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Hope on the Balkans
The man above the fray

by Milorad Ivanovic and Tamara Jorgovanovic

Vojislav Kostunica, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), is being cheerfully greeted by thousands in the streets of Serbian cities and villages. For the first time in his 13-year rule, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic faces a serious challenge.

Yugoslav and international pollsters have given Kostunica a strong lead over Milosevic, and his support is steadily rising. A poll conducted between 7 and 11 September by the Center for Political Science Research and Public Opinion showed that support for Kostunica had increased to 40 percent, while Milosevic's had fallen to 22 percent. "That's the first instance in the last 10 years that a challenger leads [in polls] over Milosevic," said Vesna Pesic, director of the Center for Antiwar Action and former leader of the opposition group Civic Alliance of Serbia.

Although he's played an active role in Serbia's political affairs since the introduction of the multi-party system in 1990, Kostunica comes across as a new man. That's mostly due to his unusual demeanor, notes Stojan Cerovic of the Belgrade independent weekly Vreme. Kostunica has always stood aside in clashes between opposition parties and has never insulted or made a derogatory comment about another opposition leader. That is unusual on the Serbian political scene, and Kostunica's distance from the fray has distinguished him from the rest.


Many in the West have been critical of Kostunica's nationalism. But his brand of nationalism is not aggressive, especially not toward Serbia's ethnic minorities. Kostunica has won the support of the leaders of Bosniak Muslim, Hungarian, and Romanian minorities, who have all called on their communities' members to vote DOS in the 24 September elections. Throughout the last decade scarred by war, Kostunica has condemned the crimes of Serbian forces, but never blamed the Serbs as a nation, instead blaming Milosevic's regime. At the same time, Kostunica has never flirted with the West that has given him the aura of a great Serbian patriot and has made it impossible for the regime to dismiss him like other opposition leaders as a "foreign agent." "The consequences of Western policies have benefited Milosevic more than his opponents. They played into his hands not only when they supported him, but also when they attacked him," says Kostunica, adding that his negative opinion of the current U.S. administration in no way means that his attitudes are "anti-Western." He says that he only wants to see the West return to its "authentic liberal and democratic values."

Kostunica is keen to show how, compared to other opposition figures, he lives modestly. "In a poor country where people live in difficult conditions, it is very important [for politicians] to show by personal examples that they share the people's destiny," says Kostunica. He lives in a flat in downtown Belgrade with his wife, Zorica Radovic. The couple own a cottage outside the capital and a 10-year-old Yugo car. Kostunica's campaign poster underlines his incorruptible image. It shows only his eyes. The text reads: "Who can look you straight in the eyes? Kostunica." Information Minister Goran Matic said the eyes in the picture were not Kostunica's, but belonged to American film actor Al Pacino. Given the actor's popularity in Serbia, Matic unwittingly paid a big compliment to Kostunica.

The candidate is also the only leader of a major opposition party who has never met Milosevic, and the only one who has persistently ruled out coalitions with Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia. "We could cooperate with them only after they have lost an election, when they become an opposition party and change their nature accordingly," says Kostunica.


Kostunica was born on 24 March 1944 in Belgrade. His father was a lawyer, his mother a housewife. The family comes from the village of Kostunici in the central Serbian region of Sumadija. He graduated from Belgrade University's School of Law in 1966 and later completed his masters and doctoral studies there. He worked as an assistant professor at the School of Law between 1970 and 1974 until he was thrown out for signing a petition in support of a jailed fellow professor, who had been politically purged. Kostunica later worked at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, editing and writing for several reputable legal publications. Kostunica speaks English and has a working knowledge of French and German. In the early 1980s he co-authored the study "Party Pluralism or Monism," which put him high on the list of Serbian dissidents. During the same period he worked with the Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Thought and Expression a group that defended public figures persecuted by the communist regime.

Together with a group of other Serbian intellectuals, in 1989 Kostunica founded the Democratic Party, where he served as vice-president under Zoran Djindjic. Two years later, Kostunica split with Djindjic, who still remains the party's leader, and founded the Democratic Party of Serbia. Kostunica was elected to the Serbian parliament in the first multiparty elections in 1990, and again in 1993. His party boycotted the 1997 parliamentary elections.

Kostunica has maintained that six months after his victory he will call a referendum to enable a democratic change of the constitution. He stresses that he is a constitutionalist and legalist. As a presidential candidate, he never speaks in detail about economic issues, explaining that he doesn't want to address issues he knows little about. The G17 group of independent Serbian economists welcomed such a frank stance and threw its considerable influence behind Kostunica's campaign.

Perhaps it is this sort of frankness and modesty more than anything else that has endeared Kostunica to the Serbs. People are tired of shouting, aggressive, know-it-all politicians. As a calm, moderate and civilized character Kostunica has had a soothing effect on Serbia. And, unlike every other major opposition leader, the fact that Kostunica was never a Communist Party member certainly doesn't hurt. What also works to his advantage is that, unlike Milosevic, Seselj, Djindjic, or Vuk Draskovic, Kostunica is a Srbijanac a Serb whose family comes from the heart of Serbia. As much as it may sound coarse and politically incorrect, Serbia is tired of the Serbian diaspora and wants its own people to address its own problems.

An important ingredient in Kostunica's presidential campaign was the decision of Djindjic to step aside and let him run. Djindjic is leader of a far bigger party, and until mid-summer was a much more prominent figure than Kostunica. But Djindjic realized that his personal electability had been damaged by a decade of feuding within the opposition and popular perceptions that he was too close to the West. If Kostunica wins, Djindjic's decision may prove to have been a major turning point for the country.

Milorad Ivanovic and Tamara Jorgovanovic are Belgrade-based journalists.

Source: Transitions Online ©2000

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