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Serbia: Ten Years Later

Stephen Zunes - Foreign Policy in Focus

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 Since the end of the U.S.-led war against Serbia, the country is slowly emerging from the wars of the 1990s. Despite lingering problems, Serbs appear to be more optimistic about their country's future than they have for decades. The United States deserves little credit for the positive developments, however, and a fair amount of blame for the country's remaining problems.


In Belgrade, a man passes the building that formerly housed the federal Interior Ministry. It was destroyed during the NATO airstrikes against Serbia and Montenegro in 1999. (Photo: Getty Images)

    There have been elements of both the left and the right who have perpetuated a myth of American omnipotence, that the United States is somehow responsible for virtually all the good or evil in the world and that the millions of people who engage in political struggle, legitimate or otherwise, are simply pawns of great powers who have no role in their own destiny. Such myths in relation to what was Yugoslavia are still heard today. In reality, the U.S. role in the recent political history of Serbia, like the recent political history of the Balkans overall, is more complicated than it first appears.

    While Serbian war-crimes against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo in the late 1990s were all too real, the 11-week NATO bombing campaign was immoral, illegal, and unnecessary. The most serious atrocities, such as the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians, took place only after the bombing began. The United States and other Western powers could have pursued diplomatic options that likely would have ended the repression without resorting to war.

    Among the many misleading statements of the Clinton administration and its supporters before, during, and after the war, the most absurd was that the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign made possible Serbia's nonviolent democratic revolution a year-and-a-half later. In fact, a large and active nonviolent movement challenged Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and his alliance with right-wing ultra-nationalists on several occasions during the 1990s. This movement, led by young people whose lives were shattered by the Serbian regime's endless wars, supported a more pluralistic and democratic Yugoslavia, and an end to human rights abuses against both Serbs and non-Serbs. In the winter of 1996-97, for example, a mass nonviolent movement almost succeeded in overthrowing Milosevic, but it got no help or encouragement from Western government. Indeed, Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton administration's point man for the Balkans and architect for the Dayton Accords, was among those who pressured Clinton to back Milosevic as a stabilizing influence in the region. The Serbian government crushed the pro-democracy movement (ironically, Holbrooke, who is now Obama's special emissary to Afghanistan and Pakistan, later became one of the most virulent supporters of the war two years later).

    In 1999, a re-energized student-led pro-democracy movement, coalescing around a group called Otpor ("Resistance"), had emerged. Despite efforts by Milosevic to depict the opposition as Western agents, the vast majority of students involved were actually left-of-center nationalists, motivated by opposition to their government's increasing corruption and authoritarianism. Once the United States launched airstrikes against their country, however, they suspended their anti-government activities and joined their compatriots in opposing the NATO bombing.

    The U.S.-led war gave the Milosevic regime an excuse to jail, drive underground, or force into exile many leading pro-democracy activists, shutting down their independent media and seriously curtailing their public activities. Journalists were not exempt: Milosevic's secret police murdered Slavko Curuvija, publisher of the independent Dnevni Telegraf, soon after the bombing campaign began. Most of the population, meanwhile, rallied around the flag.

    Ironically, NATO bombs targeted urban areas that were mostly anti-Milosevic. Air raids struck parts of northern Serbia in the autonomous region of Vojvodina, including areas where ethnic Serbs were a minority. NATO planes also struck the Republic of Montenegro, the junior partner in the Yugoslavia federation, setting back its efforts at becoming closer to the West and more independent from Serbia. Though U.S. officials claimed that the bombing would encourage defections in the military and possibly help bring down the regime, NATO members refused to grant even temporary asylum to Serbian draft resisters and deserters.

    Fortunately, a year and half later, pro-democracy forces led by Otpor was able to regroup and - when Milosovic tried to steal the election in October 2000 - a massive wave of nonviolent action succeeded in driving him from power. The people of Serbia were able to do nonviolently what 11 weeks of NATO bombs could not. As with the democratic revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1989, it wasn't the military prowess of the western alliance bringing freedom to an Eastern European country, but the power of nonviolent action by the subjugated peoples themselves.

    Unfortunately, through both appeasement and war, the United States allowed Milosevic to remain in power far longer than he would have otherwise. As Milosevic's nationalist successor Vojislav Kostunica put it, "The Americans assisted Milosevic not only when they supported him, but also when they attacked him. In a way, Milosevic is an American creation."

    U.S. Role in Serbia's Political Transition

    The Serbian opposition, on the other hand, was not an American creation. Rather than being American puppets, the Otpor leadership, as well as the political parties that have dominated Serbia subsequently, protested against the 1999 bombing of their country. They have stridently opposed Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence and carry enormous resentment over U.S. policy in the region over the past couple of decades.

    A number of Western NGOs, some of which received some funding from the U.S. State Department and Western European governments, provided a limited amount of financial support for Otpor and other opposition groups. These funds helped them purchase computers, fax machines, and other equipment, and covered costs for printing and other necessities. The limited contact Otpor leaders had with U.S. officials both before and after the overthrow of Milosevic, however, revealed to them an incredible lack of understanding of the dynamics of nonviolent action and the nature of their particular struggle. While they were willing to accept some Western funds during that period, they doggedly kept to their own agenda and priorities, rejecting offers of advice or more direct assistance.

    Western governments also helped fund poll-watchers to observe the presidential elections. When official counts of these elections proved fraudulent, an unarmed revolt erupted that forced Milosevic out of power within days.

    While such Western aid was certainly useful in Otpor's growth and development and in helping to expose the election fraud, it wasn't critical to the movement's success. Rather, it was Otpor's message - developed by the young student leaders at its helm - that captured the imagination of a Serbian population angered by years of war, corruption, oppression, and international isolation. And there was no outside support or facilitation for the October uprising itself, which actually took Western leaders by surprise.

    Indeed, Otpor's leaders tended to be decidedly left-of-center Serbian nationalists who opposed the policies not only of the Milosevic regime and the U.S. government but of the traditional opposition parties as well. The success of the populist groundswell they generated forced the once-feuding opposition groups to unite behind a single opposition candidate, a move that made Milosevic's defeat in the election possible. When the incumbent tried to steal the election, they were able to organize the successful uprising that forced the election results to be honored. As the Times of Great Britain describes it, rather than being part of some kind of Western plot, Otpor was inspired by the "situationists of 1968 Paris, Martin Luther King, the writings of the nonviolent resistance guru Gene Sharp and Monty Python's Flying Circus."

    Echoing those who insisted that Ronald Reagan was somehow responsible for the democratic revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1989, some supporters of the 1999 war on Yugoslavia have tried to claim that Bill Clinton deserves credit for Milosevic's ouster 18 months later. Neither the U.S. president's leadership nor NATO's vast arsenal was responsible for Serbia's dramatic transition. Credit belongs solely to the people who faced down the tanks with the bare hands - in Serbia as well as elsewhere in the region.

    Strongly nationalist parties dominated the Serbian government in the years immediately after the ouster of Milosevic and immediately clashed with Washington over extradition requests, economic issues and the status of Kosovo. Despite the recent election of a government dominated by more liberal parties, relations between Serbia and the United States remain tense, particularly over the U.S. recognition of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence last year. The Socialist Party - descendents of Marshall Tito's partisans who established communist rule in Yugoslavia 65 years ago - has kicked out the remaining Milosevic supporters from its leadership, split with the right-wing ultra-nationalists with whom Milosevic had allied, and is now part of the current coalition government.

    With the success of the democratic revolution, Otpor was unable to sustain itself as an independent movement and eventually dissolved. In 2002, some of Otpor's former leaders founded the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). This independent NGO disseminated the lessons learned from their successful nonviolent struggle through scores of trainings and workshops for pro-democracy activists and others around the world, including Egypt, Palestine, Western Sahara, West Papua, Eritrea, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tonga, Burma and Zimbabwe as well as labor, anti-war, and immigration rights activists in the United States.

    CANVAS leaders such as Srdja Popovic and Ivan Marovic have advised pro-democracy activists against taking money from U.S.-funded agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), as they did while in Otpor. Recognizing how autocratic regimes can use such funding to discredit opposition movements, Popovic and Marovic have criticized NED and similar groups as undermining pro-democracy struggles around the world, due to what they see as its political agenda on behalf of the U.S. government. They remain harsh critics of U.S. imperialism, repeatedly denouncing U.S military intervention in Serbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as U.S. support for armed rebel groups around the world. Popovic - whose mother narrowly escaped death when U.S. forces bombed her building in 1999 - was among the CANVAS trainers for the pro-democracy movement in the Maldives prior to their victorious struggle against the autocratic U.S.-backed regime of Mahmoud Gayoom. He recently returned to the archipelago to support an effort to rescind the government's recognition of Kosovo, during which it was revealed that government's decision had been influenced by a $2 million bribe.

    Ironically, scores of leftist websites have posted articles insisting that Popovic, Marovic, and their comrades in Otpor were simply tools of the CIA, and that their subsequent work with human rights activists through CANVAS was part of a sinister Bush administration effort at "regime change." Along with the ongoing rationalizations for Serbian repression in Kosovo during the 1990s, such arguments revealed a profound ignorance of the complex realities of Serbian politics.

    The U.S. Role in Serbia's Economic Transition

    Though the U.S. role in Serbia's political transition was quite limited, U.S. pressure on Serbia to complete its economic transition was more direct.

    The initial wave of privatization of Yugoslavia's socialist economy, which commenced in 1990 under the leadership of Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Markovic, largely divided shares among the workers rather than simply selling them off to private capitalists. These efforts ground to a halt within a couple years, as Milosevic and his clique realized they had little to gain. The imposition of Western sanctions in 1992 in reaction to the outbreak of war did little to limit the war-making ability of Serb forces or the material comfort of Milosevic and allied elites. The sanctions did, however, enrich his coterie of wealthy supporters who profited from the resulting black market. During the sanctions period, Milosevic initiated a second wave of privatization that essentially transferred public wealth to a small group of his cronies, allowing management of enterprises still under formal state ownerships to divert much of their capital and assets to parallel private enterprises. Some of the beneficiaries of this massive scam remain among the richest people in Serbia.

    During the war 10 years ago, Clinton and other NATO leaders were clear that a major goal in the war was ending what they saw as one of the last holdouts in Europe to the neo-liberal economic order. As a former banker, Milosevic had been backed by the West earlier in his political career as someone who could guide Yugoslavia in that direction, but it was clear by 1999 that he was unwilling to play by the West's rules. In his book Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo (Praeger 2005), John Norris, who served as communications director for Clinton's Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott during the war, wrote, "It was Yugoslavia's resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform - not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians - that best explains NATO's war."

    The third wave of privatization took place after the fall of Milosevic in 2000. Serbia's new democratic government found itself under enormous foreign debt, with much of its industrial infrastructure in ruins. The United States and its allies bombed more than 300 state-owned factories and other publicly controlled industrial facilities, but didn't target a single privately owned enterprise. Under pressure from the United States and international financial institutions, Serbia sold off most of the damaged factories for far less than their actual worth to local tycoons and foreign corporations.

    Resistance to the Western model of globalization in most parts of the world has been led by progressive forces demanding a new more democratic and egalitarian order. In Serbia, however, resistance to the West was led by right-wing nationalists, reactionary clerics, corrupt magnates and bureaucrats unwilling to subject their ill-gotten gains to regulatory oversight. As a result, many Serbs were not prepared to resist this kind of encroachment. Many on the Serbian left welcomed the rise of liberal capitalism as an improvement over the crony capitalism under Milosevic. Similarly, whatever the limits of the Western European model, most Serbs viewed it as far more progressive than the reactionary ultra-nationalism of Milosevic and his allies. Still, the country is plagued by corruption, high unemployment, and growing inequality. Many Serbs on the left see integration into the European Union as perhaps the best they can realistically hope for at this point, and have allied themselves with pro-Europe liberals against the nationalist right.

    And while privatization of the public enterprises was not the goal of Otpor and most of the pro-democracy activists, the democratic governments that they helped bring to power were given little choice. Western governments, the World Bank, and other Western-dominated international financial institutions offered desperately needed international aid and trade to revive the war-battered economy but at a price: namely, the country's financial independence. The people of Serbia had found that the departing dictatorship and the damage from a two-and-a-half-month bombing campaign had left their country in such desperate financial shape that the trade-off of political freedom was economic dependency.

    As with many other new democracies that have emerged elsewhere in recent decades, Serbs could now freely elect their own leaders. But these leaders would be subjected to the dictates of Western capital. Still, the Serbs' history of resistance against both the forces of Western imperialism and reactionary ultra-nationalism leaves hope that a more progressive and democratic Serbia will emerge.


    Stephen Zunes, a senior analyst of Foreign Policy in Focus, is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. This past October, he served as a visiting professor in the Political Science Faculty of the University of Belgrade.

    Editor: John Feffer