Skip to main content

346. Serbia's October Revolution: Evaluating International Efforts Promoting Democratic Breakthrough

Ray Jennings is a research scholar at the Stanford University Center for Democracy Development and the Rule of Law. He spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on October 31, 2007. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 346.

In 1987, the former Yugoslav communist apparatchik-turned national protagonist, Slobodan Milosevic, showed promise as a modern liberator. Enjoying immense initial support, he rose to power swiftly and retained the authority he achieved with violence, xenophobic propaganda, appeals to history, legalism, patronage and appropriation of the country's wealth. He ruled as Yugoslavia's constituent republics devolved into separate nations, through four wars and as a NATO bombing campaign pitted his regime against the West. The stirring electoral victory of his opposition and subsequent protests that removed Milosevic on October 5, 2000, came after more than a decade during which the autocrat often seemed unassailable, invulnerable and incorrigible. His fall was hailed inside and outside of Serbia as a decisive moment of revolutionary democratic change.

Few of the players critical in the dramaturgy of the electoral breakthrough of 2000 characterize the ouster of Milosevic as revolutionary today, however. Much of the architecture of the regime's judicial, security and intelligence apparatus remains intact. National chauvinism, distrust of pluralist politics, poor relations with the West, endemic corruption, and economic stagnation persist. It is not always the case that a successful breakthrough also triggers a gradual, evolutionary process of consolidating liberal democracy. Instead, successful cases can degenerate into partially consolidated democracies and sometimes slip back into authoritarian rule. At times, the very way breakthrough is achieved can signal difficulties in the consolidation that follows.

Factors that contribute to breakthrough develop over time. During the 13-year period under Milosevic from 1987 to 2000, cultural values were contested and new borders, a market economy, multi-party democracy and oppositional politics developed fitfully and in a context unlike other breakthroughs before or after in the region. Externally, international regard for Slobodan Milosevic oscillated, but democracy promotion assistance grew to proportions that outsized other similar subjects of that era. Milosevic eventually fell, but what combination of external factors and domestic variables over time combined for such a result and what were the causal connections between them?

Internal influences on democratic breakthrough
Several domestic influences during the period between Milosevic's initial consolidation of power in 1989 and his defeat in 2000 contributed to the breakthrough moment that October. Many of these domestic factors are interdependent and difficult to isolate from each other or the proactive/reactive genius loci of historical and external influence. Taken together and in retrospect, six determinants played a particularly important role in the resistance leading to Serbia's democratic breakthrough.
First and in many ways foremost, civic resistance and a democratic political opposition matured and drew important lessons from two clarifying episodes of dissent after 1988. Participation in the groundswell of resistance in 1991-1992 and in 1996-1997 contributed to the effective engagement of the political opposition, civil society organizations and student activists in the culminating efforts of 1999-2000. At the time Milosevic was defeated, an experienced, inclusive and influential civic and political "counter-elite" had developed as a riposte to the cogent exclusionary politics and principals of the regime.

Second, free print and electronic media, including the nascent internet, proved essential in disseminating more balanced news coverage and in providing access to an alternative set of political values that collectivized a fragmented democratic resistance.

Third, political crises in Serbia throughout Milosevic's rule occurred against a backdrop of extraordinary economic failure. For most of the decade, entrepreneurial anarchy, survivalist capitalism and sanctions-related economic decline proved advantageous to Milosevic. By 1999, a lack of reforms, unpaid salaries and remittances, poor service delivery, international economic isolation, inability to repair damage from NATO bombardment and growing awareness of the effects of a decade of unlawful appropriation of the republic's wealth contributed to disillusionment with his leadership.

Fourth, the semi-autocratic nature of the regime worked both for and against Milosevic. Milosevic preserved parcels of easily-controlled, nominally-open political space to reassure international interlocutors, co-opt his political opposition and portray himself as a legitimate democrat. But consistent and comprehensive control of social alternatives eluded Serbian authorities. Moreover, a reliance on legalistic authority inclined the regime to resort to the passage of repressive laws on civic activity, university education and media expression when threatened, providing signature moments for mobilization of the opposition.

Fifth, nationalism and historical memory were indispensable to Milosevic during much of his tenure in government after 1987. By 1995, nationalist ideologues who were receptive to Milosevic's unity and salvation rhetoric felt betrayed by his poor treatment of Kosovo's Serbs after 1991, disavowal and maltreatment of Serbian refugees during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Finally, Milosevic's negotiated international agreements ending those wars were regarded as inimical to the interests of Krajina and Bosnia's Serbs. By the end of the war in Kosovo, the Milosevic regime was barely able to rally traditional bases of support with patriotic appeals. The opposition, however, was able to leverage the soft nationalism of an unassuming Vojislav Kostunica to attract attention away from the regime during the campaign.

Sixth, splits among security forces became more apparent after the Kosovo conflict, particularly after the September 24, 2000 elections, which ultimately proved fatal to the regime during the protests of October 5. Without the full support of the army, secret police, interior ministry and key paramilitary commanders that the regime relied upon as its last lines of defense, Milosevic's ability to retain authority in the face of overwhelming numbers of protestors was lost within hours.

External influences on democratic breakthrough
Not only are external influences on democratic breakthrough multi-faceted and diverse (and, at times, even unintended), they are typically and characteristically uncoordinated and notoriously hard to isolate. Of all the factors bearing on the demise of the Milosevic regime, direct democracy promotion assistance in the form of financial support, training and contact with other regional activists was the most influential. But economic and military sanctions, diplomatic isolation of the Milosevic regime, Western demonstration or "city-on-the hill" effects and significant, though diffusionary, impacts from the wave of Eastern European transitions, especially in Slovakia and Croatia, were also integral to creating an atmosphere where revolutionary potential accumulated.

As with internal influences on democratic change, these factors are interdependent and few could easily be singled out for a signature impact on breakthrough. It is more the case that these influences leveraged each other and domestic developments to democratic change. Taken together, important external influences contributing to breakthrough in Serbia fall into five broad categories: international democracy promotion assistance; economic and trade sanctions; diplomatic isolation; military intervention; and diffusionary effects.

First, democracy-promotion assistance from all sources totaled nearly $150 million in the period between 1988 and 2000. Nearly two-thirds of this amount was expended in 1999 and 2000 alone. Some of the largest providers of democracy assistance were the Open Society Fund based in Belgrade, the United States Agency for International Development, the European Union, bi-lateral European donors and a host of other quasi-governmental and private institutions. After 1998, assistance broadened and deepened to include initiatives designed to bolster the survivability of the resistance and engage in confrontation with the regime. There was less of a focus on sustainable development and more on short-term political change in Milosevic's last two years in office.
Second, economic sanctions and constraints from 1992 onward including various IFI, UN, US and EU credit, import, flight, trade, energy, arms and trans-shipment bans had a mixed impact, both creating the expansive criminal coterie that sustained the regime and contributing to the exhaustion of assets and patience that eventually eroded support for Milosevic after 1998.

Third, diplomatic relations with Milosevic were schizophrenic. At times, when Milosevic was accepted as a peacemaker, as he was after the Dayton talks, the autocrat turned inward to strong-arm his domestic critics and reward his supporters. Later, more "targeted sanctions" on Milosevic's inner circle, along with quiet diplomatic approaches in 1999 and 2000 to persuade Milosevic allies to "come clean," and the Hague indictments eventually gave Milosevic an expiration date that contributed to the regime's vulnerability.

Fourth, military intervention, in the form of NATO bombing, and the ground occupation of Kosovo had a mixed effect on regime change. In the short-term, the bombing scattered the opposition and radicalized domestic politics. It terminated any leverage the West could offer a vanishing class of moderates. NATO's attacks appeared as proof to many Milosevic sympathizers of the hostile intentions of western countries and their disregard for Serbia. However, the loss of Kosovo and inability to repair damage from the bombardment, combined with the fragile economy and the hard dictatorship that emerged during the war, contributed to public doubts and open criticism of Milosevic's ability to lead.

Fifth, diffusion and demonstration effects were important contributors to breakthrough. Street protests in Serbia influenced later democratic change in Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Slovakia, and these successes in turn impacted Serbia in 2000. The visits of activists from these transitions, especially during the absence of most western aid providers within Serbia in the 1999-2000 period, were particularly reassuring among the besieged opposition in Belgrade and opposition-controlled municipalities.

Causal linkages: the relationships between internal and external influences
Any focus on breakthrough must account for how revolutionary potential is generated. In the Serbian case, this potential was developed over a decade of war, stolen elections, harassment and violence, abortive protests, signature victories and disillusioning defeats. Any causal analysis should account for how external influences capitalized on or otherwise leveraged the accrual of experience in the local environment.

In research funded by the Wilson Center to date, a number of observations and tentative conclusions on the issue of linkage are possible. One helpful way to look at the question of causality is to array both internal and external forces described above into structural and proximate (or precipitant) categories of influence.

Internally, structural factors such as the semi-autocratic nature of the regime, ethno-nationalism as a normative social value and extraordinary economic failure were significant contributing variables to breakthrough. Internal precipitants, often the exclusive focus of many studies of breakthrough in Serbia, include election fraud, the accumulation of lessons from the protests of 1991-1992 and 1996-1997 and the evolutionary adaptations made by Milosevic's opposition during the hard dictatorship of 1998-1999. It was during the 1998-1999 period, for instance, that key players in the Serbian opposition became convinced that techniques of a coup d'etat, including forceful takeover of institutions critical to the regimes power, might be required to dislodge the regime.

Another critical precipitant was the Otpor (resistance) movement's extraordinary timing and skill in instigating public participation and providing a catalytic alternative to unpopular opposition political parties and civic groups after 1998. Additionally, the increasing unreliability of security forces over the last half of 1999 and into 2000 also culminated in a critical realignment of the regime's defenses during the breakthrough moment on 5 October. The support and neutrality of two key paramilitary formations for the opposition during the breakthrough moment were particularly galvanizing for the participating public. Finally, free media (such as B92, Radio Index, Studio B and others), using platforms in opposition-held towns and on the internet, helped keep alive doubts about the veracity of government news and information while raising awareness of competing social and political alternatives.
Externally, it is more difficult to divide influences into structural and precipitating factors. Structural influences, such as the various economic and diplomatic sanctions placed on Serbia from 1992 onward, certainly had a mixed but ultimately cumulative effect that gave rise to disaffection, on which the opposition could later capitalize. But direct democracy aid and military action over Serbia's role in the Kosovo war acted more like precipitants.

The $150 million directed toward Serbia from western sources for democracy promotion activities, from 1988 onward, (most of which was expended after 1998) was an extraordinary sum—then and now. In a per capita comparison, this amount is analogous to more than $3.3 billion in a country as large as the US. Numbers alone matter less than the fact that aid was remarkably coordinated with a high degree of consensus emerging among major providers of such assistance by early 1999. Five donor conferences took place between 1997 and 2000 and relationships between agencies and personnel were close in expatriate communities among evacuated aid professionals temporarily lodged in Budapest and Skopje. In Washington, interagency meetings among governmental and non-governmental actors active in Serbia took place monthly. In Serbia, in the absence of full ensembles of foreign embassy and aid organization personnel after the 1998 evacuations, national professional staff often worked in close collaboration across organizational boundaries to continue the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of implementation.

The impact of NATO's bombardment of Serbia also precipitated political change, although it did so in unpredictable ways. The second and third order effects of the bombing were to scatter the opposition and roll back the social and political reforms of 1996 and 1997. However, the regime's inability in the war's aftermath to repair war damage, pay overdue salaries and remittances or to convincingly frame the retreat from Kosovo as a victory contributed to anger, resentment and disillusionment with Milosevic. As with other factors, the impact of military intervention combined with other influences have a not entirely anticipated constellation effect upon political change in Serbia.

In the end (and pending a final analysis of this case study of democratic breakthrough in Serbia due by the end of 2008), external influences were profoundly important but in no way indispensable. They served to speed and organize dissent, acting as an accelerant that provided exposure, resources, moral and material encouragement, technological aid and professional advice. And notably, there were relatively few instances of dramatic retrograde motion that undermined local actors' priorities resulting from international actors' insistence on their own agendas. For the most part, the democracy promotion community in Serbia took most of its cues from local actors.

Internal factors were most responsible for the creation, maintenance and final realization of the revolutionary potential of the period. Successful breakthrough resulted from a coincidence of timing, interests and preparation informed by the previous decade of struggle. International isolation of Milosevic's Serbia combined with the lessons of decentralization, the involvement of the provinces, effective if extraordinarily difficult unity of effort and local activists providing citizens with a sense that they have something to protect, less to fear, and that real alternatives existed to Milosevic. The domestic opposition had created and capitalized on opportunities in 1991-1992 and 1996-1997 without significant outside support and it was not until 1998 that international actors fully aligned with the political opposition's goals of removing Milosevic from power. By October 2000, the unity and sophistication of local resistance to Milosevic was unprecedented and able to use this growing disaffection to oust Milosevic.

Mass movements of the "regime change" variety typically emerge with efforts by political and civic actors to mobilize the public as witnessed in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. In Serbia, a mass movement for regime change developed as much around such actors as among them, pushing them toward each other, accentuating their impact and helping define their roles. Preparing to visit the Kolubara miners during their strike in the post-election crisis in early October 2000, the would-be Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica remarked: "there are sometimes historic situations in which parties and political leaders do not lead the people, but the people to a large extent lead them. This is one such situation."


About the Author

Ray Jennings

Read More

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. It does this through scholars-in-residence, seminars, policy study groups, media commentary, international conferences and publications. Activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The program investigates European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including globalization, digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance, and relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.  Read more