SK-PJ leaders, but it was Vojislav Seselj and his anti-Communist and proto-fascist Serb Radical Party that remained the Serbian leader's preferred allies for the next two years.

The Socialist-Radical alliance started to wobble, however, when Milosevic accepted - and General Mladic refused - the Vance-Owen Plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Seselj moved to capitalize on Milosevic's humiliation and their partnership broke up. The immediate motive was provided by the issue of recognition of the Serb parastates in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, for which Seselj was publicly pressing. Most of the Serbian opposition parties likewise sided with Karadzic and Mladic. Some of Milosevic's advisors too pressed for a tough stand against the West. Such a policy threatened to marginalize Milosevic and the Socialists. It threatened to perpetuate economic sanctions, at a highly perilous moment: at the end of 1993 the annual inflation rate was 323 million percent. Milosevic now broke with the maximalist policy regarding the Serb entities in Croatia and Bosnia. The Socialists started to evacuate the terrain of ultranationalism, and in doing so drew closer again to the SK-PJ. Mirjana Markovic now began to write her notorious columns in the weekly Duga, in which she bitterly criticized the Socialists for having forgotten 'left values' and turned their backs on their erstwhile comrades.

The policy of moving closer to the West and abandoning the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs involved also a change of propaganda in Serbia. This favoured the SK-PJ's anti- nationalist rhetoric. Its view that Radovan Karadzic, Mate Boban and Alija Izetbegovic were equally to blame for the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was most welcome, particularly since the West was saying the same thing. Then there was its commitment to Yugoslavia, whose resuscitation was repeatedly invoked in the West. In a revived Yugoslavia, the issue of the borders would no longer be contentious, and Serbia's defeat in the war wouild become less visible. Irrespective of whether Yugoslavia's rebirth was a realistic goal or not, the story helped Milosevic to parry the opposition's charge that he had betrayed the Serb cause.

The time was ripe for the Communists too to change their name. In the December 1993 elections (called at the Radicals' insistence), they participated together with other miniscule left parties under the name of the United Left. On this occasion the ruling party machine came to the aid of United Left candidates, just as two years earlier it had aided Seselj and his Radicals. In Pozarevac and Smederevo, in particular, prominent people and candidates elected on the SPS list were ordered to cross over to the United Left. The elections proved, however, that Communism was not popular with the voters: the United Left took only 40,000 votes, the same number that the SK-PJ had won in 1990. This debacle, and the conclusion that the new anti-war rhetoric - the centre-piece of Milosevic's new strategy - did not go so well together with the party's military image, led to a complete re-packaging of the SK-PJ. Its name was changed to the United Yugoslav Left (JUL), and the dove of peace replaced the red star on its insignia.

This growing collaboration, indeed creeping fusion, between Milosevic's Socialists and the JUL in the course of 1994 was unwelcome to sections of both party leaderships. SK- PJ president Dragomir Draskovic resigned soon after the December elections, and members of the SPS inner circle too (e.g. Borisav Jovic, Mihailo Markovic) started to dissent in public. However, the die was finally cast on 25 March 1995, when Milosevic appeared at a JUL reception together with his wife (now president of the JUL executive), but without members of his own party's executive. A few weeks later SPS leading lights made a formal visit to Mrs Markovic, who informed them that she held nothing against social democracy and that the left should work together. The part of the Socialist establishment that resisted any sharing of power with the JUL had been definitively removed by the time of the spring 1996 SPS congress.

What about Bosnia?

The Serbian regime's nominal shift to the pro-Communist left completed the isolation of the SDS leadership in Republika Srpska, which has throughout professed an aggressive anti-Communism, incorporated the Orthodox Church into all aspects of public life, and embraced capitalism (rhetorically at least). As long as the war continued, it provided a convenient excuse for delaying elections, so helped the Pale leaders to thwart Milosevic's strategy of using elections to remove them from power - as he had done in the case of Milan Babic and other recalcitrant leaders in the Republika Srpska Krajina. After Dayton, however, Milosevic - tailed by the West - felt confident that the scheduled Bosnian elections would allow a painless removal of the embarrassment represented by Karadzic. For although the Dayton provisions on war crimes provide for a different mode of departure for these two indicted war criminals, they also create a major complication for Milosevic in that, if arrested and sent to The Hague, the two will simply indict Milosevic himself.

During the past two years Milosevic has sought to divide the Republika Srpska polity by creating, in the Banja Luka region in particular, legal proxies - branches of his own party and of SK-PJ/JUL - to implement his directives. He has also looked to other parties and individuals for a political alternative. The end of the war has made his task much easier. The reintegration of Sarajevo has marginalized Pale in favour of Banja Luka. The importance of the latter will increase further with the coming elections, given that the Banja Luka region contains the greatest number of voters. At the same time Karadzic and his ruling SDS, faced wih international isolation and unpopularity among the Serbian population, have been forced to temper their response to attacks on them coming from Belgrade.

In order to reach an agreement with the United States, Milosevic had to bypass the Republika Srpska leaders and appear in Dayton as their negotiator with full authority. This has placed him in an exposed situation, since for the first time since the start of the war he has been forced to accept full responsibility for his and their actions. Milosevic's need to marginalize the Bosnian Serbs' influence on the internal politics of Serbia has led him to push them to accept the Bosnia-Herzegovina framework. Unlike Tudjman, who brought the Bosnian Croats directly into the Croatian parliament in order to ensure his own party's victory in the last (1995) elections, Milosevic must keep Bosnian Serbs out of Serbia's political process because they would line up with the opposition. In the event that Karadzic's SDS wins the elections in the Serb entity, or more generally if Pale persists in openly flouting the 'peace process', it is possible to imagine that the Serbian leader may decide to remove the risk of having an unpredictable factor hanging over his head by letting Republika Srpska collapse. He could, for example, fail to support its claim to Brcko, which provides the lynchpin linking the western part of RS to its eastern half.

The SDS leaders are well aware of the situation, but find few options for blocking Milosevic. They have a choice between a slow death and summary execution. Their only hope is that their executioners will either grow tired or have a change of heart before fully carrying out the sentence. Paradoxically, perhaps, Croatian President Tudjman may appear as Karadzic's best hope. Tudjman's rule in Croatia vitally depends on the contribution of his HDZ's affiliate in Bosnia-Herzegovina; but this will be available only so long as Zagreb's control over the Bosnian Croats remains unchallenged. A victory by Karadzic's SDS in the election would favour this. Recent rumours of a meeting between Karadzic and Tudjman, though denied, may have some substance after all.

The end game

The Clinton Administration has wagered a great deal, perhaps its all, on Milosevic as a peacemaker. The war has ended, however, without resolving any of the problems it has created. Milosevic's switch from war to peace has been effected without any clear plan. Whereas in the past, during the period of destruction, his actions were marked by energy, speed and deciseveness, his rule is now characterized by an inertia of the grave. The great powers have offered him support, for want of a better policy; but it is doubtful that their client can survive the end of the war.

Milosevic trusts the state-controlled media to create the impression that the Dayton peace entails prosperity round the corner. In the meantime he is strengthening his police forces. Dissatisfaction in Serbia is so great that a spark could set off the fire. Somebody has to account for a failed, meaningless and shameful war, for the systematic pillage of the nation's wealth, and for a destroyed economy. Milosevic has also to face the grave problems which his policy has created in Serbia's relations with its neighbours. There is an embittered Bosnia, now including for good measure also the Bosnian Serbs. The Kosova Albanians have no wish to stay in Milosevic's Yugoslavia. And Montenegro will grow more troublesome as it rids itself of fear of the army.

The odds against Milosevic again winning elections in Serbia are high. Because of his responsibility for the debacle, however, he will not willingly surrender power either. The tensions in Serbia will continue to rise. Rather than being the year of the regime's stabilization, 1996 is likely to be that of a fateful internal political confrontation. The coming months look like being decisive not only for Bosnia, but for Serbia as well.

The above briefing is based on a survey of the winter and early spring 1996 regional press. It draws, in particular, on the following literature: Borisav Jovic, Posljednji dani SFRJ [The Last Days of SFRJ], Belgrade 1995; Marija Obradovic, 'Vladajuca stranka: ideologija i tehnologija dominacije' [The ruling party: ideology and the technology of domination], Republika no.138, Belgrade, April 1996; extracts from Nenad Stefanovic, Snijeg u julu - tajni zivot levice [Snow in July - the secret life of the left] published in NIN, Belgrade, April 1996; Obrad Kesic, 'Politics, power and decision-making in the Serb Republic', Problems of Post-Communism, March/April 1996; Norman Cigar, 'How wars end: war termination and Serbian decision-making in the case of Bosnia', South- East European Monitor, vol.3, no.1/1996 (Vienna); Stanko Cerovic, 'Nemoc policijske drzave' [Impotence of the police state], Monitor, Podgorica, 3 May 1996.

This article is from Bosnia Report

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