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April 11, 1998
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 340
The Referendum

Taking “No” for an Answer

by Roksanda Nincin

The decision came as a result of a vote overwhelmingly in its favor, as 193 deputies voted for and only four against the referendum. However, it is more than probable that the referendum will result in a Serbian "no" to international interference at the referendum due on April 23. The question is, what will happen in Kosovo, Serbia and Yugoslavia in general after the referendum?

On April 2, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic wrote a letter to the Serbian president, Milan Milutinovic, Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic and the Assembly President Dragan Tomic. Milosevic suggested that they should exercise the Constitution and the law to call a referendum on the Kosovo issue. The Serbian government accepted his suggested unanimously the very same day and asked the parliament to call a referendum. Dragan Tomic said he sincerely supported Milosevic's proposition. Milutinovic and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) expressed their full support just as quickly. The SPS main board released a statement to the effect that it "vehemently supports Milosevic's position" and qualified it as "an act of commitment to our vital national interests and to protecting the state from foreign interference". All other major parties represented in parliament - the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), the Yugoslav Left Wing Alliance (JUL) and the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) - also supported the referendum and the idea to resolve the Kosovo issue without foreign interference. As all that was apparently insufficient for Serbia's population to realize that they will be considered traitors unless they say no at the referendum, more pressure was brought. "I am absolutely positive that Serbian citizens will say no and show that freedom, independence, territorial integrity and patriotism are deeply ingrained in their national being. I am convinced they will demonstrate their consciousness that these values are the prerequisites for all forms of development, peace and future", said the SPS secretary general Gorica Gajevic. We will dwell on other forms of pressure a bit later.

A state that couldn't appoint a government for six months was admirably efficient this time. Milosevic made his proposition public last Thursday. The Serbian Assembly convened three days later and took only 20 minutes to adopt amendments to the Law on Referendum, entitling itself to conducting only two weeks rather than a month after calling it. That was an important issue because the outcome of the referendum will be declared before the Contact Group convenes on April 25 to decide whether Serbia has complied with demands regarding Kosovo and, if not, when fresh sanctions will be imposed against Yugoslavia. The amendment, however, only demonstrated that the only purpose of laws in this country is to justify political decisions when necessary.

On Tuesday, April 7, the Assembly voted on details concerning the referendum itself. The discussion turned into an outburst of patriotism and lasted all day, its final product being an even more solid wall standing between Serbia and the rest of the world, as ludicrous as that may seem.  Mirko Marjanovic refuted "blind subordination to world powers" and made a comparison with the bombing of Belgrade on April 6, 1941 in his opening address. He said Serbian citizens would once again show their defiance in April. He warned that they stood to lose the cradle of their country and the most sacred value of their national being, adding that only the Serbian people had the right to decide how the issue should be resolved. He wondered why the international community stayed out of the Ireland conflict, the Corsican issue and Kurdish problem, but not the Kosovo crisis.
The Prime Minister then explained that the referendum will confirm Yugoslavia's sovereignty and that it will bear long term effects on Serbia and Yugoslavia. Marjanovic said the international community had no right to suggest, and much less impose, solutions to a country's internal affair, adding that this was exactly what the Contact Group was doing by trying to determine the outcome of Serbia's negotiations with the ethnic Albanians.

The Serbian vice-premier and the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Vojislav Seselj, told the Assembly that the same evil powers that destroyed the Republic of Serb Krajina now wanted to destroy Serbia and Yugoslavia using Hitler's formula. It is the government's duty to act according to the constitution, meaning that it must protect its minorities too from terrorists, Seselj said. Zarko Jokanovic of Nova Demokratija (ND) said changing Serbia's borders was completely unacceptable while Milan Mirkovic of the SPO came forward with the opinion that we couldn't accept the international community's position that the Kosovo issue is to be resolved within Yugoslavia rather than Serbia only.

All things taken into account, the referendum debate had a scent of war in it. We all know that war is an integral part of nationwide cohesion. Milosevic's referendum has been called with the sole intention of girding the nation around him, the carrier of Serbian national interests. The referendum question itself clearly shows that the Kosovo crisis is not the first thing on Milosevic's mind. The Yugoslav president did not bother to ask his nation whether an autonomy level acceptable for both sides to the conflict could be reached and how, which is what he should have done first. Milosevic has actually never asked his people anything ever since he went to wars in the former Yugoslavia and subsequently the rest of the world. He never consulted anybody when he made peace either. It is beside the point that the constitution does not entitle him in any way to initiate referendums in the country's federal units, because he always acted as a leader rather than a president whose authority is defined by the constitution. In the capacity of a leader, Milosevic can initiate whatever he wants and write letters to the Serbian president and the Prime Minister informing them what he has decided. Just to show everybody who is in charge of resolving issues determining the country's fate. Milosevic's objective is to restore his dented authority and create enough tension to silence those questioning the reasonability of his policy in Kosovo. His final intention to bring the entire nation to a state of reasoning purely with their emotions rather than their common sense, for it is common knowledge that this particular nation prefers emotions and myths to common sense. Milosevic, too, must be aware that the euphoric scenes of the late eighties when Serbs were on the streets chanting his name and asking for weapons will never happen again after what we have been through in the nineties. That is why he chose the referendum as the second best method to ascertain the unity between the leadership and the people. Never mind that the principle "one leadership, one nation" proved most efficient in fascist countries. His letter to Milutinovic actually states that "we have pursued a popular rather than a personal policy during the times of hardship in the former Yugoslavia" (it remains unclear why he refers to himself as we). This is the ideal platform for his SPS and JUL envoys to keep saying the referendum will once and for all show that Serbia's people think the same way the regime does.

It is peculiar, however, that Milosevic has no faith in his people in spite of all his rhetoric. In 1948, the Yugoslav leadership refused to yield to Stalin's pressure and the people had to reject overnight what they were taught to believe in for so long. Nevertheless, on June 30, 1948, the daily Borba had the courage to publish the Soviet resolution and Yugoslav Communist Party's reply without an editorial comment, meaning the regime actually believed that the people would support its decision. Although the referendum on Kosovo requires only a popular approval of the Serbian government's long standing policy on its southern province and the world, the way the people are being persuaded what to think and say at the referendum is nothing short of an insult to their intelligence.

There is no room for fear that those who do turn up at the referendum will defy Miloevic's will. Perhaps it is uncertain whether the required 50 percent of the electorate will show, for the ethnic Albanians, the Sandzak Muslims and most of Vojvodina's ethnic Hungarians definitely won't vote. Minorities, by the way, account for just over a third of Serbia's population. In order to obtain the desired result, Milosevic needs a half of those who turn up to say "no" to the referendum question, or, theoretically, a quarter of the electorate. However, things could work out for him even if less than 50 percent of all the voters turn up. Adding a few hundred thousand votes if necessary should not be a problem, this regime has done it whenever it stood a chance of losing the elections. The person elected to supervise the referendum is Balsa Govedarica, famous for his immense contribution in rigging the November 1996 elections. He is there just in case something doesn't go according to the script.

Apart from reaffirming Milosevic's authority, the referendum has a few more objectives. It is quite obvious that fresh economic sanctions will be imposed against Serbia and there is not doubt that they will bite its depleted economy and impoverished population even harder than last time. After a successful referendum, the regime will have every reason to tell the population -you asked for it.

There is something that appears to be a political reason for calling the referendum, as explained by SRS leader Vojislav Seselj. "Serbia can only benefit from the referendum, because it will reinforce our negotiating position and force the ethnic Albanian representatives to talk to us", he said. It is uncertain, however, whether and how much the ethnic Albanians will be impressed by the outcome of the referendum, as their leaders have already qualified it as a "stunt aimed at buying time". Even less will the Albanians be impressed by the referendum when they get more support from the international community, which has already condemned Milosevic's decision. Even if the referendum does speed up the negotiating process, the sanctions will certainly do Serbia no good. Aggravating relations inside Yugoslavia will be of neither long-term nor short-term benefit to Serbia. Momir Bulatovic is the only Montenegrin official to have supported the referendum so far, and Montenegro's foreign policy is, in any case, a complete contrast to that pursued by Milosevic. The Montenegrin president, Milo Djukanovic, is to visit London, Paris, Rome, Bonn and Washington in April, while Vojislav Seselj said that we couldn't care less about the world on April 6. Milosevic only can benefit in the short-term from the referendum, but it is obvious that time is running out for Serbia, while he is buying it for himself.

What’s left of Serbia's opposition and some other politicians summed up the probable consequences of the referendum:

"The socialists intend to justify what they have done with Kosovo in the past few years and the fatal consequences of their policy, with the assistance of the radicals and the SPO. We predict fresh sanctions or capitulation which would be a blueprint copy of the Dayton accords" (The Democratic Party of Serbia).

"Milosevic's position is now the position of the radicals and the SPO too. They are telling the world that no one has the right to interfere in their domestic issues. Milosevic is telling the world that he is entitled to not resolve problems in his own house and nobody can do a thing about it. He is saying that he will set the house on fire and let his children burn and prevent the firemen from coming to their rescue. That's how irresponsible a president can get" (Zoran Djindijic, leader of the Democratic Party).

Dusan Mihajlovic, the leader of Nova Demokratija, wrote a public letter to Milosevic telling the Yugoslav president he regarded the referendum as "unnecessary". Mihajlovic said the referendum was "risky because it might prompt the international community to change its position on Kosovo at Serbia's expense".

"At a time when there already is a nationwide consensus on how to resolve the Kosovo problem, with the international community clearly supporting Yugoslavia's and Serbia's territorial integrity and sovereignty, I find the referendum superfluous as the people have made it clear how they feel about Kosovo", Mihajlovic said. He went on to say that a country's policy should be guided by the principle of utility as much as by the principle of sovereignty, which is why, in his opinion, there is no reason for Serbia to turn down the international community’s limited interference.

It is debatable, however, how limited the international community's intentions are. In fact, it is quite impossible to ignore the world's demands of Serbia and Yugoslavia regarding Kosovo, because there seem to be other motives for these demands apart from the desire to prevent a regional conflict.

Do the world politicians really understand the problem in Kosovo and do they have a balanced and impartial approach in resolving it?

 "Before the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo was an autonomous province. Since then, it has been treated like a colony by the Belgrade authorities. Its autonomy has been stolen, its people are oppressed and its territory is basically occupied by a foreign intruder", said U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright on April 2 in Washington.
Is the police force of a legal state an intruder on its own territory, whatever one may think of both the state and its police? Certainly not. Fighting a foreign power certainly differs from ambushing police units and killing Serb civilians. However, Albright had something to say about that too.

"Ethnic Albanians account for 90 percent of Kosovo's population. Their anger grew with their suffering. Most of them want nothing more than basic rights - the right to education, public services and citizenship. The longer they are deprived of these rights, the more likely they are to gird around a small but growing group of secessionists within their ranks".

According to her, Kosovo Albanians are completely innocent and they have no choice but to gird around terrorists. It is quite true that ethnic Albanians have been deprived of their human and civil rights, and that they are being repressed. It is not true, however, that most of them want nothing more than basic rights. They want a lot more than that. The vast majority of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population wants secession from Serbia and eventually Yugoslavia (they are prepared to wait as long as it takes). They are armed and prepared to use their weapons when they see fit. Madeliene Albright never mentioned the need for protecting Yugoslavia's integrity and sovereignty, implying that Yugoslavia would be considered an aggressor (like the JNA was seven years ago) if it reacted to a full-scale armed rebellion in its own territory.

We will now go back to assess the evolution of the U.S. position on Kosovo. In 1992, the then U.S. president George Bush wrote a secret letter to Milosevic threatening him with a military intervention if he tried to resolve the Kosovo crisis by force. While visiting Belgrade in February 1996, the former U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher
said that Kosovo's ethnic Albanians were deprived of their human rights.

Special envoy John Cornblum arrived with a new definition: local governing for Kosovo's Albanians. Finally, Robert Gelbard brought the demand for autonomy. Albright and Gelbard are now talking about "wide" and "expanded" autonomy, which is another way of demanding a return of the autonomy Kosovo had in 1989.

"We demand that Kosovo be given wider autonomy. That doesn’t mean the Contact Group supports Kosovo's demand for independence. That is neither feasible nor convenient in the present circumstances", Gelbard told the Belgrade daily Blic on March 28. Perhaps the western powers are exerting no pressure at all on the ethnic Albanians to give up their demand for independence because that would not be convenient in the present circumstances.

There are quite a few minorities seeking independence worldwide, but their aspirations are kept at bay by wiser policies pursued by the states they live in and the fact that they have no support whatsoever.

Commenting on the growing tension and conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, James Baker said in 1991 that the U.S. supported territorial integrity but condemned the use of force. U.S. officials are now saying the same thing about Kosovo. When the war in the former Yugoslavia finally erupted, it turned out that the international community's condemnation of the use of force was stronger than its support for territorial integrity. How can one say that the international community won't take the same position this time round, regardless of the fact that Kosovo's ethnic Albanians want the same thing Croatia's and Bosnia's Serbs did - their own state?

How can the German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, ask Milosevic to call off the referendum? Neither Kinkel nor his colleagues elsewhere have to like the referendum, as many people in Serbia don't like the idea anyway. However, it is entirely up to a country to call a referendum and face the consequences of its decisions.

Representatives of the Contact group and the CSCE went out of their way asking for an unconditional dialogue on Kosovo. However, they have set a number of conditions for this dialogue themselves.

"Insisting that the Serbs should be represented by the Serbian government and not the Yugoslav federal government, headed by Milosevic, implies that the Belgrade authorities are trying to condition the talks and predetermine their outcome. That is unacceptable", Robert Gelbard told the Belgrade daily Nasa Borba during his latest visit to Belgrade.
Exactly how is the demand to hold the talks on a federal level a lesser condition than what Gelbard was complaining about?

Talks on a federal level imply a solution on federal level, which is a prerequisite for giving Kosovo the status of an independent republic. That exactly is what Kosovo's ethnic Albanians demand, and they call it a compromise. Even the Albanian foreign minister, Pascal Milo, said that Kosovo should have the same status as Serbia and Montenegro in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The demand to resolve the Kosovo issue on a federal level and bypass Serbia is basically a demand on his country to change its constitution, which is the most flagrant interference in a country's internal policy. It is very arguable to what extent it can be justified by the international community's concern for human rights and regional peace. What is more, giving Kosovo independence means that Yugoslavia's borders could soon be changed, which is what the entire international community allegedly opposes. Do the world powers really believe that creating another Albanian State in the Balkans will result in the desired regional stability?

It appears that the international community is pursuing a calculated policy with the intention of girding Serbian nationalists around Milosevic. There are many examples of undiplomatic behavior by its officials in Serbia, who often failed to show even formal respect for the country and its position. There is no excuse for something like that, even though it is very likely that the Serbs will pay a heavy price for their leader's unwise policy.

The basic question is, can the choice between saving the country and saving the nation be avoided. Milosevic now has dialogue written all over his forehead, but he never explained why he never so much as mentioned dialogue in the past ten years. He never explained why he acted like an ignorant Serbian peasant who wouldn't go to the doctor because he was afraid of what the latter might tell him. He refused to face the disease because he hoped it would go away by itself. There isn't much room for hope. Milosevic's wisdom being our best chance, it is very likely that both the country and the nation will be irretrievably lost.

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