The systematic and deliberate destruction of the Yugoslav democratic revival by the “international community” and its Belgrade minions following the fall of Slobodan Milosevic may not be the most important news unfit to print of the year, but it is certainly the biggest untold story. As we approach the anniversary of this event, the time has come to tell it as it is.

In July 2000, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (Demokratska opozicija Srbije, DOS)—a loose coalition of 18 largely insignificant parties—selected Dr. Vojislav Kostunica as its presidential candidate against the incumbent, Slobodan Milosevic, who had called an election for September 24. This decision was a stroke of genius: Unlike the rest of DOS, Kostunica and his party (Demokratska stranka Srbije, DSS) were neither “pro-Western” nor tainted by previous dealings with the Milosevic regime. His blend of legalism, understated patriotism, and rejection of any compromise with the neocommunist establishment had struck a chord with the majority of voters. During the campaign, Kostunica’s modesty and integrity (his slogan: “I can look you in the eye!”) proved to be his greatest asset against a corrupt regime that had run out of tricks. Kostunica’s victory—disputed by Milosevic, and sealed by the wave of street protests that soon swept over Serbia—also proved to be a meal ticket for the rest of the DOS. Democracy seemed to have triumphed yet again.

The U.S. administration had clearly hoped for a Milosevic victory. It would have provided continued justification for a simplistic yet effective anti-Serb policy in the Balkans—hence, a stream of pre-election “leaks” from Washington about the millions of dollars given to the opposition in Serbia. This played right into Milosevic’s hands by ostensibly confirming his constant theme: The opposition was in the pay of the NATO powers that had bombed the country only two years previously. Worse still, those claims were true—but most Serbs, tired of Milosevic’s long road to nowhere, either chose not to believe what looked like the regime’s black propaganda or decided to trust Kostunica to keep the would-be quislings at bay.

After the election, and with Milosevic’s fall imminent, the United States’ plan B was to neutralize Kostunica by ensuring that the levers of real power went to the recipients of the Western largesse. The key player in this scheme was the present prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, the leader of the small but influential Democratic Party (Demokratska stranka, DS). Djindjic and his party were the Serbian variety of similar political groupings all over Eastern Europe: sharply dressed, technocratic, nouveau-riche yuppie-wannabes, explicitly post-national and committed to “the international community”—U.N. tribunals, gay rights, IMF-dictated privatizations and all. In Belgrade, their obedience was to be measured primarily by their eagerness to comply with the demands of The Hague’s war-crimes tribunal. The common goal of the Djindjic-led “pro-Westerners” and their foreign mentors was to use Kostunica to take over the castle, retaining him as its nominal master during the transition.

Kostunica’s challenge was clear: He must be himself—fair but firm with the defeated Socialists, flexible in his dealings with the outside world but uncompromising on the key issues of Serbia’s dignity and sovereignty—amidst a coalition of cynical manipulators (Djindjic) and lightweights (the rest of DOS) who had no credibility with the people and who, therefore, sought to outbid each other in currying the favor of the West. Devoid of much constitutional authority from the outset, the president of Yugoslavia had to depend on his savvy and on the quality of his immediate team to turn his huge personal popularity into the only currency of politics: power.

Djindjic’s task was even trickier. To bring down Milosevic, he had to risk giving Kostunica a straight flush; but after the job was done, he had to try to take those cards back, one by one. He needed to neutralize the danger of Kostunica discovering his potential as the undisputed national leader, and to preempt him abroad by promising more than Kostunica —or, indeed, any self-respecting Serb—would ever be willing to deliver. While never overstepping the mark in his dealings with Kostunica in those early days—and thus preserving the illusion of the new team’s unity —Djindjic embarked on a short, sharp march through the institutions. The strategy was divided into three phases, and it has worked brilliantly.

The first phase (October 5, 2000, through December 23) was that of consolidation. Djindjic saw an opening in the fact that, in the chaotic aftermath of Milosevic’s downfall, the only ostensibly functional state institLition was the federal presidency. Djindjic shrewdly let Koshinica micromanage dozens of tasks large and small, absorbing himself in a whirlwind of activity. A prominent Belgrade lawyer says that Kostunica’s opponents knew what they were doing:

Djindjic counted on Kostunica’s proverbial scruples to inhibit him from promoting his own friends and supporters—so much so that, in the ensuing scramble for positions and favors, it was, paradoxically, something of a liability to be perceived as “his man.” In the early weeks, Kostunica stole the limelight with his foreign trips. He did not see that he was ensnared into a ruinous 18-hour work schedule while Djindjic took control over one key institution after another.

By the end of October, Djindjic’s revolutionary device of ostensibly spontaneous “crisis committees” had been used to place his trustees in charge of all key media outlets and Serbia’s yet-to-be-privatized public corporations. All the major federal ministerial posts—foreign affairs, finances, telecommunications, justice, interior—went to NGO-linked pro-Westerners or outright Djindjic allies. The next task for Djindjic was to secure an institutional basis for his ever-increasing power, and he set his sights on the premiership of Serbia. In Yugoslavia’s loose federation, the real power rests with the two constituent republics; Serbia accounts for over nine-tenths of the population and economy. To attain his objective, Djindjic had to cajole Kostunica into agreeing to keep the DOS alliance going until Serbia’s parliamentary elections on December 23.

By early November 2000, many Serbs wanted Kostunica to declare that DOS had fulfilled its role in bringing down Milosevic and that it was time for its many different parties, with their incompatible programs and philosophies, to submit to a real test of their electoral strength. He was strongly urged to do so by many friends and political allies. Kostunica did not heed their advice, and some of his supporters now claim that this was a fatal mistake. Other DOS parties waited for this decision with marked nervousness, as it was obvious that only two of them—Kostunica’s own DSS and Djindjic’s DS—had any chance of polling more than the five percent of the vote needed to enter parliament. But he chose to keep the coalition alive, apprehensive that the collapse of DOS would hinder Serbia’s long-delayed reintegration into international institutions and jeopardize the shaky federation.

In the December election, the heterogeneous DOS list scored an overwhelming victory. It won, however, only because it was presented under Kostunica’s name. The entire “pro-Western” wing of DOS finally found itself propelled into real power. Djindjic duly named a cabinet that included a corrupt ex-secret policeman (interior minister Dusan Mihailovic); a long-time Milosevic ally who had changed sides in 1997 (former Belgrade Mayor Nebojsa Covic); a proponent of American-style school reform (Education Minister Gaso Knezevic); a local ally of “philanthropist” George Soros (Information Minister Zarko Korac); and an outspoken proponent of The Hague Tribunal and all its works (Justice Minister Vladan Batic). Kostunica’s DSS received only the uninfluential ministry of education.

As soon as the election was over, the second phase of Kostunica’s demise was under way (December 23, 2000, through June 28, 2001). Once Djindjic took control of the Serbian police and the state security service, it was suddenly OK to defy Kostunica, to present him with faits accomplis, even to be rude to him. In November, while visifing Greece, Kostunica was simply told that the DOS had agreed to make Milan Profic Yugoslavia’s ambassador to the United States. Profic had made his mark during a visit to the United States in November 1999 by declaring on PBS that Milosevic was the only real culprit in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and by averring his commitment to The Hague Tribunal. At that time, he was rewarded for his efforts with a hefty American grant, and the desire of the U.S. government to see him sent to Washington clinched his appointment. Once Kostunica was forced to swallow this bitter pill, a host of lesser diplomatic posts went to various Protic look-a-likes. Foreign minister Svilanovic, while feigning respect for Kostunica, went to Washington in the first week of January to pay tribute to outgoing Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for “all that she had done to promote democracy in Yugoslavia.” When she gloated about this in the American press, Svilanovic was invited to issue a denial. He refused. His like-minded, NGO-approved “cadres” now represent Yugoslavia not only in Washington but in Paris, Vienna (in the person of the former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s official newspaper), Budapest, Ljubljana, Prague, Sofia, and Ottawa.

Kostunica’s resistance to the drift was increasingly confined to rhetoric. His rancorous January 25 meeting in Belgrade with Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of The Hague Tribunal, can now be seen as his last hurrah. During her stay, Del Ponte shrewdly reached out to Djindjic, who promptly made statements about “no price being too high for rejoining Europe.” The rest of the DOS, eager to be recognized by the West, started clamoring for “full compliance” with the Tribunal. By early March, the limits of Kostunica’s ability to resist were reached, and he declared that “the international community, whatever that term means, seems to regret that Milosevic is gone” and that the U.S.-imposed deadline for Milosevic’s arrest (March 31) and the West’s single-minded insistence on submission to The Hague were incompatible with the ideals of democracy and legality that he was trying to defend.

Kostunica’s appeals were ignored. While visiting Washington in the last week of March, Djindjic was encouraged to proceed under his own steam, which he did by arresting Milosevic in the early hours of April 1. Responding to the pressure from Washington (you arrest Slobo, we give you a little money; you deliver him to The Hague, we give you some more), he strengthened the hand of those bureaucrats within the State Department who sought to continue Clinton’s flawed Balkan policy. By the time a weakened Kostunica came to Washington (May 9), it was far too late. The mind of the administration had already been made up: Only full compliance with The Hague would do.

The second phase of Kostunica’s demise culminated in Milosevic’s extradition, which took place on the hallowed day of Serbia’s martyrs (June 28). It was entirely Djindjic’s doing and was justified by another externally imposed deadline: the so-called donors’ conference to refinance a portion of Yugoslavia’s external debt. The extiadition was certainly illegal, and probably marked an end of Kostunica as an effective leader. First, the Yugoslav government paved the way for Milosevic’s extradition by bypassing the parliament and effectively overruling the constitution by decree. When the constitutional court ordered a temporary injunction against extradition while Milosevic appealed the federal administration’s decree, Djindjic simply used the Serbian police to grab the former leader from his cell and pack him off to a NATO base in Bosnia. This was tantamount to a cold-blooded coup d’etat. Kostunica’s claim that he did not know what was going to happen means either that he is now utterly powerless or that he chose not to know. Either way, he loses—as a legalist, as a politician, and as a national leader.

The third phase started on June 28. We don’t know when it will end, but we can calculate its consequences: “Democracy” has been discredited in Serbia. The enthusiasm and idealism of the popular uprising of last October are being replaced by pervasive cynicism. The preferences of the “international community” are known, and they are embodied in Zoran Djindjic. He can now proceed to “privatize” the remnants of the impoverished country’s economy (that is, to divide the spoils between himself and his cronies), to take over the Army, and — perhaps—to allow a powerless, increasingly irrelevant Vojislav Kostunica to linger on at his cavernous Palace of the Federation.

What will be left of Kostunica when the dust settles? He has surrendered even the option of irredentist resentment over Milosevic’s fate. Should he move forward into more compromise, get stuck on this one issue (as though there were not other things to be done), or leave politics altogether? The optimists may say that we can roll up the map of Serbia because we shall not need it again for 20 years. That could be Kostunica’s hope, too: “We are your prisoners; now, please forget us and go away.” Logic and honesty do not go together, however. Let us hope he understands he should still remain honest. If he stays in office chiefly “to prevent something worse,” he cannot.