Serbia at the Crossroads

by Theodore A. Couloumbis [*]

(“Kathimerini”, June 3, 2001)

‘Shortsighted and megalomaniac, Milosevic placed priority on the lands in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina where Serbs resided, without troubling himself with the rights of these people. He lost the battle for land and at the same time sacrificed the human rights of his compatriots.’

Nebojsa Covic
Vice President of the Government
of the Republic of Serbia.

After the fall of Slobodan Milosevic from power and his recent arrest and imprisonment, the tragic appraisal of his more than ten yearlong rule is beginning to emerge. A cynical observer could recall the ancient Greek proverb: ‘after an oak tree has fallen, any man can chop it.’ Unfortunately though for Yugoslavia (and especially for the Serbian people), the appraisal of the destruction that was caused by the fateful Serbian leader is literally horrifying. [1]

As a result of three military confrontations, Serbian populations abandoned areas (such as East Slavonia, Knin-Krajina and Bosnia) that cover 48,000 square kilometers (that is the equivalent of one third of Greece’s total territory). In these areas, the Serbian element had been established for centuries and constituted the regional majority. According to the 1996 census, 646,000 homeless and desperate refugees had entered Serbia. Furthermore, after the NATO’s bombing campaign (March-June 1999), and the so-called Kumanovo Agreement, an additional 200,000 Kosovar Serbs were evicted from their ancestral lands. The appraisal of the number of dead and wounded from the ‘wars of the Yugoslav succession’ has not yet been completed. The cost in blood will no doubt prove enormous. Hence, it would not be far-fetched to compare this tragic, for Serbia, period with our own 1922 catastrophe.

As regards the economy of our neighboring country, things could not have been worse. During the Milosevic decade, salaries for Serbs remained at the lowest European levels, unemployment was ‘stuck’ at 33% and the Gross National Product was halved, compared to what it had been in 1987. More specifically, whereas in 1987 it was estimated that on average retirees received 720 DM, today this sum has fallen to a paltry 65 DM.

The Milosevic era will also remain unforgettable for its ‘achievements’ in two other crucial aspects of Serbian political-economic developments. For example, inflation in 1994 galloped at the unbelievable daily growth rate of 60%. Serbia also won Europe’s ‘gold medal’ in corruption, ranking 8th worldwide after countries such as Cameroon, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Honduras and Tanzania. If, finally, someone were to add to the above, social indicators such as the highest crime rate and lowest life expectancy in Europe, we must then conclude that Milosevic’s legacy is ruinous.

At this point, it is worth remembering that the Serb leader by manipulating (and often bribing) his country’s mass media, managed to create the image of an uncompromising, proud, non-retreating leader, who heroically and single-handedly opposed the imperialistic centers of the superpower, Unites States, and its NATO appendages. It is also worth contemplating, with a self-critical attitude, on the emotional and ill-timed identification that took place in Greece between the Serbian people and Milosevic. Justifiably, we Greeks maintain a special fondness for our Serb neighbors. We have to understand, though, that even some of our own mass media contributed towards the creation of an angelic image for Milosevic. Let us not forget our selective sensitivity for (only) the Serbian victims of the Kosovo conflict, the huge concerts staged in Serb support, as well as the mock trials at Constitution Square, where the leaders of NATO’s bombings were condemned to life imprisonment.

The New FRY Government

Probably, the greatest challenge to the Balkans (and, more generally, to Europe’s cooperation and security architecture) will come from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and its uncertain future. The task facing the Serbian political class after the change of regime, in the months and years to come, will be gigantic. The new leadership will have to build simultaneously genuine democratic institutions, reconstruct the very problematic economy, control the mesmerized (from unbounded populism) Serbian people, and recalibrate Serbia’s previously confrontational relations with the Western family.

Developments in Kosovo, Montenegro, Southern Serbia (Presevo) and FYROM (Tetovo), will determine whether reconstruction will proceed apace based on peaceful processes, or whether the western Balkans will initiate a second decade of domino-like military explosions.

The government of Vojislav Kostunica and Zoran Djindjic (and the broad coalition that supports it), requires the West’s toleration so that it can ‘breath’ as well as have the necessary time so that it can be fully established. Hard and fast deadlines (e.g. ‘deliver Milosevic to the Hague here and now’) could isolate the new regime from Serbian public opinion, which will soon find out that the enormous economic and social problems cannot be solved overnight. The gains for both Europe and the Balkans will be substantial, if the forces of prudence and logic finally prevail in this tried region.


 [1] For complete presentation of the unfortunate data that are mentioned in this article, see Nebojsa Covic, ‘Serbia After Milosevic’ in Milo Gligoriijgevic, ed., Serbia After Milosevic. Belgrade. Edition XXI Century, 2001.

[*] Theodore A. Couloumbis is Professor in International Relations at the University of Athens and Director General of Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

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