Anniversaries torment Cedomir Jovanovic. For a young man in a big hurry, there was little solace in celebrations last week marking 10 years since the Dayton peace accords ended the Bosnian war. Jovanovic was on the streets in Belgrade during the big 1996 student demonstrations and he was on the streets again in October 2000 as Serbs, angry at rigged elections, forced strongman Slobodan Milosevic from power. And when the new leaders arrested Milosevic, Jovanovic was a key aide to Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, making sure the arrest happened despite widespread opposition in police and intelligence circles. Not surprisingly, when Djindjic was assassinated in 2003, allegedly by secret police, they had plotted to finish off Jovanovic too.
They may yet. Older politicians forced him out of Djindjic's Democratic Party, and from his job as deputy prime minister. Now he may well be the most heavily guarded private citizen in Belgrade, with two carloads of bodyguards following him at all times. A sniper opened fire on his car last March, which fortunately was armored. Even his young son Mihajlo has received death threats, beginning at the age of 6 months.
Late last month, to media acclaim, Jovanovic announced the formation of a new party, the Liberal Democrats, which immediately registered 3.4 percent in the polls--before any campaign. Popular among young people, the telegenic 34-year-old has an almost fanatically devoted band of followers. (During his student days, adoring women supporters sported buttons reading CEDO, MARRY ME.) A substantial part of that attraction is the fact that, almost alone among Serbian politicians, Jovanovic has little patience for the bloody mythologies of the country's past. Instead, he looks to the future--and speaks of unpleasant realities as he sees them.
That outspoken message infuriates Serbia's powers that be. It's as simple as it is provocative: Serbs in Bosnia should stop looking to Belgrade as their capital, says Jovanovic. Kosovo is already de facto independent, and Serbs should let it go. Serbia should take responsibility for its war crimes, and he attacks the Orthodox Church as complicit in Milosevic's excesses. "It is all black and white here. There is no space for gray," he says, quaffing a Red Bull energy drink, which he describes as "my only vice." Friends sometimes tell him that he's too blunt. But as Jovanovic sees it, he has no time for sugarcoating hard truths. "What future does Serbia have, with all young people wanting to leave?" he asks. "We have lost 15 years. We are racing with time, and we have to win that race." His new party's motto? Serbia is in a hurry.
And there's the rub. Things have scarcely moved at all in the Balkans over the past decade. Serbia's economy is moribund. Joblessness, already epidemic, is rising. Foreign investment is negligible, and both Bosnia and Serbia lag far behind the rest of the Balkan pack in the drive to join the European Union. Meanwhile, politics seems frozen in place. Nationalists hold sway in Belgrade. Ethnic tensions in Bosnia are, if anything, worse than before the war. Last week in Washington, U.S. officials persuaded Bosnia's Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders to begin renegotiating Dayton. The accords brought peace but left Serbs in Bosnia as a state within a state, institutionalizing ethnic divisions and paralyzing government. U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns calls Bosnia a place of "internal Berlin walls." Talks are also just getting underway on the future status of Kosovo, wrested from Serb control by NATO in 1999 and still under U.N. administration. And as Milosevic's trial at The Hague enters its fourth year, with no end in sight, other accused war criminals remain at large, allegedly sheltered by Serb officials in Bosnia and Serbia. Chief among them: Gen. Ratko Mladic, the wartime Bosnian Serb commander, and Radovan Karadzic, who just last month published a new volume of poetry in Serbia.
Critics dismiss Jovanovic as an extremist, merely for voicing facts that to foreigners are obvious. But in Serbia today, he says, "extremism means promoting the ideals of normal life." No Serbian officials, for example, label the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica a genocide, except Jovanovic. "I don't want my children, my friends, my town to become the paradigm of Nazism in the 21st century," he says.
That's a hard message to sell in a country where the most popular party, the Radicals, is led by an accused war criminal, Vojislav Seselj, awaiting trial at The Hague. Jovanovic hopes his personal popularity will help change all that. The next elections aren't scheduled until late 2007, though it's likely they could come sooner. Until then, his main challenge will be to continue speaking out--and trying to stay alive.