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A protester rips up one of Slobodan Milošević’s campaign posters in Belgrade. October 6, 2000.
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The regime changers Russia now rejects such talk as ‘color revolution,’ but Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton discussed removing Slobodan Milošević from power 20 years ago

Source: Meduza
A protester rips up one of Slobodan Milošević’s campaign posters in Belgrade. October 6, 2000.
A protester rips up one of Slobodan Milošević’s campaign posters in Belgrade. October 6, 2000.
Petar Vujanic / Newsmakers / Getty Images

Meduza is reviewing the recently declassified transcripts of phone calls and meetings between President Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin between 1999 and 2001. Based on these records, it turns out that the Russian president who would later build his diplomatic rhetoric around the principle of non-interference was quite ready in the early 2000s to discuss the details of removing Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milošević from power. These remarks to Clinton 20 years ago might constitute the only reliable information we have to this day about how Putin thinks (or how he once thought) a dictator ought to give up power.

This text is the second of a series of reports by Meduza looking back at the Clinton-Putin correspondence. Twenty years later, these records demonstrate how different Russian foreign policy was at the start of Vladimir Putin’s presidency.

Background: Who was Milošević and how did he hold onto power?

Starting in 1986, Slobodan Milošević effectively ruled the Serbian Republic, which was part of Yugoslavia. In the early 1990s, a series of bloody wars led to the collapse of most of Yugoslavia, reducing the federation to Serbia and Montenegro. In 1997, Milošević was elected Yugoslavia’s president. A year later, war broke out in the province of Kosovo. In 1999, NATO forces began bombing the country to halt the Yugoslav Army. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia subsequently issued an arrest warrant for Milošević on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In July 2000, Milošević orchestrated constitutional reforms that allowed him to organize a snap vote that fall for his re-election. Under the new rules, Yugoslavia’s president was now elected directly by popular vote, not by members of parliament. Milošević hoped that anti-Western sentiment would deliver him another term in office.

The United States, meanwhile, provided assistance to the Serbian opposition, hoping to facilitate Milošević’s defeat at the polls. American support — both financial and organizational — came from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the National Democratic Institute. 

In the race, Milošević’s chief rival was Vojislav Koštunica, who had the endorsement of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia alliance. Polling showed that Koštunica was poised to defeat Milošević in the first round of voting, but the opposition feared that the incumbent president might try to steal the election.

To find out what happened next, keep reading.

Clinton feared that Milošević would derail the elections and asked Putin for help

Milo Đukanović — Montenegro’s president today and in 2000, when it was still part of Yugoslavia — had a good relationship with the West, and U.S. officials hoped that members of his team would try to win seats in Yugoslavia’s parliament. Đukanović refused to recognize the constitutional changes that allowed Milošević to call snap elections, however, and he instead urged Montenegrins to boycott Yugoslavia’s presidential and legislative elections. 

On September 6, 2000, in New York, President Bill Clinton asked Putin to meet directly with Đukanović in order to send a “strong signal” to Milošević. The U.S. president worried that Milošević would use Montenegro’s boycott as an excuse to deploy troops to the region before declaring a state of emergency and canceling the entire elections. Putin said Sergey Ivanov, Russia’s Security Council secretary, would meet with Đukanović.

President Clinton: Can we talk about the Balkans? I know youʼve had contact with Milošević and Đukanović. These elections are going to be important, but they probably wonʼt be fair. Milošević is running behind in the polls, so heʼll probably steal it. It would be preferable for him to lose, but heʼll probably arrange not to. You know all this, because itʼs in your backyard. But there will be one big problem [he draws these three words out with heavy emphasis on each] if he moves against Đukanović. I hope you can meet with Đukanović while heʼs here. That would send a strong signal.

President Putin: [Looks doubtful, thinks for a moment] Letʼs have Sergey Ivanov meet with him.

In the end, Milošević lost his re-election bid to Koštunica in the first round of voting on September 24, but he refused to concede defeat.

On September 28, 2000, Yugoslavia’s Central Election Commission announced the presidential race’s first-round voting results, where Milošević won 38.62 percent and Koštunica got 48.96 percent — just shy of the majority he needed to win without a runoff election, which was promptly scheduled for October 8, 2000.

Relying on exit polls, Koštunica declared victory before the official results were announced. Meanwhile, Belgrade witnessed massive opposition rallies that drew tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people. Koštunica refused to accept the official results and insisted that he’d won enough votes to claim the presidency.

Putin talked to Clinton about how Russia might contribute to Milošević’s removal from power

On September 30, 2000, President Clinton telephoned Putin to discuss the situation in Yugoslavia again. The two leaders talked about how best to remove Milošević from power and what to do with him afterward.

Clinton’s proposal

Arguing that Putin was the only figure who could convince Milošević to step down, Bill Clinton urged the Russian president to contact him privately and convey that Russia supports the will of the Yugoslav people. Moscow should ask Milošević to leave office, Clinton said.

President Clinton: I know this is a difficult and delicate moment, but I just wanted to say it seems to me since virtually everyone accepts the fact that the opposition won the election and they are now opposed to a second round of voting, because they believe it gives Milošević time to manipulate the balloting and, possibly, create instability in Montenegro. I think the best thing to do is to try to get Milošević to leave, but I think youʼre the only person who can do that.

I know itʼs a difficult situation for you, but what I would encourage you to do is that you send him a private message, not a public one, urging him that you wish him to leave and making clear that Russia will support the will of the people. I think publicly you should say that. It seems to me we have a choice between a violent and peaceful transition. The only country in the world who can play a decisive role in this is Russia because they know they need to turn to you after all this is over to continue to have a solid relationship.

Putin’s proposal

President Putin complained that Koštunica refused to meet with Russia’s representatives in Belgrade. Putin also argued that the opposition made a serious mistake by refusing to participate in the runoff election, given that Koštunica was sure to win thanks to other opposition candidates’ supporters and votes from Montenegrins who boycotted the first round. Milošević’s only hope, said Putin, was election fraud. 

Putin told Clinton that Koštunica needed to take the following steps to prevent this:

  • Come to Moscow, perhaps at the invitation of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee (which at the time was chaired by Dmitry Rogozin);
  • Meet with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov while in Moscow;
  • Possibly speak to President Putin himself over the telephone; and finally
  • While in Moscow, declare that he agrees to a runoff election, so long as Milošević pledges to let opposition representatives and international observers monitor voting and vote-counting.

Putin told President Clinton that Koštunica could pad his electoral advantage by another eight percentage points with a single visit to Moscow. If Milošević refused to admit opposition observers to polling stations, then the opposition would be free to reject the runoff vote, said Putin. Calls for a recount of the first-round ballots were a pointless waste of time, the Russian president reasoned, warning that Milošević would use the distraction to prepare for the runoff election and improve his re-election chances.

At the same time, Putin warned Clinton that any approach in Yugoslavia should anticipate problems from Milošević. Putin said plainly that he doubted the leader would ever agree to a recount or leave office voluntarily. 

President Putin: Bill, we are aware of the fact that your country experts and think-tanks are working on it thoroughly and weighing each step that needs to be taken. But I want you and me to have a frank discussion about it — absolutely frank. And what I tell you wonʼt need any further verification. Weʼve been acting absolutely to the point on the agreements that were reached in Okinawa — in absolute conformity with them. The question here is a form and message of Koštunica and coordination of our efforts. Most likely, Milošević gets the sense of our position.

I have already had a conversation with Schroeder, and you will be the second person to learn this information. I suggested we have a meeting in Belgrade between one of our decision-makers like the National Security Advisor or the Minister of Foreign Affairs and opposition representatives, but he [Koštunica] declined such a meeting. So he declined contact with us, but we will basically let you know our position. We already let him know our position in no uncertain terms that we donʼt want to be cornered or be in a position to support especially non-democratic solutions to the situation.

I want it to be clear on the point that we are not deviating from any avenue of approach to cooperation with you as our partner. But I wanted you to know that the time is right for him to leave the scene. I am not sure he will do so. And trying to analyze the situation, we think what might be productive and fruitful is the following.

Today the opposition, for all practical purposes, has rejected the second round of elections. In our opinion, this is a blunder. If they donʼt run a second round of elections, then the Milošević side will be the only uncontested side, so he [Koštunica] will leave the scene, and Milošević will win the election.

Now if the opposition tries and goes for the second round, if the opposition tries to run the second round, they stand every chance to win. Why? Because Montenegro has not voted yet, and there is a group of people who voted for other candidates. They will vote for him. He has a 100 percent chance to win. Milošević would only have one chance left for him, that is fraudulent election results, whether he is trying to resort to that action, nobody can say for sure or guarantee that he will not.

But what could we do? If we were to pursue, it would indicate very clear support on our behalf to the opposition. We could invite the leader of the opposition to Moscow. Then Ivanov, our foreign minister, would meet him here. I could probably have a conversation with him over the phone as well. While he would be here in Moscow, he could state that he is prepared to run a second round of negotiations, provided that Milošević would allow verification, and maybe even international observers, both at the level of the polling stations and the count of the vote. That position would find absolutely official and clear-cut support on our side.

However, should Milošević reject such a position, then in no uncertain terms we will take a position of condemning his actions. The very fact of the opposition leader visiting Moscow and having talks at the top level here would demonstrate our very clear support for him and would probably add five to seven percentage points to his favor. I think we have nothing to lose in such a position, but the gains are very clear. I would like to underline again on our part in all quarters this would be regarded as very clear and unambiguous support to the opposition.

While we are certainly in touch with the opposition, they are telling us that a recount of the first round of elections has to be carried out. We would certainly be willing to participate and have some impact on it, but I very much doubt we would come up with positive results in that scenario. We certainly jointly could come up with some ideas and take some actions. The only apprehension I have is that we are losing time for preparation for the second round of elections. Milošević is not wasting time and is getting ready for the second round.

Well, I certainly am not trying to push anybody here with any ideas, but this is simply our vision, our analysis. At the same time, why donʼt we really try to exert pressure on Milošević again. The only apprehension again is that we probably would be dragging our feet and losing time here. This is our perspective, Bill.

President Clinton: Let me say, I completely understand your position, and the only thing that bothers me about it is that the opposition believes they have evidence that he essentially defrauded voters in the first round, that he got rid of 600,000 votes. And they believe he will use this period before a runoff election to arrange to steal it again. I think thatʼs what they are worried about.

President Putin: Bill, can I insert a couple of words here?

President Clinton: Sure.

President Putin: Please, could you look into the proposal? I will again give you the gist of it. The leader of the opposition is going to visit Moscow. And he will say that he will reconsider his position with regard to the second round of elections, provided Milošević gives access to opposition and/or international observers both to polling stations and the counting of the vote. Whether this will 100 percent guarantee against fraud, I donʼt know. But his experts are going to say they will verify it, the opposition will be involved, and we can then express our position that this is going to be a democratic and fair election.

Then if Milošević were to reject such a proposition, it would give an opportunity for the opposition to reject the second round position and for us to explain our position in no uncertain terms again.

President Clinton: So you believe if you invite him and he accepts it, it would send a clear signal of support for fair elections and that you donʼt have a problem with him becoming President?

President Putin: Absolutely. I can also tell you something that might happen, if he were indeed to come to Moscow. He would be invited by the Chairman of the Committee of International Relations of the State Duma. Then he might say that he was seeking consultations with our foreign minister, and Ivanov would receive him. During his stay, I would talk to him over the phone. Then during his stay, we would come up with a statement where we would say we support his position that the opposition should have access to the vote count.

The very fact of this arrival in Moscow would show our support and add five to eight percentage points to his vote and provide qualitative changes to his candidacy. We will not allow his opponents to speculate about his so-called special relationship with Moscow, which is, incidentally, no impediment in parallel to trying to exert pressure over Milošević along the lines you just mentioned in this telephone conversation.

However, all of this does not exclude what you referred to at the beginning, and we are now our part and will try to work on him in this direction. At the same time, I have to be frank — I personally doubt that even talking to him in such a direction will result in him voluntarily agreeing to a recount and retiring. I believe there is no chance for that.

What to do with Milošević after his removal from power

This wasn’t the first time Clinton spoke to Putin about Slobodan Milošević. Back in September 1999, when he was still Russia’s prime minister, Putin was already assuring Washington that Moscow shared its concerns about the dictator. “I think that the fate of millions is more important than the fate of one person. However, our positions on this person closely coincide,” Putin told Clinton. “From our assessment of the situation, he did not behave appropriately.”

A year later, on September 27, 2000, before the first-round results of Yugoslavia’s presidential election were announced, former Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panić publicly asked Putin to remove Milošević from Belgrade and grant him asylum in Russia in order to prevent a civil war. According to some reports, former Greek Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias approached Milošević before the election and urged him to consider asylum in Russia or another former Soviet country in exchange for resigning voluntarily. Putin was supposedly ready to run the plan by the U.S. White House, but Milošević refused to play along.

In their phone call on September 30, 2000, Clinton and Putin discussed what ought to be done about Milošević after his removal from power. Putin didn’t want the Yugoslav leader in Russia and suggested leaving him in Serbia or sending him to America.

President Clinton: … I do think this has merit, unless it just gives time for Milošević to steal the elections. But I want to ask you another question. How are we going to get him out of there?

President Putin: You mean remove him?

President Clinton: Yeah, is he afraid to leave office?

President Putin: I think I can have a word with him and relate to him that the international community will not hold this against him and there will be no action against him. But I would like to discuss this further and think this needs to be explained to him again.

President Clinton: But would he be able to stay in Serbia? Would they let him go somewhere else?

President Putin: I think it would be better if he stays in Serbia.

President Clinton: Yeah, me too, but I just donʼt know what the climate is there.

President Putin: Frankly, I donʼt know, of course, but maybe he would want to leave. Itʼs a possible move on his part, but I donʼt know. We donʼt want such a gift. Why donʼt we send him to America?

President Clinton: Yes, I know what you mean. Let me think about this…

Instead, everything ended with the so-called “Bulldozer Revolution” and an international tribunal

The political crisis dragged on as both sides rejected any compromise. On October 2, Putin proposed hosting both Milošević and Koštunica for a summit in Moscow “to discuss ways out of the current situation.” Two days later, however, the Russian president admitted that both politicians had essentially ignored his invitation (Koštunica’s advisers later claimed that Putin had planned to organize a “crazy meeting”). 

On October 5, abandoning hope that Milošević would resign voluntarily, the opposition flooded the streets with protesters and launched a nationwide strike. Within hours, demonstrators started occupying government buildings, including the Parliament, as well as state television and radio broadcast centers. Protesters famously used a bulldozer to storm one of these buildings. By the evening of October 6, Slobodan Milošević admitted defeat in the first round of voting.

That same day, Vladimir Putin wished Vojislav Koštunica success “as the leader of the democratic forces that now shoulder responsibility for the future of our brothers, the Yugoslav people.” Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov also congratulated Koštunica on his election victory. It was only the next day, on October 7, that Yugoslavia’s Central Election Commission formally declared Koštunica the winner with 50.24 percent of the votes. 

Milošević stayed in Serbia after the election, but that didn’t last. A few months later, on April 1, 2001, SWAT police arrested him. He was soon handed over to an international tribunal and placed in a United Nations prison in The Hague. On March 11, 2006, Milošević died in prison from a heart attack before his trial concluded and was never convicted of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

What Moscow now says about Milošević’s overthrow

In today’s political discourse in Russia, the events that ousted Slobodan Milošević are considered “the first color revolution” and described in exclusively negative terms. This attitude is particularly pronounced on network television:

Pervyi Kanal, 2011

All dissenters attending rallies should at least know that their votes can also be used egregiously and entirely against their own interests… As a result of massive and surprisingly well organized popular unrest, Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milošević was forced to step down.

Vesti, 2018

On January 31, at the age of 91, Professor Gene Sharp quietly passed away in Boston. A Trotskyist at heart… He’s known as the author of instructions for destroying states… The “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 was a classic implementation of Gene Sharp’s recommendations. It’s true. Professor Sharp’s expertise was put into practice before during the “Bulldozer Revolution” in Yugoslavia when protesters used a bulldozer to storm a television station… To summarize, key in any “color revolution” is creating a point of social overheating in a single space and passing off the crowd as the people, saying it is the voice of the people.

NTV, 2019

In the West, the “Bulldozer Revolution” is still considered one of the most successful examples of overthrowing a disliked regime. Where NATO missiles failed, the [protest movement] “Otpor” succeeded. A coup d'état occurred under its banner. These days, protesters in Belgrade are marching again under the flags of Serbia, the European Union, and the same banner of a clenched fist. A single bulldozer isn’t enough to complete the déjà vu. 

Vladimir Putin, for his part, generally avoids discussing Milošević’s overthrow in this context. In fact, even National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev — perhaps the country’s most outspoken Cassandra when it comes to fretting about “color revolution” in Russia — typically limits such reasoning to events in former Soviet states.

Bonus: What Putin said about Russian elections when talking to Clinton about Yugoslavia

In that same phone call on September 30, 2000, with Bill Clinton, Putin promised to pressure Milošević to hold a free and fair second-round presidential election, saying the initiative “conformed absolutely” to Russia’s own “domestic political position”:

President Putin: Well, like I said, certainly we can't guarantee this 100 percent, but what we can do is place demands on him and if he doesn't comply, then the opposition will be more justified in deciding not to go for the runoff elections. We will be able to say, yes, the demands of the opposition are well-justified. That would go absolutely in conformity with our own domestic political position. In our elections, the opposition would be present at all stages of the elections, including counting of the votes.

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Text by Denis Dmitriev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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