December 10, 2020
From Barricade Journal

illustration by iggdeh

by Marko Velickovic

Unlike other East European countries, Serbia’s main transitional challenges since Slobodan Milošević’s overthrow in 2000 remain overshadowed by the legacy of war in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia, which Serbian society failed to deal with. After the end of the wars, the denial of war crimes became a strong force in generating new divisions and affecting the way politics in Serbia is understood, so that patriotism, territorial disputes, and war crimes, which have dominated public narratives in Serbia since 2000. The ensuing political debates and electoral campaigns have thus not adequately focalized building independent institutions, separating legislative, executive, and juridical powers, transforming a planned centralized economy into a free market economy, or combatting existing poverty through improving social programs, healthcare, or educational reforms. In 2000, Serbia’s leading reformist and pro-European politician Zoran Đinđić led the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS)—a big tent coalition of 18 parties, all of different political backgrounds—in its successful overthrow of authoritarian president and war criminal Slobodan Milošević, leader of the left-wing nationalist Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and president of Serbia/Yugoslavia (1987–2000). Following this, Đinđić, co-founder and president of Serbia’s Democratic Party (DS), the main non-nationalist, socially liberal opposition party to Milošević throughout the 1990s, became prime minister and Vojislav Koštunica, leader of the national-conservative Democrcatic Party of Serbia (DSS), became president. Đinđić hoped to reform and modernize Serbia from his position as prime minister, but his efforts faced strong obstruction from newly elected president Koštunica. Đinđić was assassinated in 2003 and Koštunica became the new prime minister soon after.

Second half of 1999 : Prior to the formation of the DOS, Serbia’s main opposition coalition is the Alliance for Change (SzP). The dominant part of the SzP is comprised of civic-minded and moderate parties, the only nationalistic party in that coalition being the relatively small and inconsequential New Serbia (NS). The SzP organizes a series of protests throughout Serbia, thus becoming the dominant political force in the opposition. By the end of 1999, polls indicate that the popularity of SzP alone matches that of Milošević’s SPS.

January–September 2000 : The main driving force of the process leading to forming the ideologically heterogeneous anti-government DOS coalition is Zoran Đinđić, liberal politician and president of Democratic Party (DS). His pragmatic approach implied that SzP was not strong enough to secure victory against Milošević, and that the best way to overpower Milošević among voters is to cooperate with nationalistic branches of the opposition. Therefore, SzP agrees with several other parties to create the DOS. Đinđić proposes Vojislav Koštunica, leader of the moderately nationalistic and conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), as presidential candidate for the united opposition. DSS and Koštunica himself do not have large support at this time, but the support of the united opposition and the versatile Get Out the Vote campaign (managed by Đinđić and including popular musicians, actors, filmmakers, academics, civil society groups such as OTPOR, and think tanks such as G17) influence a large part of the Serbian electorate to support him. This campaign includes numerous political actors, public figures, and experts who invested their credibility in creating a public image of Koštunica as a principled person with high moral standards in politics.

October 2000 : Koštunica receives 50.24% of the vote, which is enough to avoid a run-off. Nevertheless, the government-controlled electoral commission announces that Koštunica has not reached the required 50% threshold to avoid a runoff, and that there would in fact be a second round between Milošević and Koštunica. Huge protests erupt at this news, resulting in Milošević resigning on October 5 and announcing that Koštunica is the new president-elect of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). While the FRY was officially dissolved in 2006, in 2000 Serbia and Montenegro comprised its two federal units.

Disagreements immediately rise within the DOS. Đinđić and his wing of the opposition advocate for the quick replacement of leading structures and persons in the security sector (intelligence, military, police). Koštunica opposes this, advocating for legalism as the best way forward for the political transition. Legalism, in the form employed by Koštunica, meant that all laws from the period of Milošević’s rule remained valid and that there must be a legal basis for any personnel or political change. The transitional government is appointed by parliament, and the new government includes ministries with shared leadership from both the DOS and Milošević’s SPS. As a result, heads of intelligence, military, police, and security structures from the Milošević era remain in place for months after his overthrow.

23 December 2000 : New parliamentary elections take place. The DOS wins 176 out of 250 seats in parliament. On the basis of a pre-electoral agreement, the position of prime minister goes to the DS and its leader Đinđić. Despite the political differences that are already visible, Koštunica’s DSS is part of the DOS coalition, supports and takes part in the new government, with one deputy PM as well as the Minister of Health.

26 January 2001 : The new government is appointed. Its first decision is to replace the head of Serbia’s state security service (remaining from the Milošević period). Meanwhile, a flawless public image of Koštunica has by now been well established among citizens of Serbia. The popularity of his DSS exceeds the popularity of Đinđić’s DS by a large margin (polls indicate 41% for DSS and 6% for DS). 

June 2001 : Slobodan Milošević is indicted with war crimes against non-Serbs during the wars in the former Yugoslavia and is extradited to the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The extradition is the decision of Đinđić’s government. Koštunica and his DSS oppose the extradition, calling it a “coup d’état.” Their position is that extraditions and war crime indictments must be regulated by Serbian law, not international bodies. (However, in 2004, Koštunica extradites 14 persons while harboring major war criminal-indictees Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, making clear that the matter of extradition is one of political will, not law.) At the same time, the Socialist People’s Party of Montenegro (SNP), DSS’s partner from Montenegro, the other federal unit in the FRY parliament (the Federal Parliament had been in charge of passing laws in the field of international cooperation and extraditions), block the adoption of such an extradition law until April 2002.[1]

Milošević is still very unpopular, but mainly because of the economic collapse as well as the war defeats that Serbia suffered in Croatia and Kosovo during his tenure. On the other hand, the discussion of war crimes committed by the “Serbian side” are considered socially taboo and a critical examination of Serbian involvement in the wars is not welcomed by the majority of Serbian citizens. Therefore, Koštunica’s opposition to ICTY extraditions are considered an act of patriotism by a large number of citizens, and cooperation with ICTY becomes one of the main faultlines dividing the electorate: a minority supports cooperation with the ICTY and a pro-nationalistic majority opposes modernization and transitional justice.  

17 August 2001 : DSS leaves the government, stating that members of the government and Prime Minister Đinđić are connected to criminal structures.

November 2001 : Special Operations Unit (JSO) engages in a mutiny and blocks the main highway passing through Belgrade. JSO is the elite special forces police unit of the State Security Service. During the Milošević period, they were involved in war crimes and some of its members were linked (and later sentenced) with both war crimes and criminal activities. Moreover, the unit is closely linked to an organized criminal group from the Zemun municipality of the city of Belgrade known as the “Zemun Clan.” JSO is one of the units that remained most loyal to Milošević within the whole security system. However, the unit refrained from defending Milošević during the final October 2000 riots that resulted in his downfall. In return, the unit was not disbanded by the government after the political transition. JSO’s proclaimed reason for their protest is in regards to the cooperation with the ICTY that resulted in Milošević’s extradition. JSO demands that Parliament pass a law to regulate such cooperation that would effectively cease cooperation with ICTY. Another of their demands is that the new appointees to head the state security services be replaced by people close to the JSO. Not having enough “muscle” to confront JSO, as the federal Ministry of Defense is loyal to Koštunica, and the strongest police unit is already in a mutiny, Đinđić is forced to accept their proposal and replace the head of the State Security Service and his deputy with people proposed by JSO.

July 2002 : The Serbian parliament passes the Law on Organization and Jurisdiction of Government Authorities in Suppression of Organized Crime. The law is crucial in Đinđić’s strategy to confront JSO and to confront criminal groups that were close to JSO, by establishing witness protection measures. His government has already made contact with prospective “insiders” from JSO and other criminal groups, among them Ljubisa Buha, a former chief of the Zemun Clan. Buha expressed his willingness to be a protected witness and to be granted immunity in return. However, the law cannot be implemented until confirmed by Federal Parliament. Nevertheless, the DSS and the Montenegrin SNP blocked it in Federal Parliament until the end of 2002. One week after the Law is confirmed in Federal Parliament at the end of the year, Zemun Clan members set fire to the company owned by Buha. Several tabloids in Serbia, politically opposed to Đinđić, launch a campaign against him, baselessly claiming that he has links with criminal groups led by Buha.

September 2002 : Presidential elections take place in Serbia. The main candidates are Koštunica, Miroljub Labus, and Vojislav  Šešelj. Labus is a reformist and liberal candidate supported by Đinđić. Šešelj is the candidate of the hardline nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) supported by former president Milošević. Đinđić’s popularity at the beginning of his term is low. Nevertheless, his government took very decisive steps in the fields of economy, international cooperation, harmonization with the EU, education, and social security. The average salary in Serbia is now three times higher compared to the average salary in October 2000. At the beginning of 2002, Đinđić and ministries in his government launched a campaign throughout Serbia to bring their program and the efforts of his government closer to the people. The campaign had a positive effect on the DS’s popularity among Serbian citizens. In mid-2002, his DS narrowed the lead of DSS to a few points or even matched it in some polls, while other polls indicated that the pro-reformist parties together were pulling ahead of the DSS. However, Koštunica’s personal popularity is still high, and he manages to prevail over Labus in the first round of the elections with 31% of the vote, compared to 28% for Labus. In the second round run-off, supporters of Šešelj and other pro-Milošević voters support Koštunica. He wins 68% of the vote. Despite his victory in the popular vote, he did not take the post, since the law stipulates that at least 50% of the country’s total population cast a vote in order for the election to be valid.

December 2002 : Another presidential election is voided because turnout is again short of the required 50%. Nataša Mićić, speaker of parliament and a pro-Đinđić reformist, becomes acting president of Serbia on December 30, with a constitutional obligation to call another election within 60 days of taking over the post. She did not do so, stating that new elections should take place after a constitutional change instituting a different presidential election method and that it was pointless to call another election that would only again be void.

January 2003 : A special department for the prosecution of organized crime is formed.

February 2003 : The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) is transformed into the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. A new constitution is adopted, effectively eliminating the post of FRY president and Koštunica with it. Meanwhile, former Zemun Clan chief Buha testifies as a protected witness before the prosecutor for organized crime.

12 March 2003 : The day after Buha completes his statement to the prosecution, Prime Minister Đinđić is assassinated. The deputy commander of JSO, Zvezdan Jovanovic, is suspected of carrying out the assassination, and JSO’s former commander, Milorad Ulemek, along with leading members of the Zemun Clan, is suspected of having organized the assassination. Đinđić’s family and the liberal segment of the public demand an investigation and disclosure of the political background of the assassination. They point to the responsibility of Koštunica and the DSS, whose activities prior to the assassination they allege are complementary to the activities and campaigns of JSO and the Zemun Clan.

18 March 2003 : Zoran Zivkovic, vice president of the DS, is elected by parliament as the new prime minister. Even though the popularity of the DS rapidly increases after the assassination, Zivkovic himself is very unpopular and his appointment to PM actually reverses the party’s upward trending popularity. By the end of 2003, his government loses support in parliament due to a confrontation with Labus and Mladjan Dinkic, governor of the National Bank of Serbia. Early elections are called. 

28 December 2003 : Early elections are held. The hardline nationalist SRS win 27.6% of the vote, while the DSS wins 17.7%, the DS wins 12.6%, the G17 (a newly formed pro-European and self-proclaimed reformist party) wins 11.4%, the conservative coalition SPO-NS wins 7.7%, and the SPS wins 7.6%. A new (minority) government is formed by the DSS, G17, and SPO-NS with support from (former president  Milošević’s party) the SPS. The SPS only provides support to the minority government, but does not play a role in its ministries.

However, this is the first step in what later proves to be the total rehabilitation of politicians from the period of Milošević’s authoritarian regime and even of some aspects of Milošević’s political agenda. The process of democratization and transition has been slowed ever since. Despite the erosion of media freedoms, questionably “free and fair” conduct of elections, and increased political control and intimidation that effectively eliminated a viable opposition to the ruling party, Serbia is entering the final stage of EU accession. Several reports from the last couple of years indicate that Serbia is a flawed democracy, partly democratic, or hybrid regime.

[1] The SNP was founded in 1997 by the pro-Milošević wing of the DPS (Democratic Party of Socialists) as result of a split within the party. The DPS, which was the ruling party in Montenegro, did not participate in 2000 elections. They challenged Milošević’s politics since 1997, and opted to boycott all Federal institutions.  Therefore, almost all Montenegro’s seats in FRY’s Parliament belonged to SNP, having 28/128 MPs in the Council of Citizens and 19/40 MPs in the Council of Republics. After 2000, the SNP became an ally of Vojislav Koštunica.