The 20th century will someday be remembered as a dark age in the history of politics. It is a century that has seen two world wars, millions upon millions killed by the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and almost all of sub-Saharan Africa engulfed in a massive civil war. It is a century whose central lesson may someday be to fear any ideology that claims to have The Answer — such as the “final solution” or “cultural revolution” — to the problem of human political interaction.
Former dissident and current Czech President Výclav Havel wrote that the price of such ideologies “is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority.” In this century, we have seen the human cost of this abdication.
Perhaps it will also be remembered that the last few years of the century pointed to the beginning of a new era. Perhaps it will be remembered that the fall of communism in Europe was almost entirely peaceful, even in Russia. Perhaps it will be remembered that, when the Berlin Wall came down, protesters were exchanging flowers — not gunfire — with troops. And perhaps it will be remembered that the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and of Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1990 were occasioned by peaceful, large-scale popular uprisings.
Of course, there have been dissonant notes — Tiananmen Square and the fall of communism in Romania, for instance. But the paradigmatic case as the century draws to a close has shifted from the Soviet Union’s crushing of the “Prague Spring” in 1968 to Havel’s “Velvet Revolution” in the same country 21 years later. The new model was one of the peaceful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule after massive popular demonstrations. As one Czech protester put it, “’89 is ’68 upside down.”
Last week the world was fortunate enough to see another display of the power of peaceful protest to bring down an oppressive regime. Saturday, Vojislav Kostunica was sworn in as president of the Yugoslav Federation. He replaced Slobodan Milosevic, who had been in power for 13 years. Milosevic had unwisely called an election in an attempt to solidify the base of his rule. When he lost the Sept. 24 election to Kostunica, the candidate of a coalition of opposition parties, Milosevic managed to steal just enough votes to claim that a runoff would be necessary, setting off a wave of national protests.
The turning point probably came last Wednesday, when police refused to disband a strike at the Kolubara coal mine, which provides the coal for half of Serbia’s electricity generation. When the police came to put an end to the strike, the miners called in supporters — as many as 20,000 of them — and they peacefully occupied the mine. At that point, the police backed down, with one commander telling the New York Times, “I’m fed up with this. After this, I’m throwing my hat away and going home. The police in Serbia are more democratic than you think.”
The next day protesters took over Belgrade and occupied the state-run media, which had served so effectively as Milosevic’s propaganda machine for the last 13 years and the Parliament building. Police chose not to take serious action against the protesters. Friday, the courts Milosevic had so effectively manipulated also turned on him, declaring Kostunica the outright winner of the election. That night, after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Milosevic resigned, and Kostunica was sworn in the next day.
Kostunica promises to be a very different kind of leader. He is a constitutional lawyer who once translated The Federalist Papers into Serbo-Croatian. That’s a very promising sign to those who recall James Madison’s words in Federalist No. 49: “The people are the only legitimate fountain of power,” or Alexander Hamilton’s words in Federalist No. 22: “The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE.” A far cry indeed from Milosevic’s governing philosophy.
Kostunica talks frequently about the rule of law, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary, things Milosevic never particularly cared for. He has also repeatedly criticized Milosevic’s isolationism, saying, “We want a normal life in a normal state.” In response, the European Union plans to begin lifting sanctions against Yugoslavia today, and the United States is expected to follow suit.
The Kostunica administration faces a number of problems, including building a viable coalition in Parliament and re-tooling the government to serve democratic interests. But the way in which he came to power was a huge step towards a successful transition to democracy. With its almost entirely bloodless overthrow of the Milosevic regime, Yugoslavia showed itself to be firmly within the recent trend of peaceful democratic transition and in firm contrast to a century otherwise marked by bloodshed.
In three months we begin a new century. Let’s work to make it a century in which the bloody politics that dominated most of the twentieth century are firmly and forever repudiated. Let’s work to make it a century in which the newer trend of peaceful movement to popular sovereignty is entrenched and expanded. Let’s work to make it a century modeled on Havel and Kostunica, to stand in eternal contrast to the century of Hitler and Pol Pot.
Josh Chafetz is a senior in Berkeley College. His columns appear on alternate Mondays.