The New Statesman

By Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times Magazine

January 27, 2001

BELGRADE — Vojislav Kostunica is still trying to recover from the “shock” he felt nearly four months ago when he finally realised that he was indeed the president of Yugoslavia. He was “thrilled and humbled”, he says, and had thought much about how he would “behave as president-elect” after his September 24 victory over Slobodan Milosevic, who disputed the results of the vote until he was forced out of power on October 6.

But since then, “things have been changing very quickly” for the soft-spoken and studious 56-year-old lawyer, who readily acknowledges his “lack of experience” in governing, and finds his new duties and unlikely celebrity rather overwhelming.

“This job is very difficult, but also very creative,” he says, “and I wouldn’t be in politics if the creativity were missing”. Although he remains entirely serious, it seems that he is wittily hinting at the total mess which he inherited in his country’s affairs — both domestic and foreign — from his predecessor and which necessarily will require quite a bit of “creativity” to overcome.

In his short time in office so far, Kostunica has already had to deal with ending Yugoslavia’s international isolation and securing economic aid from the West, while resisting pressure to hand former president Milosevic over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. He has also been striving to save the Yugoslav federation (and his own job) from the disintegration that would follow if Serbia’s junior partner, Montenegro, seceded, as its president, Milo Djukanovic, has threatened. Meanwhile, in Serbia, the country’s worst-ever electricity crisis has given him another big headache, and his own political allies are scolding him for not being tough enough on Milosevic and his former associates, many of whom still occupy key posts, especially in the military.

Kostunica responds to these complaints by pledging to be president of all his people and to take one step at a time, guided by his country’s most pressing needs and the rule of law. Although he came to power after a “bulldozer revolution” enforced his election victory, he’s no revolutionary — rather a cautious legalist who symbolises Yugoslavia’s hope for stability and order after a tumultuous decade. All the same, his preferred approach of building a new order on the foundations of the old has disappointed some democracy activists who fear that the momentum for bringing about real changes may soon be lost.

In spite of an extraordinary 84-per cent approval rating he scored in a November public opinion poll, Kostunica takes these concerns very seriously. He is visibly preoccupied with numerous heavy burdens, and looks as if he’s thinking about them all the time. Dozens of people attempt to see him every day and his packed schedule usually allows him only half an hour for lunch and no more than three to four hours of sleep a night.

As I thank him for finding time for our interview, Kostunica gives me a “but of course” smile, then ushers me to a small round table in the corner of his spacious office, where his desk and a bookshelf are the only other pieces of furniture. Ready for any queries I may have, and with no third person in the room, he thinks carefully before and during his answers — unlike most leaders of his rank, who usually have their talking points prepared (and sometimes even rehearsed) by spin-doctors. To my utter surprise, no one from his staff even thinks of taping the interview — normally rule number one of presidential media handling.

Unlike Milosevic, who occupied the ornate former royal palace in a luxurious Belgrade suburb, and lived in a big house nearby, Kostunica’s office is in the rather bleak federal building in New Belgrade. He continues to reside in a small apartment in the city centre with his wife of 24 years, Zorica Radovic, also a lawyer.

He is often described by friends and colleagues as quiet, unsmiling, and a bit of a loner — a man whose principles make him hard to manipulate. Many attribute his relatively quick rise to prominence as Milosevic’s chief rival to the fact that he possessed fewer negatives than the other potential opposition candidates — he never became a member of the Communist party, for example, and appeared untainted by corruption or evident collaboration with either Milosevic or the West.

Western officials who have met Kostunica are impressed by his intellect and thoughtfulness, and relieved by his strong commitment to law and order. He appreciates the praise, but has been cautious in deciding whom he should receive. According to press accounts, both Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, originally suggested that they would like to visit soon after his inauguration.

I was travelling on Albright’s plane on the day of Milosevic’s ousting, interviewing her amid a flurry of phone calls with foreign ministers and staff in Washington. She made no effort to hide her delight at Milosevic’s fate and the democratic changes in Yugoslavia, and expressed high hopes for the new man. “He may be a nationalist,” she acknowledged flatly, “but he’s not an ethnic cleanser.”

Kostunica also declined a requested meeting with Albright during a Vienna gathering of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in late November, though the two shook hands and spoke briefly. He met twice, however, with Jim O’Brien, special adviser on the Balkans to both Clinton and Albright, as well as with Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s UN ambassador and the broker of the 1995 Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia.

O’Brien says the Clinton administration was happy with the way relations with Belgrade were developing under Kostunica — in spite of the difficulties evoked on the Yugoslav side by painful memories of the Kosovo-provoked NATO air campaign against Serbia in 1999, seen in Yugoslavia as having been inspired by Clinton and Albright. “We had a normal relationship at an abnormal time,” he says.

Kostunica generally agrees, but looks forward positively to his dealings with the new US administration, signalling a future warming of ties with Washington. He admits he is happy that George W Bush became president and expresses willingness to meet with him or his secretary of state, Colin Powell, in the coming months. “One should be very cautious and not try to predict things, but the Bush administration doesn’t have the problem with the Nato bombing campaign,” he says. This outlook is significant — Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore said of Bush during the US election campaign that, “he needed six weeks to support the bombing. He was hesitating… This will be very important in our future relations.” Bush and his foreign policy advisers have indicated that they support the democratic changes in Yugoslavia that followed Milosevic’s overthrow, but have not yet clearly outlined future US policy towards Belgrade.

Although US aid for Yugoslavia is conditional on Belgrade’s cooperation with The Hague, Kostunica has been reluctant to allow Milosevic to be tried by the tribunal, which he describes as a political instrument of US policy. A meeting in Belgrade this week with the court’s chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, ended acrimoniously. Fearing a possible nationalist backlash, which would be dangerous to fragile reforms, the new Serbian leadership would prefer to try Milosevic at home — but on potential charges of corruption and vote-rigging, rather than war crimes. In a move that sparked harsh criticism from his allies in the 18-party coalition that won a sweeping victory in Serbia’s parliamentary elections in late December, the new president met with Milosevic (in his capacity as leader of the largest opposition party) two weeks ago.

One of the thorniest issues he and Milosevic discussed, Kostunica says, was the still “undefined relationship” between Serbia and Montenegro. “I’m pressed from abroad with all sorts of demands and ideas about what should be done,” he complains. Even after several meetings with President Djukanovic, he says, the two leaders “have different approaches, because Djukanovic thinks that Yugoslavia doesn’t exist at this moment”. The Montenegrin president demands independence and a union of equals with Serbia. Kostunica, ruling out independence, proposes a federation that allows substantial autonomy for the two republics. Responding to Djukanovic’s calls for a vote on independence in Montenegro, he says: “It would be very hard for us to accept a separate referendum in a non-democratic atmosphere, with the media controlled by Djukanovic”.

Formerly a supporter of the Bosnian Serbs’ wartime effort to win their own state and link it with Serbia, Kostunica insists that his Bosnia policy as president will be “to respect and observe the Dayton agreement: that Bosnia-Herzegovina is an independent state, with a special relationship between entities” — Serbs, Croats and Muslims. He is, however, critical of “some rather liberal interpretations of Dayton”, and says he is “against centralisation or unitarisation” of Bosnia. “According to Dayton, from an external point of view, there is one state, but from internal, there are two. This must remain.”

Western diplomats in Belgrade say that this position displays Kostunica’s willingness to balance his nationalist sentiment with the demands of statesmanship. But they warn that the realities of ruling a war-ravaged Balkan country will soon hand him much bigger challenges.

On a personal level, the new president already mourns “losing the realms” of his freedom and misses his previous — very private and parochial — life, now altered forever by the presidency. He says the change actually began 11 years ago, when he co-founded the Democratic Party: “My life changed from academic to public.”

Born on March 24, 1944, Kostunica was an only child, who grew up playing basketball and listening to Elvis Presley, but wasn’t much interested in socialising. His father, a rural judge, served for six months on Serbia’s post-war Supreme Court, but was sacked by the new communist authorities for opposing their political purges on public servants.

After graduating from the Belgrade University Law School in 1966 and taking his first job as a lecturer at the school, he himself was fired in 1974 for defending a senior colleague’s criticism of constitutional changes made by Tito, Yugoslavia’s totalitarian leader. The young Kostunica found refuge at the Institute of Philosophy and Social Theories — a hive of dissidents, where he could work but was not allowed to teach. He translated the US founding fathers’ Federalist Papers and wrote scholarly analyses of Alexis de Tocqueville and other liberal democratic thinkers.

Three years into the life of the Democratic Party, in 1992, he left to start the Democratic Party of Serbia — a new political party that believed the Serbian national question was essential to that country’s future, and supported Radovan Karadzic’s efforts to win self-determination for the Serbs in Bosnia. But Kostunica condemned ethnic cleansing and gave no support to paramilitaries. He was a member of the Serbian parliament from 1990 to 1997, when his party boycotted elections “due to the lack of regular electoral conditions”.

As pleased as he was that the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) won a vast majority at the December parliamentary elections following his own victorious September presidential election, Kostunica says he was not “happy enough” about the vote’s outcome. “The results could have been better if the turnout had been higher. We have a two-thirds majority, but DOS could have been even stronger in the assembly.”

One reason for the low turnout — about 58 per cent — could, he thinks, have been people’s “dissatisfaction with the problems in the country, especially the electricity crisis”. But many voters didn’t turn up because they were convinced the opposition would win no matter how many people went to the polls. “Threats by opposition leaders” during the campaign that former functionaries of the communist regime would be arrested also “might have scared some people”. But, he says, there is no doubt that “the mood in the country is in favour of further democratic reform. The Serbian people waited for these changes for 50 years.”

He also says the differences that have already begun to appear between him and the new Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic — the other co-founder of the Democratic Party — should not be interpreted as a sign of big disagreements in the governing coalition. They are differences in approach, he says, not substance.

Kostunica still can’t forget the faces of the thousands of demonstrators who stormed the Belgrade parliament on October 5 last year to make sure that he did get his chance. “I thought about my responsibilities before all those people,” he recalls. But “the most shocking event” came next morning, when he saw his picture on the front page of Politika, Belgrade’s leading daily newspaper. A media bastion of Milosevic’s authoritarian regime, Politika had switched overnight to serving his successor. Just a month earlier, the paper had published a vicious anonymous attack on Kostunica, depicting him as a liar and wife-cheater who lived with 17 cats, described as “mendacious, fickle and unfaithful” animals. (He actually has two cats and a dog.)

“For ten years, we read Politika looking for some news about us, and it was distorting our opinions,” says Kostunica. “And then I saw the picture and the headline. It was a shock realising what had happened.”