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Serbia – fourteen years after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic

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By Dimitrije Tasic

October 5, 2014 marked fourteen years since the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition staged a mass protest in Belgrade forcing Slobodan Milosevic, president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) at the time, to resign. Butcher of the Balkans, a sobriquet coined for Milosevic in the Western media, reigned over Serbia for thirteen years.

He inherited a relatively poor Serbia, compared to countries of the Western world, but considerably richer than many communist countries of Eastern Europe. The Serbian economy in 1987, as part of the Socialist Yugoslavia, was significantly more market oriented and better performing than Soviet-type economies. Nevertheless, Serbia, unlike Slovenia, did not take advantage of the favorable initial conditions. Rather than pursuing stabilization policies and structural reforms, the Serbian government, led autocratically by Milosevic, insisted on political objectives, pushing Serbia into multiple military conflicts, international isolation, and economic backwardness with an increasing development gap with the Western world. During the thirteen years of Milosevic’s reign, Serbia lost its comparative advantage relative to many other countries embarking on economic transition.

In addition to economic deterioration, Milosevic’s reign resulted in harsh violations of civil liberties as he ruled in an atmosphere of severe media censorship and restrictions on free speech in order to prevent any criticism. Many of the other misfortunes Serbian people (as well as their neighbors) had to go through can be attributed to Milosevic’s bad governance.  For example, thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their homes in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. This is not to say that the nationalistic leaders of Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo should not take a huge responsibility for the great loses that these conflicts brought. They absolutely should. Nevertheless, it was probably the first time in the century’s long history of Serbia that Serbian people were pitted against almost the entire world. One of the founders of the UN and victors in the Balkan Wars, WWI and WWII, the Serbian people during Milosevic’s reign were depicted in the world media as negatively as German Nazis. No other party involved in the conflict was as vilified as the Serbs.

The October 5 protest in downtown Belgrade was organized after the Federal Electoral Committee refused to acknowledge the victory of the opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, in the federal presidential elections. Even though many unofficial sources determined that Kostunica had scored a decisive first-round victory against Milosevic, the Federal Electoral Committee announced that Kostunica had only won 49 percent of the votes and scheduled a second round of voting. In response, the opposition scheduled a protest under the slogan ‘Serbia in Belgrade’, claiming that this was another instance of Milosevic’s election fraud.

Estimates on the number of protesters in Belgrade vary, but what is certain is that this was the single biggest rally ever mounted against Milosevic. In addition to the residents of Belgrade, the protest attracted tens of thousands of people from all over Serbia. The police very soon gave up on Milosevic, recognizing that their actual role was to be by their own people, and not to support the autocrat’s rule. Milosevic soon resigned and Kostunica took the oath before the Federal Parliament on October 7, 2000, becoming the first democratic president of the FRY.

In contemporary Serbian political jargon, the phrase “October 5 changes” (some call it revolution) represents the dividing line between the two eras in post-communist Serbia: the non-democratic and the democratic.

Although Serbia formally became a democracy alongside the other republics that made up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Serbia’s first democratic election in line with EU standards was held on December 23, 2000, and was made possible thanks to the events of October 5. Election after election afterwards was held in line with the EU standards showing a big improvement for state of the Serbian democracy.

In addition to improvements of democratic standards, Serbia, after the political turn in 2000, sought to catch-up quickly from missed economic opportunities by adopting structural reforms similar to those in other transitioning countries. The results of reforms in Serbia were a stable macroeconomic environment and robust economic growth. Nevertheless, many of the reforms were not fully completed due to the heavy political weight they carried, leaving Serbia still significantly behind the level of economic development in the EU-28. In addition, the economic prosperity of people greatly diverged, almost wiping out the middle class.

Overall, October 5 definitely has a positive heritage for the Serbian people. After all, if October 5 did not happen, Serbia would not be on the threshold of becoming a member of the EU in the near future. It is also true that less has been achieved than the Serbian people expected, especially in terms of standards of living. However, Serbia today has a much better regional and international reputation, it is much more open to the world, and at least has a chance to improve the lives of its people. With Milosevic on the other hand, it was doomed to fail.

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