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Interview: dr Vojislav Kostunica, presidential candidate

Empty Pocket and State

"Sooner or later a civilized transfer of power will have to take place here as well. If it does not take place now, it will take place very soon. I am convinced that, regardless of how these elections end up and whatever my role in them, I will contribute to that change"

interview by Nenad Lj. Stefanovic

Vreme, Belgrade, FR Yugoslavia, August 12, 2000

In basketball, some claim the most cerebral sport, the category of the Most Valuable Player (MVP) has existed for a while. Although the official statistics are not compiled, the Serbian opposition has a long time ago deserved the title of the Least Valuable Player, actually the one that with the assistance to the regime, wasting of opposition energy, and blocking of opposition strategy at the right time has so far benefited Milosevic's regime the most. The competition for the opposition politician most useful for the regime has been tight for years and it is questionable which elements of the political game in that competition should be valued the most: inclination to corruption, selling of opposition seats, participation on Milosevic's governments at the time the regime was nearing a political bankruptcy, sweeping of crumbs from the plate of power, bringing merriment to the court, betrayal of opposition agreements, running in or boycotts of elections...

The name of Dr. Vojislav Kostunica, the president of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and since a few days ago the presidential candidate of the united opposition, can hardly be found among those opposition leaders useful for the regime. The Socialists readily admit that Kostunica's name can hardly be "soiled" (which of course does not mean that they will not force him to run the gauntlet and squeeze him through their propaganda press). He has an enviable dose of principles, has not enriched himself since the early nineties, can hardly be accused of insufficient patriotism, is a civilized and serious person, and, what is perhaps most important, he will meet Slobodan Milosevic in person for the first time during one of their putative TV election campaign debates. Of course, only if Milosevic decides for the first time to participate in such a debate.

Preliminary public opinion polls (including the secret one conducted by the regime) indicated that Kostunica is the best candidate of the Serbian opposition and that with the concentration of the opposition votes on September 24 he could be a serious opponent to Slobodan Milosevic in the elections for the president of FR Yugoslavia. Despite several-months-long efforts, the opposition will not run united in the forthcoming elections as the competition for the LVP seems to be still open. In spite of that, the leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia has decided to challenge Milosevic. He explains that this is "a must, not a desire".

At the beginning of an interview for Vreme we ask Kostunica whether he has the stomach for the mud slinging, dirty tricks and lies that await him in the election campaign. Even those among the opposition politicians who believed that Kostunica is the best candidate, feared that the DSS leader could in the end be too "soft" and "wimpy" for a stampede heading towards him.

"Mud slinging and low blows are definitely something that will be a part of this election campaign, which is decisive inasmuch as it is the most important campaign of Milosevic's life. In a way, he is fighting for his life. On the other hand, a large part of the repertoire of all the possible lies, fabrications, and deceptions could have been seen in the past and any future constructions will only be a variation of already used tricks. As a politician I have a strong stomach. I have survived in politics, although without being engaged in party politics, the rule of Josip Broz, as well as the time after his death, and Milosevic's rule. Consequently I am convinced I will find enough strength to survive one of his last and, I hope, lost battles," says Dr. Vojislav Kostunica.

VREME: Did you think for a long time whether to accept to be the candidate of the united opposition for the president of FRY? At this point, do you think that you've made the right decision? You have a reputation of taking a long time to reach decisions.

KOSTUNICA: I took a while to make this decision. I do not think that such an approach is a drawback in circumstances such as ours. It is true that many criticize me for my alleged lack of decisiveness, but I would argue that I compensate that supposed lack of decisiveness with a surplus of responsibility. Really, quite a lot of time was needed to come to a realistic assessment of how to participate in the elections in which one is from the start handicapped. I tried to make that assessment sticking to the facts, and figures, rather than to political reasoning. Anyway you look at it, after the almost certain boycott of the elections by the ruling coalition in Montenegro, the upper chamber of the Federal Parliament, the Chamber of Republics, is out of reach of the democratic opposition. This is the first time we are dealing with such a situation. Heretofore, Milosevic had a significant advantage because of Kosovo and Metohija and the manipulation with their seats [due to electoral boycott of Kosovo Albanians]. Now the same situation applies to the elections for the lower chamber of the Federal Parliament, the Chamber of Citizens, where from the start Milosevic will get most of 30 Montenegrin seats, and can continue to manipulate the Kosovo seats. It will turn out that Kosovo Albanians will participate in these elections as well. Thaqi's supporters will vote for Milosevic. But even worse is the electoral struggle for the Chamber of Republics, which is lost from the start. It is even impossible to win enough seats to block certain decisions [one third of seats]. As far as the presidential elections are concerned, the participation of another candidate from the ruling coalition, as well as the running of another opposition candidate, should lead to further dissipation of the opposition votes, and make sure that there is no second election round. In their true sense, these elections are a referendum - for or against Milosevic. He is trying to hide the true nature of the elections and give the impression that he has already won. This will indeed be a real referendum, and the only issue in these elections is the assessment of Milosevic's ten-years-long rule.

VREME: So far we haven't had elections in which a voter would put a hand in his pocket and say my pocket is empty, and therefore I will not vote for these authorities. The voters were always offered something else, to make sure they do not consider their empty pockets...

KOSTUNICA: There are actually two problems here. One is that empty pocket, and the other one is an empty, virtual state. And these two issues bother most of our compatriots in different ways. It is a fact that the FRY does not exist as a state. Its status is undefined both internally and with respect to its surroundings; there is a pile of unresolved problems, divisions, tendency for disintegration... That is as if you lived in a house with a leaking roof that may collapse at any moment. That is a problem for most voters and I would not underestimate its importance. This is not a big story about a state, national interests, Serbdom, and so forth. Simply, the issue is whether we shall live in a normal state like the rest of the world or whether that state is no more. And that state does not exist. Therefore, many voters will head for the polling booths concerned about that issue. Others will, of course, head for the polling booths thinking about their empty pockets. Both concerns are legitimate and intertwined and cannot be resolved independently. There is another issue related to empty pockets. Namely, Milosevic has managed like a skillful hypnotist to convince a good portion of voters, and exactly those who are extremely poor, that they may fare even worse in the future, although that is almost a metaphysical category at this point. A part of population is really convinced that they can actually loose the little they have right now.

VREME: Did the rest of opposition place some conditions on your candidacy. For example, Kostunica as a candidate must be less national and more this or that?

KOSTUNICA: There were no such demands and our relations were very correct. There were, of course, different opinions regarding the best candidate, and that is totally fine. Somehow, the discussion ended up focusing on my name and to my great surprise it appears the most of the Serbian public also agreed with that conclusion. There were no conditions, I was accepted the way I am. Simply the public assessed that there must be some median between the attitude with respect to modernity and tradition, between the tendencies to regulate the relations with the world in the way they have to be regulated, and the attitude that that must not be done at the expense of national dignity and endangerment of national interests. Some balance was found there. Also, in an impoverished country where most citizens have a very hard life, it is extremely important that a candidate demonstrates that he shares the fate of the majority of the population. My biography is such and that probably influenced the final choice of the candidate.

VREME: Did you put forward any conditions?

KOSTUNICA: I believed that it would be honest if we made some sort of a tacit agreement and then put that on paper. This was an agreement between me and representatives of other opposition parties. I simply wanted to emphasize certain things. To confirm that I cannot modify a certain national orientation that is a characteristic of mine and of the DSS. I also demanded that we settle accounts with the Serb Renewal Movement (SPO) in order to avoid confusion: we either run together with the SPO in all elections, or in none. That demand was also made by other opposition parties. I also claimed that the open support of the parties members of the ruling coalition in Montenegro to the democratic opposition in Serbia, if those parties stick to their decision not to participate in the elections, would be more harmful than beneficial. We would thereby secure support from the parties refusing to run in the elections, which would make no sense. I also believed that we have to distance ourselves from declarative, conterproductive support coming from the present, departing, American administration which has proved to be absolutely useless for the opposition and democratic forces in Serbia. And that support can cause a lot of harm in the election campaign. It is common knowledge how they can help the population in Serbia. It seems that some European states are far more aware of that, and they have over some small but important projects, such as energy for democracy, established some cooperation and assistance and led to a quiet and gradual abolishment of sanctions.

VREME: How do you interpret the fact that both the SPO and the Serb Radical Party (SRS) did not offer their strongest candidates for the most important office in the state? It would seem logical that those who want to beat Milosevic offer their strongest candidates?

KOSTUNICA: It is certain that those candidates are not trying to harm Milosevic. If they were, their parties would offer stronger candidates. Among other, such choice was made in order to stir up the waters, and prevent the type of referendum for and against Milosevic that will take place in the second round of elections. They are trying to avoid that.

VREME: Is it possible to win in the presidential elections without Montenegro? Have you discussed control mechanisms, so that it does not turn out that instead of 100,000 people as many as 300,000 voted for Milosevic in Montenegro?

KOSTUNICA: Naturally, the question of elections in Montenegro without the participation of the ruling coalition is a big problem for us. We will have to find some way to control those elections. There have been several ideas so far. But, we should be realistic and admit that we are at a disadvantage from the start. I am convinced that the ruling parties in Montenegro will also suffer significant political damage, as their boycott of the elections will demonstrate their lack of readiness to fight for a common state. If one supports a state then, as Romans used to say, the health of the fatherland is the greatest good, and there is no reason for not participating in the elections. If the greatest good is survival in power and preservation of power, then there is no reason to participate in the elections. If that is so then one must wonder what is the difference between Milosevic's Socialist and Djukanovic's DPS [the Democratic Party of Socialists]. On the other hand, the DPS will find itself in serious trouble when it tries to explain to the voters, especially to those they may take in the future from Momir Bulatovic, the difference between the DPS and an almost openly secessionist party such as the [Montenegrin] Social democrats (SDP), their coalition partner. I am raising these issues with good intentions, in a pragmatic and analytical manner. It seems to me that the DPS, by failing to face the problem as it is and perhaps risking to loose power at this moment, by risking the breaking up of their coalition government by the SDP, does not realize that it is likely to loose much more in long term.

VREME: A part of the Serbian opposition is somewhat angry and concludes that in 1997 Milosevic would not have been elected as the president of the FRY without support from the DPS. Now the DPS is refusing to provide assistance to remove Milosevic from power.

KOSTUNICA: I am inclined to push many issues belonging to the past of relations between Serbia and Montenegro to the background. I would rather not mention them, but that is a fact, as well as it is true that this state was at the time shaped by the common will of the two ruling parties, the DPS and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS).

VREME: You personally advocated that the opposition presidential candidate should be from Montenegro. You mentioned Svetozar Marovic.

KOSTUNICA: I have been asked this question in the past. Regarding my opinion, I believe that Svetozar Marovic is among the people who can reconcile divisions in Montenegro. And those who can achieve that are absolutely acceptable to Serbia as well. In principle I believed that a federal state made up from two units, one large and one small, with all luggage from the past, party and dynastic divisions, and all that has been sowed by Communism since 1945, must in some way face the situation and return to the start, as far as institutional changes are concerned. But in that context it is also very important to make some political good will gestures that can improve the atmosphere. I had in mind that so far three presidents of the federal state were from Serbia and that a good will gesture by Serbia (I would have been very happy if that happened) and the Serbian opposition would be to propose a candidate from Montenegro for that office. Of course, in given circumstances that is now impossible, but such things should be mentioned even if they are not achievable.

VREME: If you become the federal president, will you continue to insist that a referendum about the future relations between Montenegro and Serbia should be held on both republics?

KOSTUNICA: I would not avoid that. It is a democratic act to check the will of the citizens. So much has happened through the history of relations between Serbia and Montenegro that has spoiled and confused those relations that I would not avoid a chance to allow both nations to express their willingness to live in a common state. The relations were fairly good while we both had separate households, while Serbia and Montenegro were separate states. From the moment when the common state was established various conflicts and disputes, different ideas, sometimes fanned by various political and structural interests, broke out, and these disputes continue until today. Of course, there were periods of idyllic relations as well. Therefore, why shouldn't all that be tested in a referendum? Why, if the citizens in both states opt for a common state, it should not be set up in a different manner from both the former Yugoslavia and the current FRY? It is time for a clean slate. It is interesting that this idea was attacked by the most fervent advocates of independent Montenegro, as a Greater Serbian project. On the contrary, that is a greater democratic project, which stands above all national and nationalist projects, such as those that are, for example, advocated by the parties such as the SDP. The trouble with Montenegrin secessionists is that they advocate a referendum in only one part of the state, by which they from the start prejudge the outcome of the referendum. Of course, if the developments move in that direction and Montenegro decides to follow the projects of the SDP and the Liberal Alliance for independence, the last thing Serbia should do would be to try to prevent something like that.

VREME: What will you tell the voters about Kosovo? Many are convinced that there is nothing left to say regarding that issue.

KOSTUNICA: Voters must be reminded that the U.N. Security Council resolution 1244 formally placed Kosovo within the FRY. What we can do, in order to save what can be saved, is to insist that that resolution be observed. That resolution also states that not only expelled Albanians, who have already returned to Kosovo, to make the situation somewhat bizarre, in greater numbers than initially had been there, but also that all the other refugees should return to Kosovo. On the other hand, Serbs and non-Albanians have not returned, although the Resolution specifies so. The talk that it is necessary to establish conditions for their return before they are allowed to return, is simply a mirage that is supposed to prevent their return. There is no doubt that the KFOR forces and UNMiK will remain in Kosovo for a while and that such status will remain, in spite of duplicitous promises of the pro-regime media and their officials. Our army will not return to Kosovo in the near future. Therefore, for now Kosovo formally remains within this state, and a part of our population remains in Kosovo and that part can be increased if we insist on the respect of the Resolution 1244. A part of population which is sufficiently important to represent a link between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia remains there.

VREME: Local analysts increasingly frequently concur in their assessment that both the Serbian opposition and the international community are actually pillars of the Milosevic's regime?

KOSTUNICA: After all, in politics, words are less important than deeds and consequences of those deeds. Consequences of western policy, above all of the American policy, are objectively such that at the moment they are more helpful to Slobodan Milosevic than to his opponents. The Americans assisted Milosevic not only when they supported him, but also when they attacked him. In a way, Milosevic is an American creation. It is hard to imagine a smaller country and a greater obsession with one personality and persistence in the claim that that person must leave power. Doesn't the American policy in that way, by observing the whole country through Milosevic himself, only strengthen him? The same can be said for the position of the current ruling parties in Montenegro. With their boycott they objectively help Milosevic by conceding him control of a large number of seats. Some would say that that is not direct support, but it definitely is indirect support. I repeat, consequences of actions are important, not words. It is true that the Serbian opposition has made many mistakes. But in this case the situation is frequently much simpler. Some parts of the opposition directly assisted Milosevic, but there are also other tendencies. There are also some loose, unclear and invisible links between Milosevic's authorities and some opposition parties in Serbia. And that has especially slowed down democratic changes in Serbia.

VREME: How do you value the importance of the elections? Some claim that the parliamentary elections are most important, while others give precedence to the presidential election, since a defeat of Milosevic would shake up the whole system of authority.

KOSTUNICA: Parliamentary elections definitely are most important in the democratic, political sense. The president of the FRY himself depends to a large extent of the majority in the parliament. Actually, the most important is the support coming from the majority in the parliament of Serbia and consequently the elections for the Serbian parliament carry the most importance. But we shall have to wait for the Serbian elections. Milosevic, no matter how much he may be an authoritarian despot, so far draws all his strength from the majority in the Serbian parliament. That majority was stolen and put together in different ways. Without that majority both the Police and media would be something quite different. Since the federal state is much less of a state than the two federal units, the importance of a majority in the Federal Parliament is somewhat less important, but still significant. Just recall the case from 1993 when the then president Dobrica Cosic was replaced by the Federal Parliament. In a symbolic sense all elections in which Milosevic runs have a special importance and significance for the citizens.

VREME: If you win, would you insist on calling soon new elections in order to guide the country into the necessary constitutional reconstruction?

KOSTUNICA: Yes, I am convinced that something like that is direly needed. Of course, I am aware that the authority of the Federal president is rather limited unless his first name is Slobodan and surname Milosevic. But it is very important that soon after a change the issue of new elections is initiated in order to open the question of the new Constitution of the FRY, the reconstruction of relations between Serbia and Montenegro, so that they can be placed on a healthy and normal foundation. It cannot be allowed that some democratic forces achieve a success in the elections and then continue to live under the laws and constitutions enacted by their predecessors, in an undemocratic manner.

VREME: Personally, I can easily imagine you as a president of the FRY. On the other hand it is much more difficult to imagine the situation in which you win and the current president extends his hand and congratulates you on your victory. As an opposition politician you are by definition a "traitor". And power is not transferred to traitors...

KOSTUNICA: Sooner or later a civilized transfer of power will have to take place here as well. If it does not happen now, it will take place very soon. I am convinced that, regardless of how these elections end up and whatever my role in them, I will contribute to that change. People in power will begin to be replaced in a civilized manner, experiencing transfer of power as a completely normal thing. And not as an end of the world and a loss of life.

Anti-regime election campaign on foot

VREME: What will your campaign be based on?

KOSTUNICA: In a way the whole campaign should stem from what the DSS and I have done so far. I believe that our policies have in a way imposed my candidacy. On the one hand, that is a very firm democratic attitude, anti-regime and anti-system at the same time. It implies the lack of readiness to make any deals with this regime, but at the same time insists on thorough systemic changes. I also advocate normal dialogue, tolerance, exclusion of vengefulness, verbal violence and hate speech. All of these values are sorely lacking in our public life. This country has been tragically divided, so that never in the past we've had more exclusion, lies, fabrications, intolerance, regardless whether we are talking about the relation between the authorities and the opposition, or between parts of the opposition, divisions in Montenegro, or conflicts between Serbia and Montenegro. Without that readiness for dialogue, there is no democracy. Together with all of that, of course there is a need to solve the question of the state status. It is necessary to settle what Serbia and Montenegro are today, whether they are one state or not, how their relations can be reorganized or whether they can be reorganized at all, what the borders of the current state are, what its relations with the rest of the world are, whether that state can stop being a pariah in the present world without ending up in a servile position. And of course, before all of that there is the question of mere survival of a large number of citizens who live in unbearable economic conditions.

VREME: Can you give us a brief description of your campaign?

KOSTUNICA: At this moment all of this is still rather fluid, but it is already clear that a part of that campaign must be what is usually referred to as "a campaign on foot" - direct meetings, conversations and discussions with ordinary people. It is obvious that we will have a lot of trouble with electronic media in large cities, especially in Belgrade. But, even if the situation were different, after ten years there must be politicians who can listen to ordinary people, the unfortunate ones, who dare come among them. Many members of the ruling elite in Serbia do not dare go out among the people. The higher they are in the hierarchy of authority the less they can mix with the people. Of course, there is no need to mention that some of the top officials do not even dare visit some parts of that state.

Pro-western, not anti-western criticism

VREME: In first news about your presidential campaign, foreign news agencies mostly described you as a "moderate nationalist, inclined to democratic changes", and "a fierce critic of the American administration". Would you add anything to or take away from this news agency portrait of Vojislav Kostunica?

KOSTUNICA: I would add a few things. Above all, there is a radical dedication to the struggle against corruption, regardless of its source. That has characterized my political struggle so far. As far as the fierce criticism of the current American administration is concerned, it does not at all imply an anti-western attitude. On the contrary. That criticism is in a way balanced with a different attitude with respect to Europe. That criticism is pro-western rather than anti-western. Inasmuch as it advocates the return of the West to its original democratic and liberal values.

Translated on August 16, 2000