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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.1 (2001) 11-21

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The Yugoslav Earthquake

David Binder

Literally and figuratively, the Balkans is an earthquake zone. It has seismic fault lines along the Adriatic littoral as well as in the interior, including the Vardar Valley, scene of the catastrophic 1963 Skopje earthquake and some fifty quakes recorded before that. Indeed, the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on the Balkan Peninsula's structure and relief takes note of the region's numerous faults. There are, in addition, historic fault lines crossing the Balkans, including that dividing the Christians loyal to Catholic Rome from those adhering to the Orthodox faith rooted in the Byzantine Empire and another between the former Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Those divisions, promoted over centuries by far-off princes and prelates, aided in fostering ethnic rivalries, internecine feuds, and wars.

Then there are the Balkan political earthquakes.

The Yugoslav presidential elections of 24 September 2000 can be regarded as a massive political tremor, affecting not only Serbia itself, the largest and most strategically located unit of the former Yugoslavia, but the whole Balkan neighborhood. Not only did the victory of Vojislav Kostunica shatter the autocratic regime erected by Slobodan Milosevic over the previous thirteen years, but it also had an immediate and powerful impact on two regions nearest and dearest to Serbia: Kosovo and Montenegro.

The effect in Kosovo, jointly administered and controlled by North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops under its Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo, has been to set back if not to quash the commonly shared plans of the often warring factions of the Albanian majority to create an independent Kosovo state. In Montenegro the [End Page 11] dream of independent statehood promoted by the former Milosevic protégé Milo Djukanovic and gingerly supported for a time by Washington as a means of diminishing Milosevic's power was made all but moot by the Kostunica triumph.

In both cases, the United States and its major European allies breathed sighs of relief. They had worried all along about the implications of an independent Kosovo and an independent Montenegro for the region. They feared, rightly, that such a scenario could encourage Greater Albania irredentism. They also were concerned lest it reinforce the urge of Bosnian Serbs to cleave to the motherland, unraveling the Dayton agreement.

The election of Kostunica against the odds, at the head of a disparate collection of eighteen opposition parties, is significant in another respect. Kostunica vanquished a hitherto omnipotent incumbent with a well-earned reputation for wily stratagems. Further, Milosevic was a rival made desperate by his indictment on 27 May 1999 for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague. Kostunica won fair and square even though Milosevic's aides rigged tens of thousands of ballots, the first time in the Balkans in which democratic practice conquered an entrenched dictatorship.

True, the Croats had a democratic election at the beginning of the year, but that was after their dictator, Franjo Tudjman, had died and his party was already reeling. Slovenia conducted democratic elections after achieving independence with the help of Germany and Austria, but it simply returned its former Communist Party leaders to power reclothed as democrats. The transition was similar in Macedonia. The elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Dayton cease-fire in 1995 were conducted under NATO and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) supervision and were deeply flawed, in considerable part by the manipulations of the foreign supervisors themselves.

In short, the presidential election in Yugoslavia was the first to be conducted without the interference of foreign, i.e., Western, powers. After all, the United States had bombed and sanctioned its way out of a position of influence in Serbia, its sturdy ally in two world wars, long before the presidential vote. Almost miraculously, it transpired without bloodshed--although a number of regime supporters and their opponents were beaten. [End Page 12]

"Dear, liberated Serbia," Kostunica began his victory speech to a jubilant crowd in front of the burned-out federal parliament building on 6 October. "What we are doing...


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