The Last Revolution

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

The last revolution was also the strangest.

On Thursday, October 5, 2000, as Serbs stormed the parliament in Belgrade, waving flags from its burning windows, and seized the headquarters of state television, which an opposition leader had once christened “TV Bastille,” it looked like a real, old-fashioned European revolution. The storming of the Winter Palace! The fall of the Bastille!

Now, surely, the last East European ruler to have remained in power continuously since the end of communism, the “butcher of the Balkans,” would go the way of all tyrants. There were fevered reports that three planes were carrying Slobodan Milosevic and his family into exile. Or that he was holed up, Hitler-like, in his bunker. Would he be lynched? Or executed like Ceausescu? Or commit suicide, as both his parents had done? “Save Serbia,” the crowds were chanting, “kill yourself, Slobodan.” Fired by images of revolution, and all the bloody associations of “the Balkans,” hundreds of journalists piled in for a grisly but telegenic denouement.

Illustrations by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.


Instead, late on the evening of Friday, October 6, Milosevic appeared on another national television channel to make the kind of gracious speech conceding election defeat that one expects from an American president or a British prime minister. He had just received the information, he said, that Vojislav Kostunica had won the presidential election (this from the man who had spent the last 11 days trying to deny exactly that, by electoral fraud, intimidation, and manipulation of the courts). He thanked those who voted for him and also those who did not. Now he planned “to spend more time with my family, especially my grandson Marko.” But then he hoped to rebuild his Socialist Party as a party of opposition. “I congratulate Mr. Kostunica on his victory,” he concluded, “and I wish all citizens of Yugoslavia every success in the next few years.”

Neatly dressed, as always, in suit, white shirt, and tie, he stood stiffly beside the Yugoslav flag, with his hands crossed very low in front of him, like a schoolboy who had been caught cheating. Or like a penitent before the priest that his father once aspired to be. Sorry, father, I’ve cheated in the elections, ruined my country, caused immeasurable bloodshed and misery to our neighbors—but I’ll be a good boy now. It was incongruous, surreal, ridiculous in the pretense that this was just an ordinary, democratic change of leader.

Yet that is exactly what the new president also wanted to pretend. President Kostunica told me later that Milosevic had telephoned him to ask if it was all right to make the broadcast, and Kostunica said he was delighted because he wished to show everyone in Serbia that a peaceful, democratic transfer of power was possible. Earlier that same evening, Kostunica had appeared on the "liberated" state television, gray suited and sober as ever, fielding phone-in questions from the public and talking calmly about voting systems, as if this were the most normal thing in the world.

Yes, I found young people celebrating in front of the parliament building that night, blowing whistles and dancing. But most of the friends I talked to—people who had been working against Milosevic for years—expressed neither ecstasy nor anger but a blend of wry delight and residual disbelief. Was he really finished?

That was nothing to the bemusement of the world’s journalists. Heck, wasn’t this supposed to be a revolution? But the revolution seemed to have started on Thursday night and stopped on Friday morning. No more heroic scenes. No bloodshed. The Serbs had failed to deliver. They had disappointed CNN, ABC, and NBC. The Palestinians and Israelis were more obliging. They were killing each other. So half the camera crews left for Israel the next day. Those who stayed went on wrestling with the question: What is this?

A very odd mixture it was. On the same morning that President Kostunica moved into the echoing Federation Palace, just a few minutes before receiving the Russian foreign minister, one “Captain Dragan,” a legendary veteran of the Serb insurrection in Krajina, was marching into the Federal Customs building with a bunch of armed men and a Scorpion automatic under his arm. He was there to expel Mihalj Kertes, the close Milosevic henchman who controlled so many shady deals through the customs.

Yet, all the while, Milosevic was quietly sitting in one of his villas in the leafy, hillside suburb of Dedinje, consulting with his old cronies. On my last day in Belgrade, I drove past these houses on Uzicka Street, hidden behind high walls and security fences. Somehow I could not find a doorbell to ring.

Milosevic’s Serbia was never a totalitarian regime like Ceausescu’s Romania. Rather, his regime was a strange mixture of democracy and dictatorship: a “demokratura.”

What was this Serbian revolution? Obviously, much is still unclear about the Serbian events, which have inevitably been compared with the Polish “self-limiting revolution” of 1980—81 and the Central European velvet revolutions of 1989. But my very preliminary reading is that what happened in Serbia was a uniquely complex combination of four ingredients: a more or less democratic election; a revolution of the new, velvet, self-limiting type; a brief revolutionary coup of an older kind; and a dash of old-fashioned Balkan conspiracy.

The Almost-Stolen Election

What many outsiders failed to appreciate is that Milosevic’s Serbia was never a totalitarian regime like Ceausescu’s Romania. That is one major reason why Milosevic’s fall was also different. Yes, he was a war criminal, who caused horrible suffering to the Serbs’ neighbors in the former Yugoslavia. But at home he was not a totalitarian dictator. Instead, his regime was a strange mixture of democracy and dictatorship: a “demokratura.”

There was always politics under Milosevic, and it was multiparty politics. Even the regime had two parties: his own and his wife’s. Tensions between his postcommunist Socialist Party of Serbia and her Yugoslav United Left contributed to the crumbling of his power base. But the opposition parties and politicians now coming to power, including Vojislav Kostunica, have also been involved in politics for a decade. True, there was police and secret police repression, up to and including political assassination. But there were also elections, which Milosevic won.

They were not free and fair elections, of course. The single most important pillar of his regime was the state television, which he used to sustain a nationalist siege mentality, especially among people in the country and small towns who had few other sources of information. That is why one of his earliest political opponents, Vuk Draskovic, already in 1991 called it TV Bastille. But there were also embattled independent radio stations and privately owned newspapers. People could travel, say almost anything they liked, and demonstrate in the streets. Opposition parties could organize and campaign, and their representatives sat in parliaments and city councils.

“Save Serbia,” the crowds were chanting, “kill yourself, Slobodan.”

The ruling family was at the heart of a larger family, in the Mafia sense. The frontiers between politics, business, and organized crime were completely dissolved. Yet the godfather still preserved the outward constitutional forms and periodically sought confirmation in elections—with the help of TV Bastille and a little quiet vote rigging and also because he could count on a divided opposition and a significant level of genuine popular support.

Only against this background can one understand why, in early July, Milosevic decided to change the constitution and seek direct election for another term as president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. We know now that this was a fatal mistake. Few thought so then.

Why did he lose the election he himself called for September 24? The first and most unequivocally heartwarming part of the answer is the mobilization of the other Serbia to defeat him. Against the collective demonization of “the Serbs,” after what “they” did in Bosnia and Kosovo, one cannot say often and firmly enough that there was always this other Serbia. There are Serbs who have spoken, written, organized, and worked against Milosevic from the very outset—from Veran Matic and his independent radio station B92 to countless journalists who went to prison for printing what they believed to be true to the thousands engaged in the radical student movement Otpor. Their struggle was different from, but no less difficult or dangerous than, the struggle of dissidents under Soviet communism.

Secondly, there was the fact that the very disparate opposition parties finally united. Not entirely, to be sure. The largest single opposition party refused to join. But still, 18 parties got together in a Democratic Opposition of Serbia.

The third reason Milosevic lost was that the opposition leaders managed to subdue their own squabbling egos sufficiently to agree on the candidacy of Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of the small Democratic Party of Serbia. Kostunica was reluctant to stand—he self-mockingly says of himself that he was the first undecided voter—but the choice was perfect, for he had a unique combination of four qualities, being anticommunist, nationalist, uncorrupted, and dull.

His great disadvantage was thought to be his dullness. In the event, even this turned out to be an advantage. Again and again, people told me that they liked his slow, plodding, phlegmatic style. It was such a welcome contrast, they said, to all the heroic-tragic histrionics of Milosevic and of many of his ranting opponents. “You know, I want a boring president,” one leading independent journalist told me. “And I want to live in a boring country.”

And then, Kostunica wasn’t so dull after all. Energized—as who would not be?—by finding himself at the head of a crusade for his country’s liberation, he produced some brave and memorable moments. His “Good evening, liberated Serbia,” on the night that the parliament and television were stormed, will go straight into the history books.

Of course we can never know the exact compound of motives that made at least 2.4 million Serbs put a circle next to the name of Vojislav Kostunica on Sunday, September 24. But two striking partial explanations were offered to me.

People embraced Kostunica’s slow, plodding, phlegmatic style. It was such a welcome contrast to all the heroic-tragic histrionics of Milosevic and of many of his ranting opponents.

One concerns the NATO bombing. I asked politicians and analysts when they thought the revolution had begun. Several said, often through pursed lips, well, to be honest, at the end of the Kosovo war. During and immediately after the war, there was a patriotic rallying to the flag, from which Milosevic also benefited. But it was too absurdly Orwellian to hear state television proclaiming as a victory what was obviously a historic defeat: the effective loss of Kosovo, Serbia’s Jerusalem. Economically, things got worse, and every demand to tighten the belt was justified by the effects of the bombing. The miners in the Kolubara coal mines, whose strike was to give a decisive push to the revolution, told me their wages had sunk after the war from an average of about DM150 (US$65.80) a month to as low as DM70 (US$30.70). The reduction was explained as a tax for postwar reconstruction. But it made them furious.

The other partial explanation is less dramatic but also convincing and important. It is that a great many people who in the past had voted for Milosevic simply decided that enough was enough. The leader had lost touch with reality. Having been there so long, he was to blame for current miseries. It was time for a change. It was, says Ognjen Pribicevic, a longtime Milosevic critic, like what happened to Margaret Thatcher or Helmut Kohl, after their 11 or 16 years of power. The comparison with Thatcher or Kohl may seem startling, even insulting. But it’s a useful reminder that for many Serbian voters Milosevic was not a war criminal or a tyrant. He was just a national leader who did some good things and some bad things but now had to go.

It was those people, finally, who brought the vote for Vojislav Kostunica just above the 50 percent needed for him to be elected in the first round.

The Demonstration to End All Demonstrations

So that was the election. Already on the night of Sunday, September 24, a sophisticated and independent election monitoring group told the opposition that Kostunica had won, and people danced in the streets of Belgrade until the early hours. But everyone knew that Milosevic would not concede defeat. He would probably try to “steal the election,” fraudulently claiming extra votes from Montenegro and Kosovo. This was only the end of the beginning.

What happened in Serbia was a uniquely complex combination of four ingredients: a more or less democratic election; a revolution of the new, velvet, self-limiting type; a brief revolutionary coup of an older kind; and a dash of old-fashioned Balkan conspiracy.

Sure enough, Milosevic had the Federal Election Commission declare that Kostunica had won more votes than he had but not enough to secure victory in the first round. There would have to be a runoff second round on October 8. The members of the opposition now took a giant gamble, against the advice of many Western politicians and supporters. They said, no, we will not go to the second round. Instead, by orchestrating peaceful popular protest, they would force Milosevic to concede that he had lost the election. And they set a deadline: 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 5.

The election campaign already had elements of revolutionary mobilization, like that of the Solidarity election campaign in Poland in the summer of 1989. Revelection, so to speak. But now things developed more clearly toward a new-style peaceful revolution. People came out on the streets of Belgrade and other towns for large demonstrations. The opposition knew that would not be enough. After all, in 1996—97 Milosevic had survived three months of large demonstrations. So they called for a general strike. And they appealed to all the citizens of Serbia to come to Belgrade on Thursday, October 5, for the demonstration to end all demonstrations.

The general strike was very patchy at first. But in one central place it took hold: in the great opencast coalfields of Kolubara, some 30 miles south of Belgrade, which provide the fuel to generate more than half of Serbia’s electricity. It was inevitably compared to the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, birthplace of the Polish revolution in 1980. There were the same workers in blue overalls, with unshaven, grimy faces and rediscovered dignity. Here, as there, one of the massive fortresses of communist industrialization—some 17,500 people are employed in the Kolubara complex—was finally turning against its makers.

The struggle waged by those who openly opposed Milosevic’s regime was different from, but no less difficult or dangerous than, the struggle of dissidents under Soviet communism.

As in Gdansk, economic grievances helped trigger the strike, but the workers immediately subordinated their local and material demands to the national and political one. When the commander of the army offered to double the miners’ wages if they went back to work, they insisted that they wanted just one thing: recognition of the election results. There was also solidarity, with a small s. On the night of October 3–4, the number of strikers in the minefields had dwindled and police moved in. So strike leaders called on the people to come and support them. And they came in by the thousands, from the nearby town of Lazarevac and from the capital. Outside one of the mines, the police stood in an irresolute line. Finally, three old men on a tractor trundled toward them, and the police line opened. A scene for a film—or a monument.

The strike at Kolubara had great symbolic significance. It increased the revolutionary momentum and further broke down the barriers of fear. What followed was purely Serbian.

Early on the morning of Thursday, October 5, great columns of cars and trucks set out from provincial towns. The convoy from Cacak, headed by its longtime opposition mayor, Velimir Ilic, had a bulldozer, an earthmover, and heavy-duty trucks loaded with rocks, electric saws, and, yes, guns. They literally bulldozed aside the police cars blocking the road. Other convoys also broke through police blockades, by a mixture of negotiation and muscle.

Many of those who came to Belgrade were ordinary people from opposition-controlled cities, sometimes better informed than their counterparts in the capital because of the local independent television and radio stations, but often materially worse off than the Belgraders and thus more angry. However, among them were also former policemen and soldiers, veterans of the Serbian campaigns in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, tough, with shaved heads and guns under their leather jackets. Men who knew how to fight and were determined to win this day.

Once Milosevic’s opponents stormed Yugoslavia’s state television headquarters, they had control of the place that made the images. And that, not the army or police, is the very heart of power in modern politics.

From north and south, east and west, they converged on Belgrade. They joined with the Belgraders who had come out in the hundreds of thousands, further infuriated by the latest absurd and provocative verdict of the constitutional court—which declared the presidential election null and void. So there they stood, massed with flags and whistles and banners reading “He’s Finished,” in front of the impressive parliament building where the Federal Election Commission, which had falsified the election results, was also based.

It was three o’clock—deadline for the revolution. Then it was just past three, and someone in the crowd turned to Professor Zarko Korac, a member of the opposition leadership that had set the deadline, and said, “Well, Professor, it’s seven past . . .”

No one knew what would happen next. Or did they?

A (Brief) Moment of 1917

What happened between about three and seven o’clock on the afternoon of Thursday, October 5, changed everything. Led by a man in a red shirt, defying police batons and tear gas, a crowd stormed the parliament. Soon thereafter, the nearby state television headquarters was trashed and set alight. A handful of other key media outlets, including the state television studio and transmission center and Veran Matic’s B92 radio, were more peacefully taken over. Kostunica cried, “Good evening, liberated Serbia,” to an ecstatic crowd, and they celebrated in the streets.

These events invite a moment’s reflection on the relationship between image and reality. Those who stormed the parliament created an unforgettable image of liberation—an image that CNN and the BBC sent around the world. This image then became reality. Taking over the state television was itself another compelling television image: the TV Bastille in flames. But it also meant that the opposition now controlled the place that made the images. And that, not the army or police, is the very heart of power in modern politics. Milosevic’s dictatorship was a television dictatorship. And television was equally central to the revolution. From teledictatorship, via telerevolution, to teledemocracy.

This was a coup de théâtre that had the effect of a coup d’état. Who was responsible for it?

I collected at least a dozen eyewitness accounts of the storming of the parliament, and they differ greatly. Success has many fathers. The ranks of those who did the heroic deed, or planned it, grow like relics of the true cross. About such events, the whole, exact, and sober truth will never be known, but there is ample evidence that, beside much spontaneity, there was a strong component of deliberately planned, revolutionary seizure of power.

The mayor of Cacak, Velimir Ilic, described to me how he and his group prepared their trip to Belgrade as if it were a military operation. When I asked one of his vanguard, a burly former paratrooper from the elite 63d Parachute Regiment, what the object of the operation was, he said crisply, “That Vojislav Kostunica should appear on state television at 7:30 p.m.” Before they left, Ilic told them, “Today, we will be free or die.”

If a little old-style Balkan conspiracy contributed to Milosevic’s downfall, well, three cheers for old-style Balkan conspiracy.

Cacak was not alone; there were many angry men from other provincial towns. When the first, heavy waves of tear gas were launched by the police, the intelligentsia of Belgrade mostly fled to nearby apartments or offices or cafés. Another friend met an acquaintance who said, “This is the biggest funeral ever.” She thought the rising was defeated. But the hard men from the provinces came back into the square. They had no nearby apartment to go to, and they were here to finish the job.

In addition some members of the coordinated national opposition leadership made their own preparations—and readied their own bulldozers. And Captain Dragan insists that he received instructions from an aide of Kostunica to seize the Studio B television station—which he duly did, escorting the security guards to safety past an angry crowd. Several opposition figures say they had their own sources inside the police, passing information to them on police tactics. Some time before 7:00 p.m., a commander was heard to say, over a captured police radio, “Give up, he’s finished.”

There are a hundred more pieces of the jigsaw to fit into place: retrospective claim and counterclaim about planned and spontaneous action. But the essential point is established. There was, after Serbia’s 1989 and its 1980, a brief moment of 1917: a deliberate yet limited use of revolutionary violence. It is hard to imagine the breakthrough coming without it. But the remarkable thing is how limited it was, and how quickly the country returned to new-style, peaceful revolution.

Add a Dash of Intrigue

The question remains why the army, and the powerful police and state security special forces built up under Milosevic, did not intervene, instead leaving the ordinary police to throw some tear gas and then give up. For those forces, well equipped and battle hardened, could easily have caused a bloodbath in central Belgrade—although it would probably only have precipitated a far bloodier end of the regime.

Here we enter the murkiest waters. Belgrade being Belgrade, there are dark speculations. This is the world capital of conspiracy theories. But in this case, I think there just may be some truth in them.

The speculation is that disaffected former members of the army, secret police, and special forces—men who wield much influence on those shadowy Belgrade frontiers where secret police, paramilitaries, businessmen, politicians, and Mafia-style gangsters intermingle—who had earlier been wondering about trying to overthrow Milosevic, now helped to ensure that he was misinformed and the forces unresponsive.

The motives of such men in the shadows? First, “just to screw Milosevic,” as the political analyst Bratislav Grubacic put it to me. Those that Milosevic used and then cast aside were taking their revenge. Second, as a source once close to Milosevic explained: “To save their lives. And their money—you know, a lot of money. Perhaps to keep their freedom too.” And to try to make some accommodation with the new powers that be.

This is all, I repeat, no more than informed speculation. This was definitely not like Romania in 1989, where a group of people from inside the former regime organized a coup masquerading as a popular revolution. But Belgrade is a city where people do have the most curious connections. And something more than just the patriotic restraint of the armed forces, and the velvet power of peaceful popular protest, does seem to be required to explain the absence of any serious attempt at repression. If a little old-style Balkan conspiracy contributed to that outcome, well, three cheers for old-style Balkan conspiracy.

On that afternoon of Thursday, October 5, one woman was crushed under the wheels of a truck. An old man died of a heart attack. The chief editor of state television and a number of policemen and demonstrators were beaten up. There are unconfirmed reports of two police deaths. That was about it.

Little short of a miracle in a country still ostensibly ruled by Milosevic and stashed full of guns and men well accustomed to using them.

The End of the End of Communism

If the Solidarity revolution in Poland was the beginning of the end of communism, this was the end of the end of communism. It was the last of a 20-year chain of new-style, Central and East European revolutions, each learning from the previous one but also adding new ingredients and variations. And not just in Europe. There are echoes here of the Philippines or Indonesia. And messages, one hopes, for other countries. In a now globalized politics, we have moved beyond the old 1789 and 1917 models of revolution. If it could happen in Serbia, why not in Burma? Why not in Cuba?

Milosevic’s fall marks the end of the Balkan wars. The only people who might possibly want to start a Balkan war now are Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia. If NATO, with its thousands of troops in Kosovo, cannot prevent that, then it might as well turn itself into a cookery club.

Liberation is a big word, particularly for men and women who were semifree even under Milosevic and still have a lot of the old regime on top of them—both structures and individuals in authority. But they are a great deal more free and getting more so by the day. “We just breathe more freely,” one acquaintance told me. Moreover, they can at last plan for the future. One definition of a liberated country is a place that people come back to rather than leave. Serbia will now be such a country.

As the Hungarian revolution of 1956 transformed the image of Hungary in the world, so this Serbian revolution will change that of Serbia. Unlike the Germans in 1945, the Serbs have liberated themselves. If they can go on to address the problem of the past themselves, that reputation will be even better.

This is the end of the Balkan wars. Kostunica cares passionately about the lot of his fellow Serbs in Croatia (the very few that are left there), in Bosnia, in Kosovo (where he wants to see more Serb refugees return), and in Montenegro. But he is a man of peace, and he will pursue Serbian national interests by negotiation. The only people who might possibly want to start a Balkan war now are Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia; if NATO, with its thousands of troops in Kosovo, cannot prevent that, then it might as well turn itself into a cookery club.

This is also the end of Serbian imperial dreams. I talked in Belgrade to the writer Dobrica Cosic, who is credited by many with fueling those dreams in the 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences—although he denies it. Sitting in the headquarters of the Serbian Academy, he told me that the point now was simply to build a modern Serbian nation-state. If even the Montenegrins wanted to go their own way, so be it. Let them go. The Serbs must get on with building their own state.

If that is what happens—and my own hunch is that it will—then we will be close to the end of an even longer and larger story: the two-centuries-old, delayed, and long-interrupted process of the formation of modern European nation-states out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

That, in turn, poses a great challenge to the West but above all to Europe—and specifically to the European Union. For after the fall of Milosevic there is no longer any external obstacle to our building a liberal community not just of 15 but of 30 democratic nation-states. Now we really do have the chance, but also the daunting task, of building that “Europe whole and free” that George Bush Senior memorably invoked in the last twilight of the Cold War.

Quite a lot to have happened between three and seven o’clock one Thursday afternoon.