The impressive show of "people power" organized on Aug. 19 in Belgrade put Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on notice that his electorate's patience is wearing thin. Having endured three failed wars and endless economic misery, Serbs are expressing their dissatisfaction with Mr. Milosevic's horribly flawed rule.
Exactly how they will bring about changes in Serbia remains a difficult question. And what role the West can and should play there in the aftermath of the NATO conflict is especially sensitive.
This latest round of protest is reminiscent of earlier struggles - first in 1991 and then in the winter of 1996-97 - when tens of thousands of Serbs took to the streets out of frustration with the miserable state of affairs. But all of these protest efforts have fallen short, with the opposition unable to achieve the crucial precondition for setting Serbia's reform process in motion: Milosevic's removal from power.
The earlier protests failed for a variety of reasons, including a passive and exhausted Serbian population, artful political maneuvering by Milosevic, and manipulation of Serbs through tight control over state-run media. Perhaps most disappointing has been the performance of the fragmented Serb opposition.
Like the earlier protests, the current effort features two main opposition figures: Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic, and Vuk Draskovic, the controversial head of the Serbian Reform Movement.
Both Mr. Djindjic and Mr. Draskovic are calling for a transitional government, but they have not agreed on a blueprint for achieving this goal. While Djindjic is seeking Milosevic's unconditional departure from power, Draskovic has indicated he prefers some sort of power-sharing arrangement with the Yugoslav leader.
Draskovic says he seeks to avoid "civil war" in Serbia, which he thinks would result from ultimatums delivered to Milosevic. In fact, the opposition coalition Alliance for Change - which includes Draskovic's key rivals - has said unless Milosevic steps down by Sept. 21, it will shut down the country with demonstrations and a general strike.
The challenge for the opposition has always been formidable, but post-Kosovo politics in Serbia make the task even more complex. During the two previous rounds of protest, the opposition was eager to associate itself with the values of the West. Now, as a variation on Milosevic's "divide and conquer," Serbs who advocate closer cooperation with the West face the prospect of being branded "lackeys for NATO" or "traitors to Serbia."
State-run media - among Milosevic's most potent tools of control - have even claimed that the opposition chose Aug. 19 for its mass rally in Belgrade because that date is President Clinton's birthday.
As a result, proposing closer ties to the West as an important part of any prospective reform program is a message that may hinder, rather than advance, the success of the opposition in the post-Kosovo period.
This post-Kosovo dynamic complicates the need for Serbs to acknowledge their own role in the wrongdoing that was part and parcel of Milosevic's military adventures. Some Western observers are calling for the Serb opposition to initiate a national debate about war crimes. However, it would be premature to expect average Serbs - who are more concerned with their economic prospects - to begin accepting responsibility now for their behavior in this decade's wars.
A more effective message would zero in on how Milosevic plans to solve Serbia's rising unemployment, shrinking GDP and overall economic catastrophe. A generation will likely pass before the physical infrastructure is restored in Serbia and Kosovo or before Serbs are ready to reexamine the path they have chosen during the 1990s.
Most Serbs are undoubtedly fed up with the Milosevic regime and are eager to find a viable political alternative. What is far from clear is whether this "Milosevic fatigue" will translate into an effective mass movement that can depolarize and reorient the country's politics.
The latest cycle of protest in Serbia will be viewed as a success only if it achieves the goal of removing Milosevic, thereby taking the first critical step toward setting in motion the democratic reform process.
*Christopher Walker is a New York-based analyst specializing in Eastern European affairs.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society