Experience teaches us that dictatorial regimes are anything but indestructible. They are inherently irrational and therefore unstable. Sooner or later they collapse. To reach ripe old age and die in bed, like Tito, is exceptional for a dictator; to set his country on the steady road to democratic reform, like Franco, is unique.

The method of bringing down dictatorial regimes varies: from coup d’etat (when it is usually another dictator who takes over), the lost war (when the new powers-that-be are installed by the victorious party), to popular revolt, often bloody and violent. The one method of changing governments which is alien to dictatorships is that of free and fair elections. Elections have never been able to terminate the tenure of a political power structure which refuses to regard the will of the people as the source of its legitimacy, or its legality.

The significance of what happened in Belgrade, Nis, and other Serbian cities on November 17 and thereafter is that we have the final proof that Serbia under Milosevic is not even a nominal democracy, but a dictatorship of one man, his wife, and their motley crew of cronies, assorted thieves, ruffians, and scoundrels, variously known as the Socialist Party of Serbia, or the Yugoslav United Left, but aptly described by the people of Serbia as “Red Bandits.”

Milosevic’s brazen theft of a clear victory from opposition parties has finally clarified an important issue. Until last November’s election he could evoke some degree of electoral legitimacy. It was largely bogus, and based on gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, on his blatant control of the media, and on persistent fraud. Nevertheless, until mid-November his political opponents could delude themselves that it was still worth participating in elections stage-managed by Milosevic, in spite of all such imperfections, in the hope that miracles could still happen.

By demolishing any such delusions, Milosevic has unwittingly made a major contribution to the cause of democracy in Serbia. After November 17, it has become clear that Serbia’s president will never, ever give up power through the ballot box. He has thus done a favor to all advocates of real political change in Serbia.

Some Western commentators have expressed surprise that Milosevic did not want to give up power even at the level of city and municipal councils, since all key levers of state power would still remain in his hands. But they do not understand his personality. For Milosevic, any alternative to his own power is not legitimate. Even the current facade of a multiparty system he allowed only under pressure, treating it as something odious and temporary. Any division of power, to him, is equal to the beginning of the end of power itself.

On the other hand, opposition parties and the people of Serbia are increasingly aware that this is the key moment for the country’s future. Succumbing to Milosevic’s Diktat would be tantamount to the acceptance of rule by fiat, to the abolition of all parties and of the last vestiges of parliamentarianism. This awareness is finally beginning to transcend rivalries which have plagued Serbia’s opposition over the past six years.

To them, one key dilemma remains; How to deal with the possibility of violence? It is unrealistic to expect that the regime which, for more than half a century, has brought nothing but blood, tears, and shame to the Serbian people, will ever give up without violence. Milosevic is hoping to avoid it by attrition, hoping for gradual disillusionment, fatigue and loss of hope on behalf of the protesters, accompanied by some token concessions by the regime, and followed by “stabilization”—the like of which we have seen in East Berlin in 1953, in Budapest in 1956, and in Prague in 1968.

It may not work. Milosevic’s power structure is showing some signs of strain. One hundred judges have signed an open letter, having been shamed into condemnation of their pliant colleagues who have given the stamp of “legality” to the theft of opposition votes. His minister of information has resigned in protest at the muzzling of the remaining free media. His chief of army staff. General Perisic, is reliably reported to have told him that the military would refuse to be used again, as in March 1991, when tanks were deployed against demonstrators.

Milosevic’s last and most formidable bastion is provided by the middle-ranking apparatus of power. From Tito’s days he has inherited thousands of communist apparatchiki, who had lost any pretense of ideological zeal but who were allowed, even encouraged, to grow more corrupt and arrogant than ever. Milosevic trusts those local mini-bosses because he knows that they are up to their necks in shady deals, theft, corruption, and all manner of human baseness. He is well aware that this riffraff has no choice but to follow him to the bitter end. They have to, not because they are loyal to “the Big Boss” personally, but because for most of them the alternative to power is not retirement but well-deserved jail.

Another key source of hope for Milosevic is the underlying support for him coming from Washington. It took more than a week of continuous street protests in Belgrade for the State Department to issue the first (mild) rebuke of Milosevic. “The Serbian leader continues to be a necessary diplomatic partner,” pontificated the New York Times in a November 28 editorial, while American diplomats in Belgrade were quietly advising protesters to refrain from demanding Milosevic’s resignation. Such ambivalence prompted the Times of London to bewail Western disregard for the “ruthlessly undemocratic nature” of the regimes in Serbia and Croatia, warning that the view of Milosevic as a pillar of regional stability was inherently flawed.

By betraying the struggle for self-determination of the Serbs west of the Drina, by stabbing them in the back, Milosevic was shrewdly hoping to purchase the lasting benevolence of those who run America. Indeed, it was with the skins of the Bosnian and Krajina Serbs that he has turned himself from “the butcher of the Balkans” into “a necessary partner.” The current view inside the Beltway is that, for all his domestic transgressions, Milosevic should stay in power. Surely enough, appropriate lip service is being paid to America’s support for democracy in Serbia, and independent Belgrade media have been visited by a few itinerant congressmen. And yet, the Clinton administration is loath to see the fall of Milosevic—the man willing to sign on the dotted line, provenly unable to say “no” to the likes of Dick Holbrook and Company.

There is a problem, though. The people of Serbia may present Clinton and Albright with an embarrassing fait accompli, and get rid of Milosevic regardless of the “friendly” advice from Washington. Rather than wait for this to happen, America should reexamine its Balkan strategy. The more Milosevic has given, the less he is needed now. Since the deal imposed at Dayton has become a fact of life for the opposition parties in Serbia, Milosevic’s position as an essential pillar of this settlement has ended. His influence over the Bosnian Serbs is in any event negligible.

At a more fundamental level, the administration ought to grasp that Serbs, too, have legitimate interests which cannot be permanently violated with impunity. Those interests can be given full expression only by true democracy, and by its corollary, the right of Bosnian Serbs to self-determination. These are reasonable demands, based on the purest notion of liberty, and therefore eminently American in character.

The people of Serbia are facing a major test of endurance and political maturity, which only they themselves will pass—or fail. Sooner or later they are bound to put their nation back into the fold of European democracies, where it rightfully belongs. The United States should stop trying to postpone such an outcome in the name of short-term expediency and flawed concepts of regional stability.

UPDATE: The students’ egg-and-whistle revolution against Slobodan Milosevic attracted powerful support in early January, when the ruling council of the Serbian Orthodox Church condemned the president for his illegal and violent acts. A few days later, the head of the Yugoslav army declared that the army would not support Milosevic in the event of a crackdown. English newspapers have also reported that officers and elite units of the Yugoslav army are ready to revolt. They are disgusted with Milosevic’s arbitrary annulment of election results and even more with his bloody failures in the Balkan War. Unfortunately, Serbs are a volatile people, all too likely to swing from one extreme—bellicose nationalism—to another, which in this case would be the multicultural social democracy being advocated by protest leaders.

The Bosnian War, which seems likely to bring down Slobodan Milosevic, was won by American air power in an unholy alliance with Iranian terrorism. According to the L.A. Times, the CIA has revealed that President Izetbegovic took a $500 million payoff from the Iranians who wanted to help reelect this European disciple of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Even as Bill Clinton was giving the Muslim government of Bosnia a clean bill of health, the CIA was describing its president as “literally on the payroll” of Iran. The CIA also estimates that between May 1994 and December 1996, Iran smuggled 14,000 tons of arms into Bosnia with a value of $I00-$200 million. The foreign policy genius who helped engineer the deal? None other than Anthony Lake, Clinton’s nominee for CIA director. Lake deliberately misled both Congress and the CIA about American involvement with Iran, and on November 7, the House made a criminal referral of Lake to the Justice Department. If the Republicans cannot stop his nomination, they are missing an opportunity to be statesmen and hardball politicians at the same time.

        —Thomas Fleming