John SimpsonMilosevic manifesto takes a leaf from Mugabe's book
Sunday 6 August 2000
Soon it will be election time in Yugoslavia and Slobodan Milosevic has already begun campaigning - not, as in other countries, by presenting his policies to the voters, nor by defending his record. Instead, President Milosevic has opened his campaign by arresting people.
The two British police instructors and the two Canadian aid workers picked up by the Yugoslav army last week, while engaged in the subversive activity of taking a holiday, were based in Kosovo. Their mistake was to cross over into Montenegro, the small, pro-Western republic where Milosevic's troops are still stationed.
Unwittingly, they now find themselves as Mr Milosevic's equivalent of an election manifesto. Following the example of President Mugabe in Zimbabwe earlier this year, his campaign is based on pushing the myth that the outside world is trying to undermine the country and wants to destroy its government. It only partly worked in Zimbabwe: the election there was a remarkable moral victory for the opposition. Depressingly, it seems quite likely to work in Serbia when the elections are held on September 24.
Serbia is two completely different countries and Mr Milosevic presides unchallenged over one of them. The educated, Western-oriented people of the main towns and cities hunger for something different. In the rural fastnesses of the country, however, where the clock stopped somewhere in the Fifties and only his government's slavish propaganda circulates, Mr Milosevic rules secure.
So when his television service parades foreign prisoners on its main news programme, makes some of them repeat things that sound like a confession if you don't listen too carefully, and brandishes the tools of the assassins' trade that were found with them (foreign money and maps of their holiday destination, for instance: if that isn't proof, what is?), then on past experience more than half the audience will believe that their government has succeeded in protecting them from Nato's evil intentions.
It is not just the Britons and Canadians who are being held. Four Dutchmen were arrested a few days earlier charged with plotting to murder Mr Milosevic. Fewer and fewer independent voices in the opposition media are left to point out that if anyone really were planning to kidnap President Milosevic (one of the best-guarded leaders in the world) they would surely come from the SAS or from the French or American special forces. A couple of British bobbies and a Canadian and his 19-year-old nephew don't fit the profile quite so well.
While they are in President Milosevic's hands we should not believe anything that is said about them, or anything they say. Ten years ago in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, nowadays one of the few countries that is friendly with President Milosevic, a journalist friend of mine called Farzad Bazoft was accused of espionage and promised his freedom if he would admit everything of which he was accused. Poor Farzad agreed - and was duly executed on the basis of his confession.
This won't happen to the Canadian and British prisoners. Serbia may be an international outlaw but it isn't (despite some of the things its army and police have done) given over to complete savagery. No doubt President Milosevic has an idea, somewhere in the back of his mind, of releasing them at some stage; either to improve the atmosphere with the West, or else as part of some eventual settlement. For now, however, these unfortunate tourists will be useful in getting him re-elected.
That now seems pretty likely, since Mr Milosevic altered the constitution. Under the old rules he would have had to leave power by next July; after which his successor could have handed him over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague in return for being allowed to rejoin the real world.
The new constitution means that, if elected, Mr Milosevic can have two more terms of four years each; so he could be in power until 2008. Since it never occurred to me that Saddam Hussein would still be in power on the 10th anniversary of his invasion of Kuwait, I no longer feel qualified to forecast Mr Milosevic's chances of survival. He must feel pretty certain he can sort things out within eight years, however, or he would have awarded himself three terms. So Serbia is given over to spy-mania, and its federation partner Montenegro seems more precarious than ever.
For a long time now various Western diplomats have been forecasting the overthrow of the anti-Milosevic government, which is headed by Milo Djukanovic. It seems to me, however, that Serbia may have more to gain by keeping Montenegro in a permanent state of instability than by taking any final step to overthrow Djukanovic. Mr Milosevic likes to keep his options open.
The ground rules for September's presidential election have now been established. It will be fought on the basis that Nato hopes to overthrow the Yugoslav state, and that only Mr Milosevic can prevent this from happening. Foreigners will be cast in the role that President Mugabe reserved for white farmers in the Zimbabwean election. The difference is that there was a real, and impressive, opposition in Zimbabwe.