The Serbs, after a decade of being treated as the designated demons of Europe, were, in the first week of October, transformed by Western media and politicians into a nation of Walesas and Havels. The ethnic cleansing and mass rape stories were gone, replaced by those of freedom, democracy, and gallantry. As Matthew Parris remarked in the Times of London, “We love them/We love them not. If I was a brave Serb/beastly Serb, I’d be feeling confused this morning.” The entire Serbian nation was humanized in about five minutes, which must be a record even for CNN’s spin doctors.

But most Serbs did not care what the rest of the world thought of them as they took to the streets to depose Slobodan Milosevic. That misshapen communist apparatchik—who had never been any kind of nationalist, let alone a “greater Serbian chauvinist”—was determined to maintain power for as long as he could feed on the ever-shrinking innards of Serbia. But he finally overplayed his hand when he hastily called an election for September 24. In spite of controlling the media and the money, Milosevic was beaten, convincingly and on the first round, by an unassuming lawyer of integrity and intellect, Vojislav Kostunica. Having lost the vote, he tried to steal the election by fraud.

Until election day, even Milosevic’s enemies had grudging respect for his creative deviousness. But when he found himself reduced to stealing wallets in broad daylight, he was doomed. The magic was gone. In the aftermath of the election, his subjects lost their respect for him, and thus they no longer feared him.

Kostunica and his opposition partners were prepared for the attempted theft. They immediately denounced the federal election commission’s claim that Kostunica was one percentage point short of a simple majority and called for a general strike. The catastrophic election results and the growing revolt threw Milosevic’s machine into a panic. “The Boss” obviously did not have an ace up his sleeve, and the initial trickle of desertions from his ranks turned into a flood. The deserters included some astute police generals whose pragmatism was coupled with insight into the mood in the streets. The fear that the military would violently suppress the protests—as it did in March 1991, when Milosevic ordered tanks to the streets of Belgrade—proved unfounded. Finally, on October 5, the police let hundreds of thousands of demonstrators take over the parliament building and the main TV station. Milosevic’s reign had ended.

Milosevic’s main problem in the crucial ten days after the election was that the prospect of deliverance from his 13- year rule had irrevocably gripped the imagination of millions of Serbs. They could see the end of the disastrous Milosevic era, and with it the end of sanctions and of the institutionalized paranoia that thrived on Washington’s Serbophobic Balkans policy, and the vision proved contagious—even within Milosevic’s establishment.

At the time of this writing, with every Western worthy and his uncle packing bags for Belgrade, there is still some talk of an attempted comeback by Milosevic, but the danger is probably exaggerated. As Serbia’s deposed ruling couple ponder their shrinking options in the isolation of their suburban villa, they are more likely belatedly attempting to come to terms with reality. Their fate may be humiliating, but it is still preferable to that of previous Balkan despots on a losing streak—as the ghosts of Nicolae and Elena Ceauseseu could testify.