Dictators almost never go gently after elections. And if ever one has had a compelling interest in staying on, it's Slobodan Milosevic. Yugoslavia's malign strongman of 13 years and mastermind of four ever more savage ethnic wars lives under international indictment for crimes against humanity. But, suddenly, the man who successfully depicted himself as at one with the Serb people has lost his aura of invincibility with the stunning official admission that he came in second in last week's presidential ballot. No one knew which of his nighttime hideouts he was holed up in, but if he was anywhere near downtown Belgrade, he could hear hundreds of thousands of his compatriots chanting "Save Serbia and kill yourself, Slobodan."
Was this the end for Milosevic? Yes, said rival candidate Vojislav Kostunica and hundreds of thousands of Serbs who had valiantly voted for him, and all the Western leaders. By the opposition's tally of 51% to 36%, the challenger won a decisive victory. Milosevic defiantly said no, shaving the official count to 49% to 39% so he could call for a runoff next week that would buy him time to rewrite the popular verdict. The steely maneuverings of the humiliated President reminded one and all that Milosevic cannot be counted out until he is out.
Presumably, this wasn't how Milosevic had planned things. Even Western leaders doubted that the demoralized Serbs had the gumption to turn against him. He called the vote nine months before his term was up in order to trade on popular resentment of the West's endless sanctions and last year's NATO bombing campaign to drive Serb troops out of Kosovo, where they were persecuting ethnic Albanians. Milosevic expected his control of the media, the security apparatus and the electoral machinery to produce victory. He thought the opposition, torn by perpetual infighting, was a shambles. He never anticipated Vojislav Kostunica.
Neither did anyone else. The obscure 56-year-old constitutional lawyer is an unlikely savior of his nation. He is calm to the point of boring. He has labored for years in the backwaters of Serbian politics without making much of an impression. As a staunch anticommunist--and a zealous Serb nationalist who criticized past Yugoslav leaders for compromising Serb rights--he riled communist boss Josip Broz Tito enough in 1974 to get himself fired from his professorship at Belgrade University. When the opportunistic Milosevic, in a campaign to win over intellectuals, offered him the job back in 1989, Kostunica refused. Considered modest and honest, a true believer in democracy and the rule of law who once translated the Federalist papers into Serbo-Croatian, he helped launch a small opposition party in 1992. The highest office he attained was a seat in the Serbian parliament from 1990 to '97.