SCMP Saturday, October 7, 2000

Obscure dissident emerges as saviour


Until a few months ago, the name of Vojislav Kostunica was little known outside the disparate groupings of the Serbian opposition determined to oust Slobodan Milosevic from power.
As the two big names of the opposition movement, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, battled it out for the leadership of the fragile democratic opposition, Dr Kostunica, 56, remained in the background, maintaining his own independent views on how Milosevic should be tackled.
When it became clear that neither Mr Draskovic nor Mr Djindjic could win the trust of voters, Dr Kostunica was one of the few choices with a clean political record and a reputation for sticking to what he believed in through thick and thin.
Never a member of the League of Communists - nor of Milosevic's Socialist Party - Dr Kostunica fought, with other dissidents, throughout the 1980s for freedom of speech and greater democracy.
But he also retained his nationalist leanings which, mixed with his impeccable democratic credentials, have helped him to win over the Serb population where dissidents perceived as purely pro-Western - like Mr Djindjic, or more radical nationalists like Mr Draskovic and Vojislav Seselj - have failed.
In 1989, Dr Kostunica risked using his Belgrade flat to found the Democratic Party, the first real opposition party in the country. But by 1992, the party had strayed too far from his national ideals and he left to form the Democratic Party of Serbia.
As the conflict in Bosnia erupted into open fighting, Dr Kostunica supported indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic's attempts to carve out an independent state for the country's Serbs. He strongly believes that Kosovo should remain an integral part of Serbia - even if he does accept that an international peacekeeping force may have to be present for years to come. Dr Kostunica is deeply suspicious of the pro-Western Government in Yugoslavia's other remaining federal state, Montenegro, fearing that it, too, may attempt to break away from Serbia.
But his wrath is also directed out of Yugoslavia towards the United States. "No to America and no to Milosevic!" was one of the slogans of his electoral campaign. His contempt for the US also partly explains his controversial promise not to allow Milosevic to be extradited to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in the Hague if he comes to power.
On the other hand, his stance is strongly pro-European and he has promised to end his country's isolation.
Dr Kostunica has won over many Serbs by claiming to be a man of the people, despite his intellectual background. This is in stark contrast to the aloof style of Milosevic, who showed contempt for the powerless. The lawyer's slow, plain manner of speaking has inspired trust in people who have hardly ever been told the truth about their country's role in the conflicts surrounding them.
His unqualified respect for the law and the rights of the individual has also persuaded Serbia's minorities that they can trust him to protect their interests. "Yugoslavs, no matter what their nationality, should have the same rights as a Serb," Dr Kostunica said in his electoral address.
That is music to the ears of the Hungarians, Croats, Slovaks, Jews and Armenians of Serbia's northern Vojvodina region, where Milosevic has tried to create tension in recent days.
But many Serbs feel that Dr Kostunica's legal mind may not be enough to oust the remnants of the socialist regime. He will be faced at every step with the problems of holding together his fragile coalition of opposition forces and with changing a society rooted in secrecy and illicit power.
Perhaps that is why he has made the modest claim to being "only the beginning of the changes in Serbia".