Serbia - The time of conventions and uncertainty

The regime continues to slowly weaken despite the powerful campaign of reconstruction and who knows what not - aware of its weakening position it resorts to brutal force - the opposition, for the first time seems resolved to seriously act together, although meetings on joint activities appear to be crushing for its unity, and the most significant factor, the international community, remains divided.

Bojan al Pinto-Brkic

SAT, 18 MAR 2000

Podgorica/Belgrade, 8 March, 2000 - Once upon a time, to the citizens of "united" Serbia, in an election campaign, its president promised that they would have Swedish standard of living. Whether because they (thoughtlessly) believed him or because of the generally accepted opinion that Slobodan Milosevic most skilfully surfed on the wave of Serb nationalism and populism, he triumphed with a large majority of votes. Later, the opposition which had lost the elections lamented that the elections had been irregular, that votes had been stolen, people intimidated and bribed: they needed six years to catch the president red-handed.

They insisted in the meantime that Milosevic had not fulfilled his promises, that instead of the Swedish standard he had led the country towards the Albanian, through wars and what goes along with them - death, more death and yet plenty of death. In fact, the only Swedish things in Serbia were the notorious TV set detector and a certain kind of water which, it turned out, had nothing to do with Scandinavia just as much as the islands of Sao Tome and Principe: they have never even heard that they existed.

Since in the beginning of October, on the main road to Lazarevac, the attempt on the life of the leader of Serb Revival Movement, Vuk Draskovic, failed and succeeded in murdering four of his close associates, Serbian political scene has not seriously changed.

The regime continues to slowly weaken despite the powerful campaign of revival and who knows what not - aware of its weakening position, it resorts to brutal force - for the first time the opposition seems to be resolute to seriously cooperate, although meetings on joint activities appear to be crushing for its unity, and the most important factor, the international community, remains divided: some bet on the former and others on the latter. It is not really true that the attempts on the lives of opposition leaders are the only things considered to be events of any significance, but moves of the three parties have since October been nothing but showing trump cards. Does anybody seriously think that the murder of a notorious criminal accused of war crimes, and that of a marginalised minister of defence who might have eventually been forced to face a subpoena to go to the Hague, as a defendant or a witness, changed anything?

For instance, the appearance of gasoline on state owned gas stations is even more significant… If it had not been for a few party conventions and euphoria they caused, one could have peacefully hibernated through the winter in Serbia. But, political parties wished to awaken the citizens before their mutual competition, to show that the leaders were still alive and their membership "constantly increasing". Nowadays, evidently encouraged, they are ready to begin the decisive battle for power.

We know from experience that elections follow every party convention. The opposition advocates early elections on all levels, the regime promises regular, possibly local elections in spring, as a kind of a test not only of the disposition of the voters but also of the recently passed law on local self-administration which enables the regime to take over cities controlled by the opposition easily without elections. Have the ones and the others organised conventions in order to implement their party statutes and discipline their municipal committees? This is not very likely. The parties have purified their ranks, the developments will follow. The vague impression of what might happen is putting the fear in the citizens.

What did the conventions offer the citizens? The president of the state and the unquestioned leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) informed them that the "the opposition does not exist", that there were just certain "janissaries" and "renegades" (it is needless to explain what is to be done with them), that the international community had gone astray (but SPS would show it the right way, as soon as Milosevic became the verified leader of the world), that a bright future lay ahead, that everybody would become rich if only they showed a little patience (20 years, because that is in how long SPS expects prosperity in Serbia). These messages went into the air via Radio-Television Serbia and Politika which doubled their credibility. Other Serbian media, especially the independent ones, were not permitted to attend the convention.

The other member of the ruling coalition, Serb Radical Party, had its convention in January, at the time when its delegates had not known that their president would later on, at a press conference, have to threaten independent journalists that they would be liquidated. That is why the message from this convention reached the citizens even via "treacherous media", and this is briefly what it was about: the Radicals would return to the borderline connecting Karlobag, Ogulin, Karlovac, Virovitica, that the world was mean and to blame for everything, that "fifth column" was operating in the country (some Belgraders say, in the queues for bread, milk and oil), that social policy would be improved, social and state ownership privatised, that a difficult period lay ahead (with no time limits for any improvement). The haughty tone was spread via "Radikalski talasi" (the Radicals’ Waves), a show of the editor, the minister of information in the government of Serbia, which is exclusively broadcast by TV Palma. As Seselj said, "nobody will here be handled with gloves any more".

The Democrats are in a sense an exception. Their messages are general, on the verge of the abstract, but the main impression is that of refinement and good manners… Leader of the Democrats, Zoran Djindjic, said that it was necessary to reinforce the infrastructure of the party (after ten years of its existence), to cooperate with the other opposition forces, to persist in the pro-European orientation. In the end, having won a narrow victory in the elections for the president of the party against Slobodan Vuksanovic and confirmed his leading position, he said that the elections - and not the convention - were a school of democracy for the whole of Serbia and the Balkan. A few days later he dissolved the city committee of the Democratic Party which had supported his rival in the campaign.

The wealth promised by SPS since a few days ago seems even further away, because in the meantime, prices of bread doubled, and chances are high that prices of other products will follow. The environmental catastrophe caused by cyanide spillage into the Tisa and then the Danube has destroyed the entire population of the river; even some animals that ate poisoned fish have died. Prospects of the land in Voivodina where underground waters are rising are not at all bright. Not just the fields, but whole villages in Voivodina are threatened by underground waters. For example, Crepaja near Pancevo has been flooded for a few days. All that the state managed to do about it was a complaint lodged against the Australian company which exploits the mines in Romania where the cyanide in the Tisa came from. Official Belgrade demanded compensation for the damage at one of international courts where it will appear as a private person since it is not a member of the UN.

The regime has also confiscated Novosti daily, taken a deputy of the opposition for interrogation to a police station, raised criminal charges against an opposition leader, it has been arresting people who are not working in its favour. Two young men were beaten up in the street because they were tearing posters against students’ organisation called Otpor (Resistance).

The opposition has difficulties in making up its mind to confront the regime, aware of its organisation weaknesses. But, there are mutual confrontations, though, about senseless lexical determinants (rally or protest) and the dates. Some of the opposition leaders fear that Milosevic would in that case communicate through the army and the police, using also the already customary paramilitary units and groups of bandits. Individuals from the opposition are ready to offer the president of FRY, accused of war crimes, an agreement on peaceful transition of power; others would prefer to send him a letter of intent. They all, at least in principle, agree that he must "leave" and that is about all that their unity is founded on.

Public opinion polls show that only united opposition can win the elections for certain. However, people speak with doubt about real unity. However dismal Serbian political scene may seem, one should be an (irrational) optimist. Winter has passed and probably with it the apathy of the citizens. Engagement against Milosevic may become massive in just a few days. If the opposition takes initiative, chances for the last dictatorship in Europe to be overthrown are significantly growing. But, again, if someone decides to begin negotiations with the regime, democratic changes will wait for some time. Rumour is also spreading that Milosevic is preparing a new armed conflict. Will the citizens let themselves be led by him or against him?

Original article