Milosevic Allies in Power with New Look, 15 Years on


When jubilant crowds stormed Belgrade's parliament 15 years ago and ousted Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, few could have imagined that his allies would be in power today -- and firmly backing European integration.

Monday marks the anniversary of the overthrow of the late president, whose 13-year iron rule stoked brutal ethnic conflict and mass murder in the former Yugoslavia, resulting in international isolation and the crippling of the Serbian economy.

After Milosevic refused to admit defeat in a September 2000 election, Serbs took to the streets for two weeks, culminating on October 5, 2000, when hundreds of thousands stormed the state media building and the federal parliament. The largely nonviolent uprising forced Milosevic to resign a day later.

"It felt incredible, because before that day we thought David can beat Goliath only in legend -- or 'Lord Of The Rings'," said Srdja Popovic, a leader of the Otpor (Resistance) movement that galvanized the uprising.

"I felt so proud of millions of my fellow citizens ready to risk their lives."

Despite the elation of many over Milosevic's downfall, a decade-and-a-half later Serbia is run by a clutch of his former ultra-nationalist sidekicks -- but in the totally different guise of pro-European reformists.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, elected last year, served as information minister under Milosevic, and has a murky past of fiery far-right speeches during the 1990s drive for a Greater Serbia "cleansed" of Croats and Muslims.

Vucic's predecessor and now deputy premier Ivica Dacic was Milosevic's spokesman, known as "Little Sloba", while current President Tomislav Nikolic is another former ultra-nationalist who was a minister while NATO bombs fell on Belgrade during the war with Kosovo.

"I really didn't expect them to still be in politics," said 35-year-old Aleksandra, a unemployed Belgrader having lunch in the autumn sun in Pionirski Park, opposite the parliament where she took part in the historic protests.

"I feel some disappointment," she added.

The uprising was orchestrated by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, a coalition of 19 parties against Milosevic, but it struggled to fulfil high hopes in a deeply troubled country.

A blow to reform was the assassination in 2003 of Zoran Djindjic -- then prime minister and a leading light of the post-Milosevic era.

Milosevic himself died in 2006 at The Hague, where he was on trial for war crimes. Although his dark shadow may seem to loom large over the current crop of leaders, they had to take a very different path to get elected.

While Serbia is not yet an EU member, negotiations on its accession were opened in January 2014, and are widely supported.

Vucic has expressed remorse for his past actions and is keen to be seen as a pro-Western reformer. A landmark deal reached with Kosovo and the treatment of migrants passing through Serbia under his watch have won plaudits.

"I think that nationalism as the predominant ideology of the 'dark nineties' has been swept out," said Popovic.

He said the three overall aims of the movement at the time were winning freedom, "stopping wars, and being good neighbors", and becoming a member of the European Union.

"It seems that those three groups of ideas have become not only mainstream, but that they eventually won."

While Vucic and his colleagues have clearly changed tack, some remain skeptical about whether their transformations are genuine, or superficial attempts to win and maintain power.

"We see the erosion of media freedoms, a certain degree of authoritarianism creeping into system gradually," said Florian Bieber, a Balkans specialist at the University of Graz in Austria.

He questioned whether Serbian institutions were able to withhold authoritarian pressure, saying no leaders since Milosevic have been "institution builders".

In addition, close links between business, politics and organized crime under the late strongman's rule "created power structures that persisted until today", Bieber said.

Serbia has moved far from the pariah status it endured in the 1990s, but the economic challenges remain stark.

Youth unemployment has been around 50 percent in recent years, the average monthly salary is less than 400 euros ($450), and foreign investment is much needed. The country will also have to wait at least five years to join the EU.

While the capital Belgrade itself is bustling and increasingly popular with visitors, youngsters expressed concern over their prospects and the pace of change.

Branka, a 21-year-old working in telecoms, said many of her friends were keen to move abroad as they struggled to find good pay and conditions at home.

"It's sad for us that tourists love Belgrade more than we do," she said.

Comments 0