The popular uprising and takeover of the Parliament building in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on Oct. 5 is one of the most dramatic victories for law and democracy in recent European history. To understand why, it is useful to review some of the developments in the Balkans that led to this event.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic faced demonstrations against his rule as early as 1991, but he crushed them with tanks. In 1997, after his Socialist Party stole elections in 14 cities, students led a massive 88-day wave of peaceful demonstrations. Milosevic eventually admitted the fraud and yielded the cities to the properly elected opposition officials.
But he was still in power. He brought the universities under the control of his party, which led professors to take their classes to the streets. His power grew as his tightly-controlled parliament elevated him to the Yugoslav presidency. The Yugoslav people were deeply disappointed to see that neither the United States nor Western Europe were willing to back the demonstrators.
The West further strengthened Milosevic by mishandling the situation in Kosovo. Things began to deteriorate there in 1997, when the Kosovo Liberation Army, described as a terrorist organization by all outside observers, began attacking Yugoslav police and army units. But the real troubles began when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reversed U.S. policy in 1998 by backing the KLAs demands at negotiations she organized in Paris.
From there, it was a short step to the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Kosovo a clear violation of the United Nations Charter and the Helsinki Accords. This unprecedented act of aggression claimed many civilian lives. Milosevic took advantage of the chaos to purge the province of tens of thousands of Albanians.
The bombing had a predictable consequence. Outside aggression always strengthens the leader. After the bombing stopped, Milosevic moved quickly to crush new demonstrations against him.
This summer Milosevic decided to extend his dictatorial reign. He decided to change the constitution to allow him to run again and called an election for Sept. 24. He expected that the two main opposition leaders, ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj and erratic Vuk Draskovic, would not be able to seriously challenge him.
As a response to Milosevics move, 18 opposition parties united behind Vojislav Kostunica, a man with an impeccable record of moderation and integrity, as their joint candidate.
Milosevic responded in his usual fashion. His police raided the headquarters of opposition groups and shut down several free TV stations and newspapers. Despite these actions and his usual election-rigging, the Serbian people massively voted for Kostunica.
Following the elections, Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic, head of the highly unpopular United Left communist party, tried to falsify the results through the Electoral Commission, which they controlled. His Supreme Court then used these results as the basis for annulling the election, which would have extended his rule.
As I witnessed during my visit to Yugoslavia immediately after the elections, people had had enough of Milosevics tricks, which had led the country to international isolation and economic ruin. Demonstrations grew, and when the police began to side with the demonstrators, the generally peaceful protests exploded in the takeover of the Parliament Building and the collapse of Milosevics terrorist apparatus.
President Kostunica faces enormous challenges, but he will enjoy broad popular support. The international community, led by the European Union, has already taken steps to assist his efforts to rebuild the nation. Comments that Kostunica is a nationalist are unjustified. He is as much a nationalist as Bush and Gore are when they say that they are proud of America. All signs are that a new era of recovery and reconciliation in Yugoslavia, as well as in the entire Balkans, has started.
Vukan Vuchic is UPS Foundation Professor of Transportation in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Originally published on October 26, 2000