STEVEN ERLANGERElections near, rivalries split opposition to Milosevic
September 7, 2000
BELGRADE, Serbia, Sept. 4 — A split in the opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic is putting at risk its main achievement so far: its control over Serbia's major cities, including radio and television stations.
American officials are pressing opposition politicians to settle their differences to present a united slate of candidates for the local elections on Sept. 24, but so far without success. Otherwise, they fear, Mr. Milosevic can regain lost ground and win back some cities.
This could happen even though the opposition is probably more united and popular now than it has been since its victory in the last local elections, in 1996.
In the race for president of Yugoslavia, Mr. Milosevic is trailing the main opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, in opinion polls. The polls indicate that a large majority of Serbs want change in the elections, which are for the federal presidency, the federal Parliament and municipal governments.
But a game of mutual blackmail over the presidential race is blocking opposition unity on the local level, much to the confusion of ordinary voters and to the distress of local government officials, who do not share the rivalries of their national party bosses.
Some senior opposition politicians, who expect Mr. Milosevic to try to retain the presidency through vote fraud or other means, say one of his main goals is to take back some cities before vital Serbian elections, which are due next year. Serbia, long Mr. Milosevic's power base, dominates Montenegro, the other republic remaining in Yugoslavia.
Opposition control over major cities like Kragujevac, Kraljevo and Uzice is at stake, with even Belgrade, the capital, at risk, say both opposition officials and members of the governing coalition.
"I think Milosevic called these elections more to win back some cities than for any other reason," said Goran Svilanovic, leader of the Civil Alliance, part of the united opposition backing Mr. Kostunica. "This is the real fight."
Mr. Svilanovic said the opposition must be realistic.
"I know how many people want to wake up one day and find Milosevic gone, but it's a step-by-step fight," he said. "We need to take pieces of his power and enlarge the number of cities we control. And if we lose some of these cities, these parties may not exist in a year, when we're facing Serbian elections."
A united opposition could win cities currently controlled by the government he said.
Milan Milosevic, a political analyst with the magazine Vreme (and no relation to the president), said that President Milosevic's coalition will win the federal elections because of a boycott by Montenegro, and that his coalition badly wants victories in the local races.
"President Milosevic solves one problem at a time, the one in front of him," the commentator said. "These elections will start the real game, which will go on for the next year. He's a fighter, and he'll continue to fight."
President Milosevic has ruled by dividing the opposition. After his losses in 1996, he won Serbian elections handily in 1997 when one part of the opposition, led by Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party, boycotted the election. Another part, led by Mr. Djindjic's archrival, Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement, did not boycott the vote.
Regardless of the national rivalry, the two groups continue to cooperate in many city governments.
The mercurial Mr. Draskovic, who lives in Montenegro, is keeping aloof from the rest of the opposition, which has banded together to support Mr. Kostunica. By doing so, Mr. Draskovic seems to be harming his own party, which had been the largest and best organized opposition group.
Mr. Draskovic insisted on running his own candidate for the presidency — Vojislav Mihailovic, the mayor of Belgrade — and on running his own candidates for the federal Parliament. While he is facing great pressure from his party to unite with the rest of the opposition on the local level, it is Mr. Kostunica, backed by Mr. Djindjic, who is playing hardball.
Mr. Draskovic now wants joint slates on the local level. But Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Djindjic insist that Mr. Draskovic and his party first withdraw Mr. Mihailovic, who has no chance of winning.
Some experts and American officials say Mr. Kostunica, and especially Mr. Djindjic, also see this as a chance to finish off the difficult Mr. Draskovic as a serious opposition leader.
"The old personal rivalries and suspicions between Djindjic and Draskovic are a factor," one official said. "Djindjic smells Draskovic's blood in the water."
In interviews, both Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Djindjic deny any such motivation, saying it is Mr. Draskovic who is hurting the opposition by remaining aloof and running Mr. Mihailovic as a spoiler.
"Mr. Milosevic is happy that Mihailovic is running, and this makes me careful," Mr. Djindjic said. "On the presidential level, we need a black-and-white race to win a million more votes than Milosevic. We can't afford to be confused on the local level and be attacked by our coalition partners."
The difficulty stems from changes in the local elections made last year by Mr. Milosevic's government — to a winner-take-all system, eliminating a second-round runoff between the two top finishers. So a divided opposition could be beaten by a determined member of the ruling coalition.
Under such a system, Mr. Milosevic would have done well in the 1996 local elections, rather than losing them in the second round. Even so, it took months of daily demonstrations and marches for him to acknowledge his defeat in those local elections.
But now, after the NATO bombing last year and the increased repression of dissent, it is not clear that Serbs have the energy or optimism to demonstrate again or to confront the regime openly, even if the voting seem to be manipulated.
Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Djindjic say there is no chance now for a united opposition slate on the local level, but American officials continue to push, as do Mr. Draskovic's aides, pressed by local officials. One of their main arguments is that even if Mr. Mihailovic stays in the presidential race, he will not win enough votes to make much of a difference in the results, since many members of Mr. Draskovic's party will vote for Mr. Kostunica anyway.