Once again, Thursday, the awesome strength and unpredictability of democratic will was on display, this time in Belgrade. Just 10 days ago, the autocratic regime of Slobodan Milosevic seemed nearly impregnable, immune to public opinion by virtue of his control of the police. Thursday his grip appeared to loosen by the hour as masses of mostly peaceful demonstrators seized parliament, state television and other key sites while police barely resisted. The scenes recalled democratic uprisings in Manila and Seoul, Berlin and Moscow. But they were no less inspiring for their familiarity.
As night fell Thursday, Milosevic's whereabouts and intentions remained unknown. Hundreds of thousands of protesters packing city squares could not ignore the possibility that he might still try to use the army or security forces to crack down. A wanted war criminal internationally, a reviled failure at home, Milosevic would seem to have no refuge. But even if he decided to lash back, the veneer of legitimacy that he had sought to maintain was gone for good.
Like many dictators before him, Milosevic miscalculated by calling elections that he thought he could win or at least plausibly steal. He underestimated the depth of Serbian dissatisfaction after a decade in which he had started and lost four wars of ethnic aggrandizement, reducing his nation to impoverished ruin. But it was pressure from the Clinton administration and other Western countries that helped force Milosevic into his miscalculation. These allies made democracy a prerequisite for admission into the political and economic institutions of Europe. Autocrats have become increasingly isolated, and even those who remain on the continent -- Milosevic and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus -- feel the need to cloak themselves in democratic wraps.
Western leaders rightly rushed to embrace the legitimate elected leader, Vojislav Kostunica; only Russian President Vladimir Putin put himself on the wrong side of history by refusing to recognize the new regime. But it remains important for the West to move cautiously even if Milosevic falls. There can be no sanctuary for war criminals, and sanctions on Serbia should be lifted step by step, as and if the little-known Kostunica and his new regime show a willingness to live by the law, get along with Serbia's neighbors and release abducted prisoners from Kosovo. Another lesson of people power is that the hard part begins the next day. The West will have to remain steadfast in its support of an evolution toward democracy.
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