When he defeated Slobodan Milosevic at the polls in September 2000 and then kicked the Serb strongman out of office some days later Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica became an instant hero among his fellow Serbs and observers in the West. After he appeared on the balcony of Belgrade's City Hall and addressed the crowd with the words, "Dear liberated Serbia," the foreign press began referring to him as "the dragon slayer." Alas for Kostunica, his dragon-slaying days are over and the promised rewards for his heroism in the fairy tale, half the kingdom and the princess' hand in marriage are slipping away.
Nearly two years after his tussle with Slobo, Kostunica is fighting a different battle. This time, his chief adversaries are his former partners in the struggle against Milosevic: Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, both of whom regard Kostunica as an obstacle to consolidating their own power. Djindjic wants to prevent his former ally from becoming President of Serbia itself in next month's elections, while Djukanovic wants to dissolve his tiny republic's remaining links with Serbia, thus burying what's left of the Yugoslav federation. Kostunica is likely to announce his candidacy later this month. While the outcomes of these skirmishes are impossible to predict, they are draining precious time and energy from the country's much-needed political and economic reforms.
The talks between Serb and Montenegrin officials aimed at restructuring the Yugoslav federation are already breaking down. Montenegrins want a loose alliance between two independent states, while Serbs want a viable federal administration. "We couldn't agree on anything except that the federation should be renamed Serbia and Montenegro," says Zoran Sami, Kostunica's representative at the talks. Both parties say the Sept. 23 deadline for forging a new constitutional framework will not be met a failure that could block Yugoslav membership in the Council of Europe, admission to which is the first step toward eventually joining the European Union. Should that happen, a string of vital trade agreements linked to Council of Europe membership will also be postponed.
Meanwhile, as federal President, Kostunica is reduced to meeting foreign diplomats and issuing public statements. The real power is in Serbia proper, so Kostunica's only option is to grab the last major position that's still available: the presidency of Serbia. But his designs were dealt a serious blow three weeks ago when Djindjic ejected Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) from the ruling coalition and replaced DSS deputies who held 18% of the 250 seats with those loyal to his government. Without a voice in parliament, Kostunica will find it harder to send his message to the electorate. He called the move "an unprecedented robbery" and denounced it as unconstitutional.
Djindjic remains unmoved. "Kostunica's deputies obstructed the parliament and tried to block reforms," Djindjic told Time. "They had to be removed." Western observers, who over the past two years have grown increasingly wary of what they see as Kostunica's anti-Western stance and reluctance to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague, tend to side with Djindjic. He "may not be too concerned with legal niceties, but he gets the job done," says a diplomat in Belgrade. Presidential elections are scheduled for Sept. 29, but Kostunica is reluctant to show his hand too soon. While talks with the Montenegrins are still going on, "he doesn't want to be seen as in a hurry to abandon the federation," explains a member of his staff.
Though Kostunica is still popular among many Serbs, he has a formidable opponent in Miroljub Labus, a member of Djindjic's Democratic Party. An economist by trade, Labus successfully negotiated Yugoslavia's deals with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. "People see Labus as a bearer of good news," says Srdjan Bogosavljevic of the Strategic Marketing polling agency, whose recent survey shows Labus with a slight edge. "If Kostunica loses, it will be political death."
Djindjic, secure in the Prime Minister's seat and with virtually no opposition in parliament, can afford to bide his time. "Ousting Milosevic was a matter of life and death," Djindjic says, "but this is just politics. We have two strong democratic candidates and whoever wins, we will have a democratic President." If Kostunica is victorious, will Djindjic who's no longer on speaking terms with his rival cooperate with him? "Why not? As long as he doesn't overstep his prerogatives. I do not take politics personally," he says, adding that the Serbian presidency is largely ceremonial anyway. Ending up as a figurehead is certainly not what Kostunica had in mind when he spoke to cheering masses from the balcony of Belgrade's City Hall two years ago. But then in Serbian politics, fairy tales rarely have happy endings.