Pre-election Serbia: principles and blackmail

Fierce from the very beginning, Milosevic's election campaign has already profoundly shaken the fragile construction of united Serbian opposition. Why Serb Revival Movement (SPO) will not run in the elections.

Aleksandar Ciric

WED, 14 JUN 2000

Belgrade, 12 June, 2000 - While opening the railway-road bridge in Novi Sad, which should re-establish transportation along European main railway line between the North and the South interrupted in last year's bombing, Slobodan Milosevic called it a "morally superior bridge". The rest of his address to the gathered and brought masses of people was in the same tone. Milosevic repeated that we had defeated NATO not because we were stronger, but because we were better. He also said that the West was falling apart in the tide of new Nazism and while the number of friends of Serbia and Yugoslavia was irresistibly growing, reconstruction of the country by its own efforts was amazing the world, while examples of growing misery in neighbouring states which readily believed the promises of the West confirmed that Serbia/Yugoslavia had chosen the right way.

The united opposition of Serbia busied itself to count the people who were present/brought to the celebration ("yet unseen large gathering in Novi Sad", "more than 250 thousand people" according to reports of state media, 10-15 thousand according to the estimate of experienced rallyists), gloated over Milosevic's declaration that apart from Serbia only three or four countries in the world produce railway carriages for the speed over 200 km/h and lamented over the certainty of prolonged international isolation of the country. Ten days later, in the beginning of the first week of June, Serb Revival Movement (SPO) - which sees and describes itself as the strongest opposition party in Serbia - announced that it would not participate at the meeting and negotiations of the united opposition any more, but that it would not hinder their election campaign either.

According to the already established tradition, Serbian opposition always refers to high principles when it explains its own incapability for international cooperation, absence of ideas about the forms of fighting the regime and - by now already tiring repeated - lagging behind developments, regardless whether they are directed by Milosevic or happen spontaneously. Illegally "taken over" Belgrade Radio-Television station Studio B and its transformation into another regime media is just the last in a long series of punishments, jamming and shutting down of media which are not controlled by the regime. On the other hand, mass protests of Belgraders caused by the seizure of Studio B was not interrupted by several days of police beating, arrests, interrogations and sentences pronounced within time limits and in the manner of court martial - but by the opposition which did not know what to do, how to defend its most important and most influential media. Finally the protest was "discontinued" after the protesters had knocked at the door of Belgrade city assembly with an embarrassing question to the leaders of the opposition: "Are you out of your minds, what do you think you are doing?"

Regardless of the wise party statements and persuasion of the public by their spokesmen that the opposition would remain united, it was just a matter of time when the long smouldering conflict would break out in flames. Milosevic has brought the opposition to its knees, if observed from that angle, with just two powerful blows. The first and the stronger, well measured blow was (and still is) directed against at first the students' and later the people's movement called Otpor (Resistance), as the opponent which is, with its youth, spontaneity and clear messages, is much more dangerous for the regime than the inert, gathered together with great difficulties and easily predictable opposition. The second blow - seizure of Studio B - proved to be equally efficient: in the capital, the opposition has literally overnight been left without a possibility to communicate with the public.

Confirming that all suspicion about seriousness of the union of the opposition was justified, last week SPO made it public that it did not agree with the stand of the majority that it was necessary to run in the forthcoming elections regardless of the conditions under which they would be scheduled. According to the "principled" stand of the leaders of SPO, with this decision the united opposition has violated its own founding document of 10 January this year. No less "principled" is the accusation that those who had last time appealed on the citizens to boycott the elections are nowadays in favour of running in the elections.

Aimed at Democratic Party (DS) this sting of SPO does not reveal only the old intolerance between Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, but also the question of the line of conflict within the opposition in Serbia. It is the question who is the leader of Serbian opposition, which party is the "strongest" and who should be obeyed. From the aspect of SPO, the answer is clear: Vuk and his party. In the past year, SPO has consistently demonstrated this stand - to the detriment of the opposition - by refraining from joining spontaneous protests of the citizens that had begun back in the time of NATO bombing. That is how it happened that the League for Changes (SZP) - coalition of Democratic Party and several other minor parties - with much less hesitation in autumn 1999, started a broad campaign of protests, demanding the change of the regime, a transitional government of experts and preparation of constituent assembly. Regardless of actual feasibility of the mentioned demands, the energy of these protests grew, regardless of the success or failure of individual gatherings, everyday walks and regardless of the growing repression of the regime.

SPO has - now it seems wrongly - estimated that these protests would spontaneously die out, trying to prove in this way that "only Vuk can awaken the people". Otpor emerged on the scene instead; in the towns inside Serbia the citizens protected their media and finally the opposition actually started to unite. Since the regime ignored the proposal of Democratic Centre led by one of the founders and former president of DS, Dragoljub Micunovic, opposition parties - except for SPO - signed the first agreement on joint action in October 1999.

In the past two years, the political scene of Serbia has significantly changed. Along with the former "large" parties (SPO, DS), a comparatively large number of in the meantime founded or strengthened "medium" and "small" parties are nowadays active. Among them, a special group is formed by Social Democracy (SD), Democratic Alternative (DA) and Movement for Democratic Serbia (PDS). Their significance is not connected to the number of members or sympathisers - which is comparatively small - but to the fact that they are led by persons who were until recently officials of the regime, two former generals (SD: Vuk Obradovic, PDS: Momcilo Perisic) and one former member of the leadership of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (Nebojsa Covic, DA), who are well acquainted with the mechanism of operation of Milosevic's regime. This makes it even more interesting that the mentioned three parties have in the past few weeks sided with those who in opposition agreements advocated more resolute resistance to Milosevic.

On the political scene of Serbia, a number of local or regional parties and coalitions are also operating successfully - in view of the circumstances it is permissible to use this word - from the ones in Voivodina and Sandzak, to literally city and local parties, such as Nova Srbija (New Serbia) of Velimir Ilic, mayor of Cacak (and "renegade" from SPO). That is the reason why last year's gathering of the opposition was truly a success, despite the conviction and propaganda of SPO that "without Vuk" the opposition might exist, but it cannot operate.

At this moment it is impossible to determine to what extent hesitation of SPO to join the united opposition - only on 10 January this year - caused Draskovic's and his party's decline of popularity which is evident from polls and investigations of political disposition of the public. Roughly generalised, until the latest pull-out of SPO, all the investigations showed that united opposition enjoys greater support of the voters than the "black-and-red" coalition in power (30:20, the rest are the undecided and abstainees). Within the part of the electorate which supports the opposition, in the past eight months a gradual but constant growth of support has brought the League for Changes to the leading post of anti-regime struggle.

According to certain Belgrade analysts, the decline of SPO's rating may be the result of Draskovic's cooperation with Milosevic before and during last year's NATO bombing, but also the sometimes very strong impression that SPO participates in the opposition's activities only after calculation of possible gains and losses. SPO has manifested a striking undecisiveness in the developments that accompanied the seizure of Studio B; this has perhaps induced Milosevic - "in the interest of the citizens", of course - to seize and put under state control city transportation in Belgrade last week, "reinforcing" it later with army and police buses.

While stifling independent or opposition media, the regime is simultaneously intensifying the propaganda on unprecedented success in reconstruction of the country and satanisation of the opposition as "terrorist" or at least "treacherous". In such circumstances perhaps one may have a little understanding for unsuccessfulness of Serbian opposition. On the one hand, it has the threat hanging over its head that Milosevic will expand the present "crawling state of emergency" to the extent that the work of "terrorist" or "NATO parties" will be banned, while the international community, except for verbal, neither offers any serious support to the opposition nor makes its position easier with its actions. In this sense, things have come to the point where the practically forced out visit to Moscow of Vuk Draskovic, Zoran Djindjic and leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), Vojislav Kostunica, publicly proved a failure.

On the other hand, reliable sources in Belgrade claim that the meeting of the opposition leaders with the ambassador of Portugal as the country presiding the European Union at the moment, was also a failure. According to these sources, the opposition expressed readiness for cooperation with EU on condition that, while Milosevic is in power, the definite status of Kosovo not be resolved nor that the issue of Montenegro be further "strained". According to the same sources, both conditions were not only coldly turned down, but it was hinted that the sanctions imposed on Serbia may be prolonged and even intensified; and furthermore that there would be no discussion about Milosevic's name on the list of the indicted by the Hague Tribunal.

After return from Moscow, Zoran Djindjic expressed his disappointment by the statement that if united opposition was not capable of moving things from the standstill on its own, no one from abroad could help it. Regime media blew up the "failure" of the excursion to Moscow to the extent that it almost burst, equally as this week's visit of regime parliamentarians to the Russian Duma where Communist Zyuganov accused Serbian opposition of having sold out to the West. At the same time, some representatives of Russia in Belgrade confirm doubts that Moscow still has not defined its interest in the Balkans, that is, that Slobodan Milosevic still suits the Russians better than the "pro-Western" Serbian opposition. Serious analysts consider Li Peng's visit to Belgrade a significant point scored by Milosevic.

The current relation of forces and the situation in the sphere of politics where the regime of Slobodan Milosevic is making the most of the initiative he has, can hardly be improved by unconfirmed rumours arriving from the direction of Budapest, the American centre for "monitoring" the situation in Serbia. According to them, the United States are calculating with the possibility of a "controlled civil war" in Serbia. Watching from Belgrade, it is difficult to predict what the forthcoming summer will look like - except that it will be very hot. Strong arguments that a civil war cannot break out in Serbia because there are no two parties ready to be engaged in a conflict do not hold water. Political atmosphere in Serbia is at this moment characterised by depression caused just as much by regime repression and violence as by "moral superiority" of reconstruction and development; on the other hand, it is for the moment impossible to estimate the effects of disappointment with the opposition, except that they are working in favour of Milosevic. In such circumstances anything is possible; the situation in Serbia - which cannot even metaphorically be said to be "momentary" - threatens more with the possibility of a short bloody row than a civil war. Which of the two is better?

Original article