October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

It doesn’t take a diplomat to explain the appeal of Vojislav Kostunica, Yugoslavia’s new president. Just ask 11-year-old Stefan Kocovic, who is a neighbor of Kostunica and his wife, Zorica Radovic, in their Belgrade apartment building. “He’s very nice,” says Stefan, “always says hi.” Not only that, but Kostunica takes to heart the adage that all politics are local. “I congratulated him when he won the elections and asked him if he could abolish school entrance exams,” says Stefan. “Voja said he’d see what he could do.”

Given what he had already done, that sounded promising. On Oct. 5, in a scenario almost as improbable as anything cooked up by Frank Capra, Kostunica, 56, a soft-spoken legal scholar armed with little more than his own idealism, rode to victory on the wave of popular revolt that swept away the notorious Slobodan Milosevic, who had tormented both his own country and its neighbors through 13 years of misrule. “For a long time we lived in an order in which democracy never existed,” Kostunica told the Yugoslav parliament after taking office Oct. 7. “It exists now.”

Kostunica was born in Belgrade, where his mother was a homemaker and his father a judge who was thrown out of the Serbian judiciary after World War II for opposing the new Communist regime. Kostunica himself seemed a model student, graduating in 1966 from Belgrade University school of law. “He was exceptional,” says his old friend Svetlana Stojanovic, now a translator. “He had very good grades, was very loyal and, like today, you can be sure that he is always going to keep his word.” Still, Kostunica was fired from the school’s faculty in 1974 for supporting a colleague who had criticized Tito’s policies. He then worked at a social sciences research institute and gradually became involved in politics, ultimately founding the Democratic party of Serbia in 1992.

Kostunica’s intellectual commitment to democracy was further underscored in the early ’80s, when he oversaw the translation into Serbo-Croatian of The Federalist Papers. But his enthusiasm for America’s founding ideals does not mean he is fond of America. Rather, he exhibits a strong strain of Serbian nationalism and was angered by the NATO air war against Serbia, prompted last year by the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. “He’s not a lackey for the U.S.,” says Ivo Daalder, a Balkans expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “He promotes the rule of law and is committed to resolving problems by peaceful means. We can’t ask for anything more.”

Ultimately, Kostunica came to power because he seemed the least corrupt and most widely acceptable of the many leaders opposed to Milosevic. He and Zorica, 56, his wife of 24 years and a highly regarded expert on constitutional law, have no children and live modestly in a small flat they share with Zuca, their dog, and two cats. “Can you imagine,” says their postman, “they invited me for coffee several times.” Until he took over as president, Kostunica had no bodyguards and drove a 10-year-old Yugoslav-made subcompact called a Zastava.

Kostunica has already rebuffed suggestions that he move into the White Palace, the grand mansion near downtown Belgrade formerly occupied by Milosevic. “I will stay where I am now,” he told reporters recently. “…I will never move to somebody else’s house.” In one of his few concessions to his new role, Kostunica, who says he will call elections within 18 months, has agreed to accept a designated parking space in front of his building.

Some observers suspect Kostunica’s self-effacing blandness may make it difficult for him to bring together his country’s rival factions. But for Yugoslavs weary of strongmen, it is a risk well worth taking. “I like that we stopped having charismatic leaders in Serbia,” says lawyer Dragan Brajer. “We paid the highest price for it with wars all the time. This country should be grateful.”

Bill Hewitt

Mira Adanja-Polak in Belgrade, Pete Norman in London and Lisa Newman in Washington, D.C.

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