Few leaders are more deserving of public scorn than Slobodan Milosevic. His espousal of Serbian nationalism helped launch a vicious war among the nations of former Yugoslavia. His policies have ruined the economy of Serbia, where standards of living have plummeted in recent years. And though he won a 1992 electoral victory in Serbia, he runs what's left of Yugoslavia with police-state toughness, tightly controlling the news media and physically intimidating dissenters.
But if the protests against Milosevic's nullification of opposition victories in recent local elections succeed in weakening, or even toppling, him, what of the US-brokered Bosnian peace process? The Serbian president was a key figure in the long Dayton, Ohio, bargaining sessions that led to an agreement to end the fighting.
Serbian opposition leaders like Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Draskovic have at times taken dubious nationalistic stances themselves. Mr. Djindjic even did some campaigning for the party of Bosnian Serb leader (and indicted war criminal) Radovan Karadzic. Still, the opposition mixes moderation and liberalism with nationalism, and its dominant figures strongly back the Dayton process and economic revival. They want to rejoin civilized Europe. The US and Europe should back their protests against Milosevic's dictatorial tactics.
If the protests spread to Serbia's industrial workplaces, the opposition could amass the clout to force Milosevic out. But the Serbian president may try to forestall that by cracking down, despite likely censure from the West. He holds all the power cards. His police force is stronger than the Army. He can manipulate politics, play with his dual role as both Serbian and Yugoslav chief, and perhaps provoke further nationalistic fervor by stirring trouble in largely Albanian Kosovo.
Any of these options would confirm his leading role as a Balkan villain and, ultimately, hasten his isolation and fall. His only real means of survival is to let the opposition's electoral victories stand and let Serbia take part in Eastern Europe's democratization.