Jonathan Steele Zimbabweans must learn from the Serbian model of deposing a strongman. While Zimbabwe’s obscene charade of a runoff election played itself out, foreign reaction still seemed stuck in two grooves: either Mugabe-bashing or hand-wringing. The former is well justified, after everything the Zimbabwean president has done over the past few months. But, however muscular the rhetoric, it will be no more effective in producing regime change than passive despair. There is a third way. It goes beyond denunciation and punishment, though it involves bitter medicine. The only route that will avoid yet more bloodshed is a negotiated transition of power in which legal immunity and guarantees of safety are given to the very men responsible for the violence of the past few months. I am not referring primarily to Robert Mugabe. It is the security and police chiefs around him who hold the key. Zimbabwe is not a failed state awash with guns, or under the sway of roaming gangs of rebels and warlords who ignore the government, on the pattern of parts of west Africa or Afghanistan. Zanu-PF, the ruling party, remains an efficient hierarchy. Its top men can call off the so-called liberation war veterans and other jobless youth who have been terrorising the opposition Movement for Democratic Change since the first round of elections in March — and may be unleashed again when the runoff is over. The trick is to get them to want to. The MDC’s wiser heads have long recognised this. They have held intermittent talks with Zanu-PF’s leaders with the aim of forming a government of national unity that will maintain jobs for some Zanu-PF figures while allowing others to retire with dignity. The key issues concern the role of outside mediators, what pressures should be applied to get Zanu-PF to accept that power must be shared, and who should lead the new government. Thabo Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy has run its course. The South African President’s mediation was too quiet and not diplomatic enough. He gave excessive credence to Mr. Mugabe’s vague offers of talks, and with his refusal to condemn the violence he became hopelessly one-sided. Now African leaders in the Southern African Development Community are preparing a new negotiating team to work with the two sides in Harare. There is much talk of finding an African solution. Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary-General, has offered himself as a mediator. But the agreement he brokered in Kenya after that country’s flawed election is not the right precedent. Zimbabwe’s constitution does not provide for a Prime Minister so there is no obvious way of splitting power at the top, as in Kenya. Moreover, the Annan deal left President Mwai Kibaki in power while offering the post of Prime Minister to the opposition, in spite of strong evidence that it had won the election. The opposition reluctantly agreed. Mr. Kibaki might have got his officials to cheat, but he had not launched murder on Mr. Mugabe’s scale. In Zimbabwe, anger is higher. The Zimbabwean President has forfeited all claim to legitimacy and must leave. The best model for Zimbabwe happens to be European. October 2000 in Belgrade is the pattern that Zimbabwe, with luck, will follow. The scenario is uncannily similar. A ruthless strongman loses the first round but gets his election commission to say the opposition did not reach 50 per cent and therefore a runoff is needed. The opposition refuses to take part for fear the ruling party will organise its cheating better the second time; and street protests are held. Those of us who stood outside the Yugoslavian parliament and watched the police fade away before a bulldozer at the head of an angry crowd smashed into it were not entirely surprised. The police had not gone over to the people, however romantic that might have been. Some sympathised with the protesters, but the switch of loyalties mainly flowed from orders after behind-the-scenes negotiations that Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition candidate, led with Slobodan Milosevic’s security chiefs. They were assured of safety if they changed sides. Milosevic met Kostunica the next day and threw in the towel. Some western leaders claim Milosevic was brought down by years of sanctions. Tony Blair often says Nato’s bombing in 1999 removed him from power. But Milosevic’s downfall came more than a year later, when the hard men realised it was better to sacrifice their boss than themselves. Their Zimbabwean counterparts are probably making similar calculations. So if the European Union puts sanctions on these men, they need to be conditional. Make it clear they will be lifted as soon as Zanu-PF’s hardliners accept an MDC-led government and tell Mr. Mugabe to go into retirement, elsewhere in Africa or preferably to a villa in China. Better still, hold the sanctions with the understanding they start only if the MDC negotiations, backed by SADC mediators, fail. It will be painful to let killers go free, but this is a case where justice should give way to pragmatism. The liberty of a few dozen thugs is the necessary price for millions of Zimbabweans to have a chance of life.