Touch, but be gentle

Aug 25, 2000 -- (IJT) Vojislav Kostunica, the leading Serb presidential candidate for the opposition, probably wasn't far wrong when he said that a new U.S. State Department office in Budapest mandated to "run" the Serb opposition campaign was an "American kiss of death to the democratic forces of Serbia."

The opposition—like it or not—has become an unwitting collaborator in the West's plans to topple Milosevic. No matter how vehemently opposition parties refute their links (bogus or not) with the West, a gray shadow now hovers over their chances to topple Serbia's strongman.

Many Serbs are likely to view the anti-Milosevic office, headed by current U.S. Ambassador to Croatia William Montgomery, as an aggressive intrusion into Yugoslavia's internal affairs that has more to do with conquering and taking over the country, than to peacekeeping and moderating.

It is a point on which both the opposition and Milosevic's supporters agree. Opposition candidate Kostunica called the move "the most flagrant interference in the internal affairs of our country." Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic said, "The office is one more link in a chain called 'How to Conquer Yugoslavia.' This is the battle for Yugoslavia and that is why the elections are an important element of the battle."

Kostunica took it one step further, accusing the United States of purposely trying to destroy his chances of defeating Milosevic. "It takes a great amount of arrogance," he said, "to say that promoting democracy in Serbia is a long-term U.S. goal. Democracy in Serbia is Serbia's goal and no one else is entitled to it. ... The real U.S. goal is obviously a further break-up of Yugoslavia. Milosevic's victory directly leads to that."

To make matters worse, last week, Serbs witnessed the forcible KFOR takeover of a smelting plant in northern Kosovska Mitrovica that employs the bulk of the area's male population. Originally, KFOR explained the smelter was taken over because it was emitting toxic fumes that were a health risk. Later, it conceded that it also hoped to employ an international consortium to rebuild the smelter and create a workforce there that would include ethnic Albanian workers. Unsurprisingly, that move was also interpreted by Serbs as straying from NATO's peacekeeping duties and seeking to fully control and occupy the area.

Whether through miscommunication between the U.S. State Department and NATO, or just clumsy pre-election moves, both incidents will add fuel to Milosevic's anti-West fire—and give his campaign platform more credence. The Yugoslav president—like all wartime leaders—thrives on crisis. Yugoslavs are used to hearing how their oppositionists are imperialist agents, wreckers bent on the destruction of Yugoslavia, or at the very least on the West's payroll. The regime has repeatedly accused Serbian opposition groups of courting the West after NATO's 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.

Those with enough access to independent media—usually in the country's urban centers—can separate the wheat from the chaff. Those in rural areas, more reliant on state television, have a harder time. Powerful images showing occupying NATO soldiers in a smelting plant—with angry Serbian workers looking on—will be all Milosevic needs to shore up his support with those voters who may have been wavering.

And what exactly will the new Budapest office do? According to the State Department, Montgomery will be leading the operation, working with the Serbian opposition in the run-up to elections this fall and "addressing a full range of issues related to our long-term goal of advancing democracy in Serbia." Non-governmental officials already working with the Yugoslav opposition have—off the record—expressed concern about the United States' more gung-ho antics, fearing the damage that might result from a high-profile presence in a neighboring country such as Hungary. A case of too little, too late perhaps. NGOs—of course dependent on cash from the United States and wary of cutting off their funding streams—are not saying don't touch, but just be gentle.

Perhaps the clumsy forays in Mitrovica and Budapest won't be all for the bad. Milosevic won't be the only one getting mileage out of the incidents. Kostunica, despite his rantings about the West damaging his chances of defeating Milosevic, in fact, may benefit. Kostunica—no angel but preferable to Milosevic any day—is a candidate who is both critical of the regime but visibly refuses to play into the hands of the West. His prominent pro-Yugoslav, anti-West statements may well lure away the Milosevic vote. His main challenge will now be to get his statements critical of the West aired on state television.

Original article