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The End Of Milosevic

After 13 years of rule, the tyrant who haunted Europe is ejected by a furious Serbian revolution. An inside look at the people's putsch

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Every revolution has its moment of combustion. Yugoslavia's came on an autumn Wednesday in the persons of three elderly men on a tractor. Hundreds of Slobodan Milosevic's dreaded special police had swept down on the hard-bitten diggers at the Kolubara coal mine in Serbia's heartland who had first initiated popular resistance by refusing to work. Attempting to force out the 7,000 striking miners intent on crippling the country's electric grid, security troops surrounded the complex and blockaded a key bridge with police buses. But the workers stood fast, broadcast for help on radios and cell phones, and 20,000 pugnacious citizens converged on the mine. As they approached the barricaded bridge, those three old men plowed their tractor straight into the police blockade, shoving the buses aside and opening the way for thousands to break through as the security men melted away. Armed with the awesome revelation of its own strength, a grass-roots revolt had begun, and from then on nothing could stop it.

The next day that delirious display of people power was repeated over and over in the capital of Belgrade as hundreds of thousands of Serbs stormed the bastions of Milosevic's oppression and these too gave way. First the parliament building, seat of Milosevic's political apparat, went up in flames as protesters tossed Milosevic's doctored ballots out the windows. Then state television, main prop of the regime, went black as protesters broke in the front door while police fled out the back. Then the official news agency switched its allegiance to Vojislav Kostunica, the unassuming constitutional lawyer whose election Milosevic was trying to steal. Riot police doffed their helmets and threw down plastic shields to join the insurrectionist carnival. Army troops sat quietly in their barracks. By nightfall, Milosevic had nothing left to sustain his rule.

Years of pent-up frustration under Milosevic's blighting misrule had finally erupted in a tumultuous showdown, as each new success taught Serbs to see they had the power to change their future. The revolution ran at cyberspeed from the disputed election two weeks ago, ending victoriously in the dizzying events of one day. Just like that, the Serbs took back their country and belatedly joined the democratic tide that swept away the rest of Eastern Europe's communist tyrants a decade ago. The West gloried in the exit of the man who fueled savage European conflicts for a decade and cost his enemies so much money and blood.

It dawned even on the out-of-touch Milosevic that his people were ready to retire him. In an astonishing moment Friday night, the strongman who had ruled so long through his control of television stood stiffly before a camera he no longer owned, his jaw trembling slightly as he said he would step aside. He conceded electoral defeat and congratulated the man he "just learned" had outpolled him. But ever defiant, he warned he had no intention of bowing out altogether. After a "rest" spent visiting with his grandson Marko, he would be back to rebuild his Socialist Party of Serbia and resume an important role in the country's political life.

For bone-weary Serbs, though, it was enough that he was gone now. The euphoria of freedom swept across the country. The Serbs had surprised themselves with their own empowerment, earning an exhilaration so strong that no fears about the future could quench it. They filled up the capital again Saturday to see their democratically chosen leader sworn in. In Washington and the capitals of Europe, NATO's leaders rejoiced that their campaign to unhorse the Serb autocrat had been won, promising the new President aid and an end to economic sanctions--even if the fugitive indicted by an international tribunal had yet to be brought to justice. And they put off until tomorrow any worries that Yugoslavia's new leader might prove a distinctly prickly partner.

What happened last week looked inevitable as it unfolded live on TV. But it didn't even look possible two weeks ago. Milosevic unwittingly set his fate in motion last summer when he tampered with the constitution and called an election nine months early to buff up his democratic veneer. Voters didn't like that, but when Serbs went to the polls Sept. 24, even they suspected the country would cement his presidency in place for another four years. And when the opposition declared a runaway victory on Sept. 25, claiming Kostunica had got 52.4%, compared with Milosevic's 38%, the Serb autocrat still looked strong, albeit shaken. He set about rectifying the decision in his usual way, urging the cronies who packed the Federal Election Commission to rig the count. But the tally was so lopsided that even he could not plausibly claim victory outright. He had to concede he had come in second, but he settled for a second round of voting to buy time to cook better results for the runoff.

Imagine the Serbian leader's surprise when the opposition didn't just fold. He had counted on its usual spineless disunity. He didn't realize the uncharismatic Kostunica was the critical ingredient that let Serbs imagine an alternative future. He didn't know how bitterly Serbs blamed him for their blighted lives. The accumulated woes of $45-a-month salaries or no employment at all, four lost wars and untold thousands of lost Yugoslav lives, the NATO bombing that dashed an impoverished economy into visible ruins, the bitter years of sanctions and international opprobrium. Domestic repression and self-serving propaganda had reached critical mass, draining away the last vestiges of his once genuine popularity. "The underlying discontent, up till now only flickering, burst out," says Milan Milosevic, a political analyst at the independent Belgrade weekly Vreme. "Everything needed to make the change possible was suddenly there."

Still, Serbs had been there before. In 1991 they staged massive protests against Milosevic in Belgrade. In 1996 they had voted against his party in municipal elections and went out in the streets to make their choice stick. Milosevic finally conceded but hung on himself until their demonstrations fizzled and their leaders surrendered to his political and financial blandishments. He had always divided and ruled. Why, he blithely wondered, should it be different this time around?

The opposition gambled too. The cautious Kostunica thought Milosevic's lust to retain his aura of legitimacy might force the President to give up if the legal bodies ruled the "official" vote count a fraud. So he refused to participate in the Milosevic-ordained runoff. Kostunica resolutely insisted he was already President-elect, and he was backed up by an international chorus of support, save only from Moscow. He risked losing again if the runoff took place without him on Oct. 8, leaving Milosevic to claim a technical victory. But Kostunica grew visibly in stature as he stuck to his sense of peaceful mission. We can have, he said, "a nonviolent, wise, civilized, democratic revolution."

That gave the opposition 12 days to beat Milosevic in the streets. Kostunica called for national civil disobedience: strikes and peaceful demonstrations to shut the country down until the outpolled President capitulated. The protest movement seemed to start slowly, barely sputtering to life in Belgrade, where garbage piled up, shops pinned up signs reading CLOSED FOR THEFT (of the election), and roving bands of protesters occasionally clashed with police. But out of sight, in the rural towns, resistance was surging. For the first time, the ordinary workers, who had made up the faithful bloc of Milosevic's supporters for years, turned out against him. These were the backbone of the nation, the weather-beaten farmers, the downtrodden shopkeepers and, most crucially, the stolid miners in the coal-black core of Serbia who kept the nation's electricity alight. When they spontaneously launched their local protests to drive out Milosevic, the balance of power shifted.

As the Kolubara diggers held firm on the strike, Milosevic was forced to test his control over the security forces by dispatching them to reopen the mine. At dawn on Tuesday, he sent his military chief, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, in a convoy of troops to talk to the miners "for the good of the nation." Pavkovic failed, only increasing their stubbornness.

The second attempt on Wednesday to crack the miners brought the revolt to ignition point when the three old men bulldozed aside the barricade. A few police swung their batons at the flood of protesters, but they had no hope--and no stomach to do much more. However loyal the upper levels of police might have remained, the rank and file had turned. We police, muttered one, are more democratic than you think. When Kostunica arrived that night to cheers of "President!" the police looked on as he declared, "Those who step on the people's will and try to steal their votes are the ones committing subversion." By morning, the cops at the mine were gone.

Emboldened, people power caught fire, and the police just let it burn. Few troops were willing to stand in the way when the toughs from Cacak, another heartland town that had taken an almost martial stance, mounted their "people's tanks"--excavators and bulldozers--and headed for Belgrade on Thursday. Led by their charismatic mayor, Velimir Ilic, the men of Cacak were coming to enforce Kostunica's demand that the President concede defeat by 3 p.m. The challenger had called on the entire populace to fill up the capital as a sign of its determination.

By then Ilic's 100-man inner core of former military men, bodybuilders and karate-club members had a bolder plan. "We were playing for all or nothing," says Ilic. "We wanted to get rid of Slobo once and for all, and we knew we could only achieve that by liberating the parliament and television." Ilic organized several thousand Cacak men and busted through six police roadblocks to lead his shock troops into the capital.

What helped bring others out by the hundreds of thousands was Milosevic's miscalculation. His handpicked constitutional court put out an inflammatory ruling Wednesday night. There had indeed been, they said, fraud in the Sept. 24 election, and some official results were annulled. That seemed to imply that a whole new election was required and Milosevic could happily stay in power until his term ended in July. Such a slap in the face of legitimacy--even the sham variety normal in Yugoslavia--practically invited voters to overthrow Milosevic.

To their own amazement, that is just what they did. "We did not plan any sort of violent takeover," said Zoran Djindjic, an opposition leader. "Our idea was to assemble a large crowd to sit down in front of the federal parliament and stay there until the election commission turned up with real results." Long before 3 p.m. on Thursday, 200,000 or 300,000 citizens--maybe half a million--had swarmed into the capital in no mood for sitting.

At almost exactly noon, a volley of tear gas touched off the final revolt. Police guarding the parliament thought they could face down the furious, swelling mob. The peppery gas started to bite, pushing back the crowd as many dragged out handkerchiefs ready in their pockets. But the police were unwilling to match the ferocity of the crowd as its show of strength escalated into a full-scale assault on the principal symbols of Milosevic's power.

The men of Cacak drove their excavator straight up to the front of the parliament and swarmed up the stairs wielding sticks, metal bars, a reaping saw, even a coat hanger in the fist of one elderly man. If they expected a fight, the other side was too half-hearted to give them one. By 2:30, reluctant policemen threw down their riot gear, went over to the demonstrators' side and ceded the building to the people. The mob caved in the bolted doors and set offices ablaze, turning Belgrade into a smoky spectacle.

Soon after, another pillar of Milosevic's authority fell away. The protesters moved on to the tower home of Radio Television Serbia. It was not only the regime's crucial mouthpiece--without it Milosevic could not counter the clamor in the streets--but also its most despised tool. A special antiterrorist unit had been set in place to confront any trouble. These troops resisted longer, firing tear gas and a few stray bullets. But when the protesters drew up their excavator and set the entry on fire, overwhelmed troops scooted out the back. The broadcast--the only one seen regularly throughout the country--of an orchestral concert blacked out, as smoke wreathed the tower. Total victory seemed assured when the notoriously tame state news agency, Tanjug, defected to the opposition, calling Kostunica the "elected President of Yugoslavia" in a dispatch signed "Journalists of liberated Tanjug."

All the while, Milosevic remained out of sight, whereabouts unknown. His suburban palace looked eerily empty as it stood guarded by a single soldier. Rumors flew that the boss was holed up in a bunker in eastern Serbia or already on a cargo plane to Belarus. In fact, he was locked away, as ever, in his private parallel universe, brooding on his next move, no doubt egged on to defiance by his uncompromising wife Mira. Serbs were so used to his prodigious talent for survival that they feared he still had one more trick up his sleeve. From his balcony overlooking the delirious crowd, Kostunica cried, "A great and beautiful Serbia has risen up just so Slobodan Milosevic will leave!" But to make sure, he urged the people to stay in the streets all night just in case the deposed strongman tried to call out the army.

It turned out to be too late for that. The opposition had enlisted former chief of staff Momcilo Perisic, fired by Milosevic two years ago, to cajole reluctant generals into accepting Kostunica as President. And Milosevic lost his last hope Friday morning when Moscow, after days of indecision, dispatched Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Belgrade to congratulate Kostunica.

Russia seemed hopelessly behind the curve. Despite a blizzard of phone calls from Western leaders asking Russia to come out in support of the opposition's electoral win, the government of Vladimir Putin dithered. The Russian inclination was to side with the observance of prevailing law, even if these laws were written to support a strongman or being manipulated to keep one in power. Moscow fervently wished to retain its influence with its dear Slavic brother Slobodan. And it was convinced the whole business was a NATO plot to subjugate Yugoslavia. So Moscow basically did nothing until faced with a Serb fait accompli. Only when Milosevic was clearly on his way out did Moscow pile on.

After his well-photographed chat with Kostunica, Ivanov spent a very private hour with Milosevic. To tell him what? Assurances that no one would haul him to the Hague? We know for sure what Milosevic told him: I may be down, but I'm not out. The wily old manipulator said it again to the Serbs, vowing to lie low only for a while. He would be back, ready to help his party "gain force" and take up a "prominent" role in politics again.

Washington recoiled, saying, "This is something we cannot support." Opposition leader Zarko Korac was aghast: "Do they want such a man despised by the whole country as head of their party?" Inside Yugoslavia and out, nearly everyone is worried that democracy will be imperiled as long as Milosevic remains. "I don't trust a single word of Milosevic," said opposition spokesman Djindjic, warning that he would seek "to stab the nation in the back."

But Slobodan Milosevic literally has nowhere else to go in a world that is loath to offer safe haven to indicted war criminals (not even Belarus wanted the grief). He has always lived in a kind of house arrest, deliberately divorcing himself from the society around him. Now it will just be more involuntary. A thirst for revenge goes deep in the Balkans. Milosevic's son Marko, father of the grandson Slobodan hopes to "visit" and whose wealth makes him a target, didn't wait around to test the new government's tolerance; on Saturday he packed himself and his family aboard a plane to Moscow.

Freedom comes when enough people stand up to demand it--at the ballot box if they can, in the streets if they must. Serbs could be proud last week that they finally mustered the gumption to do that. But the lesson of people power is that it's harder the second day. Now the opposition must consolidate Kostunica's authority over those portions of the nation that remain mutinous. Reviving an economy wrecked by the vestiges of communist planning, 10 years of war, sanctions and the destructive bombs of NATO will tax the patience of Serbs burning to emerge from the Milosevic nightmare. Balkan turmoil will not end with a single election.

After years of drunken rage, Serbia needs time to recover from a terrible hangover. But mass graves and normality make a bad mix. The many living victims of atrocities--including Serbs themselves-- and the upholders of international law will demand a reckoning. And the question of collective responsibility can be assuaged only when Serbs take their hardest step yet: a thorough, painful look at the past that they have just repudiated. --Reported by Dejan Anastasijevic and Duska Anastasijevic/ Belgrade, Massimo Calabresi/Washington and Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow

Annals Of Justice
In What Court?

The idea behind creating an International Criminal Court is simple: in a world ruled by law, there needs to be a place to try the bad guys. But getting the court to work has been difficult. Though the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a temporary court set up in the Hague, has tackled the cases of nearly 30 defendants--and issued sentences as severe as 45 years in prison--it remains hamstrung by a simple problem: getting its hands on the people it wants to try, especially politically prominent figures like Slobodan Milosevic. It isn't getting any easier.

The new Serbian President, Vojislav Kostunica, says he doesn't recognize the authority of the Hague to try Milosevic--or any other Serb--on war-crimes charges. So what will happen to the ex-President? Some European officials speculate that Serbia will attempt a "Pinochet" solution, in which Milosevic may be immunized from prosecution in the same way former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet was when he left power. But that approach may not stick if Serbia wants to join the European Union. Last week many Serbs were saying they wanted Milosevic to stand trial at home.

This idea of local, as opposed to international, trials for war criminals is gaining popularity. In Cambodia, for instance, the U.N. is working to bring former leaders of the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement to trial. Because Cambodian politics makes it impossible for the government to ship the former Khmer Rouge leaders overseas, a complex joint U.N.-Cambodian tribunal will probably be established. That kind of local trial of bad guys may be the only workable model for trying participants in Rwanda's 1994 genocide: more than 100,000 Hutu are languishing in jail, awaiting trial. But politics clouds those trials as well. One of the lessons of the Milosevic case may be that where crimes against humanity are concerned, it is no easier to try one man than 100,000.

The Unmaking Of a President

Serbia's light-speed revolution marked the finale of a political tragedy that had dragged the country through four wars and left thousands dead. Here's how Milosevic's rule unraveled

--SEPT. 23 As Serbia prepares to vote in early elections called by Milosevic, most voters fret that the tyrant, who had rigged past elections, would arrange to walk off with a sure victory

--Sept. 24 As he casts his vote, President Milosevic is confident that the results will give him the public veneer of a "duly elected" leader

--SEPT. 27 Three days after the election, Kostunica takes a courageous stand, insisting on his victory and calling for a general strike--no matter what the cost

--SEPT. 29 Miners at the Kolubara coal mine near Belgrade begin a strike, threatening the nation with a blackout. Days later, tens of thousands of Yugoslavs join them

--OCT. 5 Weary but flushed after their triumph, Serbian opposition supporters rejoice in Belgrade, locus of a nationwide party. Now comes the hard part

"We were playing for all or nothing. We wanted Slobo out." --OPPOSITION LEADER VELIMIR ILIC


Cover Date: October 16, 2000



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