Back To The Future

It was a tumultuous decade that saw five bloody wars, the death of a nation, and the disgrace, arrest and trial of the man who was chiefly the cause of it all. Hence it was fitting, last week, that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia came to an end not with a bang or even much of a whimper. The last act of the country's national Parliament was simply to vote through a constitutional charter dissolving the state. Many lawmakers didn't bother to attend.

There were compensations. Yugoslavia's last president, Vojislav Kostunica, the popular hero who led the democratic uprising that ousted Slobodan Milosevic, found himself without a job. He's unlikely to be missed, considering that fewer than a third of his countrymen support him. Apathy runs so deep, in fact, that last December's Serbian presidential elections had to be annulled (for the second time) because a required majority of the electorate didn't turn out to vote. Not that it much mattered, since the post had become almost purely ceremonial anyway. Kostunica's exit was similarly lackluster. He didn't even use the occasion to deliver one of the long-winded lectures that state television once felt compelled to broadcast. Taking Yugoslavia's place is the new union of Serbia and Montenegro. Aptly, it has already given rise to a sardonic joke. The republic is dead.Long live S&M.

In fact, the end of Yugoslavia is no laughing matter. The new union is a shotgun wedding, with the European Union as father of the bride. Europe's foreign-policy czar, Javier Solana, brokered the deal to keep Montenegro from seeking independence, which in turn would have made it harder to deny Kosovo the independence its Albanian majority wants. It's also likely to be a short marriage. Almost all Serbs and Montenegrins expect to split after three years or so, when the charter binding them allows a referendum on independence. Meantime, the pair don't even share an anthem, flag or currency. Serbia keeps its dinar, Montenegro the euro, which last year replaced the Deutsche mark. Both Kostunica and Montenegro's prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, boycotted the spartan festivities halfheartedly marking the new nationhood.

Where now? Possibly back to the future. Once again, Serbian nationalism is intruding on politics. Running a frighteningly close second to Kostunica in those aborted presidential elections was Vojislav Seselj, the Chetnik warlord and ultranationalist named as a conspirator with Milosevic in war crimes. Kostunica himself has proved deeply nationalistic and anti-Western, losing much of the liberal support he enjoyed during the October 2000 revolution. His inability to muster the 50 percent turnout needed to get re-elected has left Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, leader of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, as the man who calls the shots.

Djindjic is the politician who has everything, except popular support. He's never won a national election and owes his rule to a coalition among wildly divergent small parties. Many Serbs will never forgive him for turning Milosevic over to The Hague. Milosevic's trial, now in its second year, has actually boosted the ex-strongman's standing at home. His fevered rants of an international plot against the Serbs gets better audience ratings than popular soap operas. Partly to bulk up his popular support, Djindjic has lately been playing some dangerous cards. Trolling for right-wing nationalist votes, he spoke late last year of redrawing Serbia's borders in a sort of Dayton Round 2. The implication: that the former Serb Republic of Bosnia would go to Serbia--notwithstanding that it's part of another country. More recently, he called for international talks to resolve the Kosovo problem--an excuse, some suspected, to bang the drum for a sacred "Serbian motherland." To detractors, all this recalled Djindjic's dubious wartime visit to Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital, to attend an ox roast hosted by the besiegers of Sarajevo--a personal legitimization of the Serbs' assault on multiethnic Yugoslavia.

Even Djindjic's critics concede such talk is just "pragmatic politics" in a right-wing Serbia. "They are calculated to enable him to retain more power than he could ever win in the elections," says Miroslav Prokopijevic, a former top official in Djindjic's party. Trouble is, that's what brought Yugoslavia down in the first place. At the very least, it's "destabilizing," as Prokopijevic puts it. Remember that other "pragmatic" political operator who bid for power by playing a cynically nationalist hand? He's the one sitting in The Hague.