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August 10, 2001
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 503
Political Portrait of Vojislav Kostunica

Voja Without a Land or Serbian Gorbachov

by Djordje Vukadinovic

(The author is a political philosopher and editor of New Serbian Political Ideas)

There is no better way to uncover compromising facts or crushing opinions on anyone from the Serbian political constellation, than to make inquiries amongst his former party friends. Former party partners, similar to marital ones, are, as a rule, full of spicy details which they are always willing to share with inquisitive people in, that goes without saying, the "strictest confidence". Faced with the possibility of having this portrait turn out to be "unproportionately" (!?) positive, I submitted Vojislav Kostunica to that cruel and anything but reliable test and all I can say is that the result turned out to be "unsatisfactory". Unlike Djindjic, whose former comrades in arms simply can't catch their breath while describing their former chief's lesser or greater commotions, in Kostunica's case, on the basis of a few sources, the most that could be extracted were terse conclusions that "he isn't as great a democrat as he presents himself", that he is distrustful towards his associates, and, just like all the other local leaders, is inclined to manage the party single-handedly. Direct questions were categorically answered with "as far as personal integrity is concerned, Voja is irreproachable in that sense".  

This estimation on Voja's endemic honesty, which - coupled with the one on the "only consistent politician in Serbia" - makes his political opponents literally furious, is abundantly confirmed by numerous independent sources. "That man is even more honest than I am", spontaneously stated a year long acquaintance and Kostunica's colleague recently, otherwise well known for his short temper and honesty, who above all is anything but inclined towards "democratic nationalism" of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) or any other kind. In the same spirit, Zarko Puhovski, president of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, a former UJDI member and one of the most esteemed "leftist" intellectuals in this region, on many occasions (last time in Danas daily on July 28/29), only had words of praise for "Vojo's" intellectual and political qualities. Finally, it is worth looking at the book on the "secret life of the Serbian opposition", which is full of interesting details from the Serbian journalistic-political corridors (Baptism of the Communist Star, BIGZ, 1994), which Nenad Stefanovic (not this one from Vreme), today the first man of the Democratic Party (DS) PR department wrote, where he singled out Kostunica with all due respect from the Serbian opposition spinning wheel. (Stefanovic's psycho-political portrait at the time of his current chief is even more interesting, in comparison to which my text published last week in VREME seems like a true hymn of praise to the prime minister.)


Therefore, dignity, consistency and honesty in Vojislav Kostunica's case are anything but a mere pre-election slogan which was invented by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia's (DOS) marketing wizards last summer, and instead is something which has been an integral part of his intellectual and political image for almost three decades. And only those who lived in Tito's and Milosevic's Serbia, and who themselves tasted that specific mixture of "soft" systematic repression and subtle corruption, can understand how difficult it must have been to create and maintain an image in all those years.

His academic career was interrupted early on and rudely at the beginning of the 70s when, in the affair which ensued after the famous discussion at the School of Law in connection with the constitutional amendments, a few professors and assistants were literally kicked out of the school and Mihailo Djuric even ended up in prison. Unlike the far more well known dissident group from the School of Philosophy (Mihajlo Markovic, Ljubomir Tadic, Svetozar Stojanovic, Dragoljub Micunovic, Miladin Zivotic, Zaga Golubovic, Trivo Indjic, Nebojsa Popov), which fell out of favor primarily because of its radical leftist ("practicionist") stand and search for a "socialism with a human face", the group driven out of the School of Law was more fluid and less profiled, but generally, in its most productive aspect, still oriented more towards the liberal and national direction. (Later, inside their joint ghetto under the roof of the Center for Philosophy and Social Theory, an osmosis and interesting evolution of the majority of the actors will occur, but the "lawyers", i.e. Kostunica and Cavoski, and even Djuric, will in that sense turn out to be more stable than the "philosophers" who, with one or two exceptions, shortly after the end of the immediate political pressure and more lenient inter-party discipline, simply scattered in all possible theoretical and political directions: from neoliberalism to conservatism, national-bolshevism and postmodernism.)

Just like he isn't much of a conversationalist, Kostunica didn't write much - one could even say he is slow in both - but always thorough, measured and rational.

His study on Tokvill, and especially the book Party Pluralism or Monism (together with Cavoski) enjoyed an almost cult-like status in the circles of Belgrade's civil-liberal and "petitioners" intelligentsia in the 80s.

With this image of a "golden boy" of the Serbian opposition Kostunica encountered Milosevic's era, some sort of renewed multi-party system and collapse of Yugoslavia, and in the times which decimated the opposition ranks both physically and morally, he managed to strengthen his public status on the general-national plan as well.

Unlike the mainstream Serbian national intelligentsia, headed by the Academy and Dobrica Cosic, Kostunica never nurtured any illusions in connection with Milosevic. He was one of the founding members of the Democratic Party and during the first years presented a conter-thesis to its expanding "pragmatism". Dissatisfied with the turmoil within the party leadership and his reluctance to integrate DS into the then promising DEPOS coalition, he broke away in 1992 and took with him a large chunk of the uncompromising oppositionally-inclined membership. Later he himself will mainly shy away from opposition integrations and together with his relatively small but unusually devoted membership, he continued to survive like some kind of lone wolf of the Serbian political scene.   


After October 5, critics often reminded Vojislav Kostunica and his rapidly expanded DSS that until recently they themselves were a small party, which is without a doubt true. However, one shouldn't overlook the fact that they truly were a real party, with a recognizable profile and modest but stable support in the electorate - which most of the DOS members prior to and after October can only dream of. Actually, if we put aside the often monotonous academic appearance and uninventive campaigns of the "truth wins" and "do it yourself" type, under the conditions of Milosevic's dosaged and controlled pluralism, Kostunica and his party couldn't have achieved more. (And the Civic Alliance, for example, due to equally justified reasons, not even that much.) In Milosevic's Serbia "greatness" and all that it ensued could only be earned with a shorter or longer (un)conscious acceptance of the role of "constructive opposition" and during the all too long ten year-long period, almost all Serbian politicians tried out that role - except Vesna Pesic and, of course, Kostunica. However, partially owing to his deep marginalization and partially owing to the all the more apparent national-patriotic tone, Kostunica was practically the only one of the more serious opposition leaders who managed to avoid RTS's systematic media lynch. And once they finally got around to him - true, Seselj never bypassed him, but that still wasn't "the real thing" - the thing had gone too far and it was already too late. That fact, combined with the aforementioned personal virtues and image of a man who is the "only one who has remained clean in Serbia's political brothel", brought things to the point where in the summer of 2000 the Serbian opposition didn't have an alternative. As though he had been protecting himself for just such a moment (and those who had the opportunity to meet with him in the last few years say that he was totally convinced that that moment would in one way or the other definitely come) Kostunica, following a short hesitation - which wasn't at all unjustified as is now apparent - agreed to head the colorful opposition caravan. Actually unexpectedly for all the actors and bystanders (see foreign media analysis as well as Micunovic's statement to Timothy Garton Ash), Kostunica achieved an incredible victory under impossible conditions. Groping around the Serbian media and modernization darkness, the exhausted electorate finally managed to (too late?) match its will with its existential interests. Corrupt for a long time, Milosevic's "Denmark" finally lived to welcome its Fortimbras - who, as the post-October days slipped by, once again seems to resemble Hamlet.


The first and only in appearance secondary and "academic" problem for Kostunica is the fact that, despite his brilliant result, Milosevic only definitely lost on the streets and/or in the labyrinth of police and financial power. And it is more than clear that in those fields - regardless of the subsequent demands surrounding the redistribution of credit, primarily between Djindjic and Velja ilic - Kostunica's contribution was very, very modest. There is no doubt that on Sept. 24 no one in Serbia could have replaced Voja on the ballot (it's an entirely different story that today some wouldn't admit that even if it cost them their lives), but it is also very probable that not many - and especially not Kostunica - could replace Djindjic, Covic, Perisic, Velja and the other organizers in the days prior to October 5. And generally, those days and especially the flames from the federal parliament and RTS buildings connect all of them politically, psychologically, and symbolically more than one would think at first glance and keep them together regardless of realistic political interests of the individual actors, or Serbia in its entirety. All of them are in some ways only co-owners, hostages and victims of that act (Milosevic's arrest only rekindled and additionally strengthened this fraternal oath over the body of the symbolically assassinated "Father" - and the real DOS founder). In that sense, regardless of individual strength and merit, Kostunica formally truly is only the first amongst equals in this brotherhood, and his recent refusal, on the occasion of Milosevic's extradition, to take part in a new oath, wasn't treated as treason without a reason.  

Understandably, apart from these "Froyd-like" and "methaphysical" moments, a number of a lot more common political factors are working against Kostunica, amongst which, and definitely not last on the list, is he himself. Very similiar to a child into whose lap a toy he had been dreaming of for a long time suddenly falls, DOS didn't actually have a clear idea (or, god forbid, plan) on what to do once power was won, and the plans and papers they waved about seem to have been little more than simple pre-election lollipops. The expectations of the people were tremendous and, only naturally, the greatest hopes were pinned on Kostunica, which he seems to have stepped back from, all the more so as he had the prime minister by his side, hungry for a challenge and always prepared to help alleviate the burden of responsibility for him. However, regardless of his formally limited authority, and beside Djindjic's and Djukanovic's evident inclination to additionally deprive him of it, Kostunica shouldn't harbor any illusions that he can be amnestied of responsibility for the consequences of DOS's policies. Moreover, because of the relation of power and his general media image, the possibility that he will be blamed for issues he had no influence over is a lot more realistic.    

Generally, following initial post-October over exaggerated flattery, Kostunica's media treatment is simply incomprehensible and to list only the most drastic examples would require twice the space of this text. (Let's only mention the scandal that Bush's multifaceted and significant message to the president of FRY a day prior to the Montenegrin parliamentary elections was placed towards the end of the prime-time newsreel which, in all honesty, would never happen with activities concerning Djindjic or Covic. Or, the most drastic example, at the time of Milosevic's arrest, when the reports got so out of hand that someone less informed could at one point have thought that actually the real target of the overall action were top-ranking military officers and their current - and not former - supreme commander.)In some "critical" days, Kostunica's status in the main state-run media outlet was truly amazingly reminiscent of the media coverage of former prime minister Panic from the summer of 1992, not to mention Stambolic from the short period following the eight session. On top of that, I wish to stress, word is of a state-run TV channel and not a private media house which, understandably, can interpret "president Voja's" profile, activities and trouser legs in accordance with its own conscience and taste.

Finally, an objective "historic" moment exists here as well which doesn't speak in favor of Kostunica, and which can partially justify his critics. Namely, the majority of the issues and ideas he cares about (a legal state, patriotism, national dignity, respect of traditions...) was so thoroughly abused, sullied and compromised by Milosevic's regime that you don't have to be a member of a conspiracy group to ridicule or recognize all those things and all those who talk about them as dangerous, only more sophisticated followers of "Milosevic's evil which has brought us here". Beside that, during the various phases of his rule, Milosevic has simply "spent" the huge potential of "national" symbols and it will be extremely difficult for Kostunica to find enough intellectual and moral resources for his "national restoration" project. The pendulum, in both international and national proportions, has simply swung to the other side and the question remains open whether it is at all possible today - and whether it is desirable - to return it to its "normal" position. Still, until the fate of globalization, cosmopolitan democracy and an international civic society is resolved on the international level, one needs to survive, and ("Voja's") concept of a democratic national state surely isn't the worst thing that could have (and still can) hit us. We, the Serbs, Yugoslavs, Balkan nations, don't always have to be the first to arrive at a communist, i.e. in the contemporary version, a "post-national" paradise.


Even if the impression of Kostunica's isolation and of him as the "magnet for the old regime's personnel " isn't true ("Slobodan with the handsome face, your name is now Kostunica"), and it surely is exaggerated, I think it is indisputable that it does exist - and is being nurtured - and, as is a well known fact, in politics facts are often less important than what the majority believes to be facts. It isn't an altogether bad thing to be somewhat excluded from the circle of the local "political class" - and a large part of Kostunica's charisma was based on that - but power has to be executed and it has to be publicly demonstrated from time to time. I have a feeling that in the past period, regardless of the media-fed fear of abuse of popularity which is too great, what Kostunica lacks most are clear manifestations of political will and power. (Which, again, in Djindjic's case and in the case of other DOS leaders, there was too much of.) A democratically elected president with almost plebiscite support shouldn't eternally find himself in the position of "nation's conscience" and pure "needs". That role is for the Patriarch, intellectuals and poets. It is clear that the constitutional limitations, and especially the unresolved situation over the federal state, are tying Kostunica's hands to a great extent, inciting resignation which he is otherwise prone towards, but it is also clear that all those masses of people who had directly and indirectly voted for him already twice didn't only do it to enthrone him as a cross between the British queen and Zoran Lilic. There is no doubt that the prime minister exaggerates in it, but a good political will sooner or later also has to be transformed into concrete political decisions - which includes a readiness to take over the responsibility for them.

Regardless of the fact that the people, judging by the opinion polls, in some ways understand and still tolerate Voja's surreal, "semi-opposition" status, that understanding isn't and cannot be everlasting. It is a great question how realistic it is to expect the voters to hand over their trust for the third time to someone only because of his "beautiful", i.e. honest eyes. In that sense, I believe Aleksandar Tijanic skillfully but wrongly places the problem when, once again alluding to honesty, he asks the citizens of Serbia whether they would rather buy a second hand car from Djindjic or Kostunica. Too much has already been said on the subject of morality in this and in the previous text. However, I fear that that isn't the real question at this moment, the real question being whether Kostunica still owns and how prepared he is to capitalize his political goods. If they don't have a choice, the citizens will, even while grumbling about the quality and the price, go where the goods are in the end. And no one will be able to hold it against them.


An influential part of the Serbian political public still believes that it is essential to maintain DOS's unity "like the apple of one's eye" and especially of its two most important members. "We need them both", as Labus stated at a press conference during the donor conference. In a similar sense, Stojan Cerovic pleaded on a number of occasions for some kind of "cohabitation" between Kostunica and Djindjic in his column in VREME, "at least until the most essential reforms are carried out". Even the prime minister himself has incited such thoughts recently with one of his characteristic statements. On the car of the Serbian road to a better future he is, namely, the gas pedal and Voja, understandably, the brakes. And just like both are needed for a successful ride, so are both of them, I suppose, indespensible for Serbia.

However, I fear that these conciliatory theories, which I too am often inclined towards, are far off the mark this time. First, "cohabitation" of the French type (socialist president - De Gaulle prime minister and vice versa) doesn't function all that well even in countries with a lot less problems and a lot longer democratic tradition, which is counted by centuries rather than by days and months. Second, even more important, in the world, that type of marriage is made between opposing political options, after the elections, and here, we've almost forgotten, we have members of the same political alliance who have no intention of calling elections. Finally, third and most important, they aren't a happy team, i.e. I think that for Serbia, and for them personally, it would be better for us to watch them alternately replace each other in power (something like the democrats and the republicans) than to remain in this pathological and above all "non transparent" embrace. Namely, I have the impression that instead of the hoped for harmonization and mutual supplementation of their political manners and temperaments, this type of undefined relationship is only emphasizing and deepening their latent political-psychological imperfections and inclinations. Djindjic is becoming even faster, more impatient and more negligent in long-term and procedural-moralistic issues, and Kostunica has dug himself even deeper into his moral-legalistic bunker and is becoming even slower, less decisive and less enterprising. And both, according to need, can find more than a plausible justification in the other for their behavior. It is possible that both of them could derive some political benefits out of this state (not to mention phychological ones), but the damage to Serbia and its democratic transformation is almost guaranteed.

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