287. Regime Change in Serbia and Iraq: What Have We Learned about the Legacy of Autocracies?

By
Vladimir Matic

Vladimir Matic is Lecturer and Visiting Professor of Political Science at Clemson University. Meeting Report 287.

Although not an immediately obvious pairing, much can be learned from the fall of Serbia's autocracy that may be applied to Iraq. Both countries were isolated and run for a long time by forcefully imposed autocratic regimes that developed a breed of patriotism which did not allow for dissent. Opportunities for these two countries to cooperate were enhanced by the similar position of the two regimes under international sanctions and fighting for survival against a ‘common enemy.' Thus, not only do autocracies act similarly under similar conditions, but they also band together as they attempt to offset the ill effects of international pariah status. The reaction of the public in Serbia to the 1999 NATO campaign and the mind set that allowed for the continuation and at least temporary strengthening of Slobodan Milosevic's rule could have provided many clues, if not a template, for how Iraqis would behave under occupation. Moreover, the difficulties and slow pace of transformation in Serbia offer tips for state-building in Iraq.

A legacy of cooperation
The cooperation between the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Iraq—two nonaligned countries—began long ago and outlived not only the end of the Cold War, the disintegration of Yugoslavia and sanctions against both Serbia and Iraq, but managed to continue without scrutiny even after the October 2000 regime change in Serbia. Yugoslav companies working in Iraq were primarily from the construction industry and military sector. One of the first long-term agreements under the international sanctions imposed on both countries in the early 1990s—delivering oil in exchange for military goods and services—was negotiated with Iraq in summer 1993, during a secret visit to Baghdad by Serbia's Army Chief of Staff. Exports of planes, missiles, chemicals and other military equipment as well as maintenance contracts for them continued through fall 2002, and were organized by Jugoimport-SDPR, a government-controlled company with Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors and Federal Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic serving as a board member. This continued violation of the UN resolutions was resolved by the Serbian authorities only after strong diplomatic coercion by the United States, and even then reticently.

The cooperation between the former Yugoslavia and Iraq went beyond the business sector, encompassing education as well. Beginning in the 1960s hundreds of Iraqis studied in Yugoslavia. Many of them graduated from Yugoslav universities and later held important positions in government institutions under Saddam Hussein, which provided a solid foundation for even closer ties between the governments of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein during the 1990s. Today, with government institutions working toward Partnership for Peace membership and closer ties with NATO, some of these channels could prove useful in assisting the transition currently underway in Iraq.

The effects of sanctions
Both Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein carefully developed their countries' domestic and international images. These images are deeply imbedded in the minds of the people and changing them will take a well-organized effort of both countries, not to mention a long period of time. In both countries, the United States and the West were presented as the archenemy, an ‘alien' culture that threatens the traditional values (Eastern Orthodox and Islamic respectively) of the nation.

When sanctions were first introduced against Serbia in the early 1990s, Milosevic immediately saw a silver lining. His first comments were that the sanctions might actually help certain sectors of the economy and that Serbian society as a whole might therefore become more efficient. And he was right—at least from the perspective of his authoritarian regime. International sanctions were skillfully used to further isolate Serbia from the rest of the world by propagating radical nationalism and developing xenophobia as well as to acquire absolute control over all sectors of the economy and public life. Media, for instance, was put into the "service of the nation," as was education. Import and distribution of critical raw materials and goods were directly organized and conducted by state institutions, primarily the Serbian state security and the military, and became a new instrument of power and source of income needed to fund Serbs in Croatia and the ongoing war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At the same time, sanctions were ultimately effective in destroying the economies of both Serbia and Iraq. Although their autocratic regimes have been overthrown, both countries must now grapple with the legacy of poverty, as well as social and political divisions exacerbated by ethnic/religious and territorial problems. In the current period of transition, which includes economic reconstruction, political and social transformation and international reintegration, there is, however, a major difference between the two countries. In Serbia the power structure built by Milosevic remained virtually untouched after October 2000 and—like the mindset from that period—remains powerful. The reaction of the Serbian government and public to the last four indictments by the Hague Tribunal (two army and two police generals involved in Kosovo operations from 1998 to 1999) clearly illustrates that. As does the result of the December 28, 2003 parliamentary elections, in which radical and nationalist parties received about 60 percent of the vote. In Iraq, Saddam's power structure was swiftly eliminated and the country was left without trained professionals in crucial government services, including the police and the army, and many of the same people will most probably have to be rehired.

Milosevic developed mechanisms to create revenues from illegal trade and placed this trade under the direct control of state services. He developed a vast and sophisticated network connecting institutions of his regime with organized crime. For example, the paramilitary forces which conducted ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo were financed by the loot pillaged during military attacks and through the participation in state-organized smuggling. Large government-owned companies and newly established private enterprises became part of this system and their revenues were diverted to finance the regime. In the end, this large and complex structure reached a stage at which it could be sustained without its creator, which led Milosevic's protégés to abandon him during the October 2000 elections. Realizing that a change at the top was inevitable, they switched sides and supported the opposition in order to protect their newly-acquired power and wealth. Thus the system of mutual connections and economic positions was preserved and remains a major obstacle to economic transformation and democratization. Not even after Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated has the anti-crime sweep reached the foundation of the illegal activities. Likewise, Saddam amassed enormous amounts of hard currency by abusing the UN's oil for food and medicine programs. The knowledge of how Milosevic worked in Serbia demands that we now ask: what kind of structure did Saddam Hussein develop to maintain his power and what of it remains today?

The magnitude of challenges faced by Serbia was exposed fully by the Djindjic's assassination. Though some parts of the conspiracy may never be fully revealed, it is obvious that the basis of conspiracy was broad and the goal was to prevent change. According to his associates, Djindjic decided to start breaking the bonds of the past by dismantling the network of interests entrenched in the power structure, which had formed under the previous regime. Since political means to prevent him from doing this failed, he had to be eliminated.

While major obstacles to reform in Serbia have resided in the police, state security, the military and the economy—all pillars of the former regime's power—in Iraq, most of this structure was dismantled but has not yet been replaced. In the process of rebuilding it, the only pool of professional experience available in order to get institutions running came from the officers of the previous regime. Obviously, a whole class of educated and trained people cannot be instantly replaced. They have to be reformed and reeducated. This is exactly what the government of Serbia and Montenegro began doing last spring in the military by retiring and reshuffling the upper echelon while keeping the bulk of the professional cadres. In the process they have to deal with the prevailing mindset burdened by radical nationalism, communism, conservativism and xenophobia, but as a reform minded official puts it "we have to work with what we have."

Easing domestic and regional tensions
Ethnic and religious differences and conflicts have played an important role in building the autocratic regimes in Serbia and Iraq. Under Milosevic, the Serbian Orthodox Church was made into a partner of the government, but in reality remained an auxiliary force used by Milosevic. Since he was deposed, the Church has been trying to impose itself as a major political factor and a partner to the new authorities. The Church claims that only in October 2000 did the long rule of communism come to an end in Serbia so that religion has finally had a chance to reclaim its rightful place in society and state government. Similarly, religion in Iraq was marginalized for a long time and the regime actively suppressed the majority Shia population. Now Shia clerics, particularly the radical ones, see a window of opportunity for establishing themselves as the leading political force and secure their role in the new power structure being formed.

The position and policies of neighboring countries and others in the region play an important role in any process of transformation. They certainly stand to benefit from stabilization and prosperity of the formerly fractured society and a country that had been a threat to them. But, at the same time, they may feel threatened by the growing power and even democratization in their region. Serbia makes no secret of its aspiration to play the role of a leading power in the Balkans, and not all of its neighbors are looking forward to facing a recovered and internationally recognized, self-confident and assertive Serbia. Some may have been more comfortable with an isolated and weak neighbor. In the case of Iraq, this issue is also likely to come up, and may be even more contentious. An economically recovered Iraq with a stable democratic government would present a formidable challenge, not only for Islamic radicalism but would be seen as a threat by authoritarian Arab regimes in the region. They too were more comfortable with a weakened and contained Saddam.

The porous border between Serbia and Kosovo created an opportunity for former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to connect with radical elements among Albanians in southern Serbia and to start a rebellion in spring 2001. The rebellion in Macedonia that followed was also based on free illegal circulation of KLA members and armament between Kosovo and Macedonia. The lessons learned there by NATO could be useful in the search for ways to secure Iraqi borders and stop the Jihadists from entering the country and providing the remnants of Saddam's regime with fresh recruits for suicide missions.

The leadership position taken by the United States to support continued reforms in Serbia after Djindjic was assassinated had a major impact. Expectations have been on the rise and both the government and the public support forging a strategic partnership with the US, which may even include building military bases in Serbia. For many, this new course does not mean that they have forgotten the past and the bombing in 1999 but that they want to move on and understand that accepting the realities in today's world is the first step to ending their own suffering. Can something like that happen in Iraq and what could precipitate such a transformation?

Conclusions
The biggest challenge for post authoritarian societies remains reform of the power structure formed under the previous regime and the creation of a market economy, jobs and raising the standard of living. A clearly-defined program of transformation develops support and vested interests in its success. In that respect, the analysis of the politics and reforms in Serbia could provide valuable lessons for post-war reconstruction in Iraq.

Based on past cooperation and ties there is an opportunity and strong interest for cooperation between Serbia and Iraq in economic and other areas. The political position of the current government—and hopefully the one being formed—makes Serbia a suitable partner for the United States in programs of reconstruction in Iraq including very important and sensitive fields, such as military and police training.
 

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant