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SERBIA’S INADEQUATE OPPOSITION

   With elections scheduled for later this year, attention is once again focused on the political opposition facing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Zoran Kusovac reports on the evolution of an inadequate alternative.

   ne year after the end of NATO’s bombing campaign, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) remains Europe’s most volatile powder-keg. Federal President Slobodan Milosevic continues his unchecked authoritarian rule over Serbia and its few remaining federal institutions, including the Yugoslav Army (Vojska Jugoslavije — VJ).

Kosovo, while nominally remaining part of the FRY under the provisions of the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (which opened the way for the deployment of the NATO-led Kosovo Force — KFOR), is, in reality, a territory under international mandate in which neither the FRY nor Serbia can exercise any power.

The smaller member of the federation, the Republic of Montenegro, which is slowly, carefully and inevitably extricating itself from Milosevic’s grip, has so far managed to avoid being dragged into an armed conflict. President Milo Djukanovic is increasingly and independently co-operating with the international community and, even more notably, his neighbours: Croatia; Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Albania. 

It is increasingly clear that both Kosovo and Montenegro remain only vaguely and technically attached to the notion of ‘Yugoslavia’. The example of the other republics of the once-united state is a powerful impetus for separation. Slovenia is making huge strides forward and, with over US$10,000 GDP per capita, is well poised to become a full member of the European Union (EU) as early as 2003. Croatia, which dismantled the Tudjman regime at the beginning of this year, is striving to shed the legacy of corruption and authoritarianism to become an influential regional actor. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, cautious but seemingly irreversible progress under an international mandate is finally sending messages of hope. Macedonia, despite all the odds, continues to exercise political control over its potentially explosive ethnic mix.

The only part of the region where there has been no substantial from the old system is Serbia. Since the end of the NATO bombing campaign, the international community has hoped that opposition parties, riding on the wave of popular discontent, would finally remove Milosevic from power and create the conditions for change. The opposition first announced a ‘hot autumn’, boasting that massive popular unrest would force Milosevic to resign. Instead, the Serbian political autumn was lukewarm, followed by an apathetic winter. 

The much-hoped for spring awakening never materialised. A full year has passed since Milosevic relinquished control of Kosovo but he remains firmly in power. How long can Milosevic continue to exercise unlimited control over Serbia? Can the opposition, which nominally united in January this year, bring his rule to an end? What, if any, is the role of the international community in this process? 
The inadequacy of Serb opposition 
The history of the Serbian political opposition is a story of ideological manipulation, political ineptitude, strategic blindness, nationalist confusion, clashing egos and personal vendettas. Unlike the Soviet satellite states, where change in the late 1980s was directed against the ruling communists, in Serbia change was prompted by the League of Communists (Savez komunista Srbije — SKS) under Slobodan Milosevic. Rather than allow developments towards democracy — in which he could lose absolute power — Milosevic unleashed Serbian nationalism. By the time other parties were finally allowed to form, Serbia was already in a collective populist frenzy. New parties had two choices: either to woo prospective members and voters by calls for genuine democracy; or attract support through even stronger populism and nationalism. Most chose the latter.

In 1990 nearly 100 political parties and organisations had appeared almost overnight in Serbia. Some were established by the Secret Service (Sluzba Drzavne Bezbednosti — SDB) to compromise the very idea of opposition to the ruling SKS, others were genuine. With no political culture and tradition, voters concentrated on the personalities of their leaders and the rudimentary messages they sent out.

Among the first to acquire a recognisable profile was the Serbian Renewal Movement (Srpski pokret obnove — SPO). Originally formed by a hardline nationalist (and very probably a SDB agent) Mirko Jovic, the SPO was quickly dominated by two charismatic characters. One was Vuk Draskovic, a former journalist in the TANJUG state news agency and one time personal secretary to Mika Spiljak, then president of the popular-front organisation, the Socialist Alliance of the Working People of Yugoslavia — SSRNJ. The other was Vojislav Seselj, who started his career with a PhD on Tito’s concept of armed popular resistance. 

Draskovic projected a message of rampant nationalism, flat denial of the concept of a Bosnian state, a refusal to recognise the existence of the Macedonian and Montenegrin nations, and strong anti-Croatian sentiments. This was insufficient to distinguish the SPO’s message from Milosevic’s own Serb populism, so it added a measure of royalism, supporting the return of the monarchy, abolished in 1945 after a referendum.

Notorious for their egos, it was inevitable that Draskovic and Seselj would fall out. Vuk, as Draskovic is universally referred to (the name means ‘wolf’) established his dominance, taking over the party; Seselj tried to compete by advocating extreme chauvinism. Seselj’s hate-filled speeches were too much even for Milosevic’s Serbia, and Seselj’s newly founded Serb Chetnik Movement (Srpski cetnicki pokret — SCP) was refused registration.

Vuk’s ability to incite the masses at rallies quickly overtook any meaningful political programmes he may have once espoused. He projected simple messages of nationalism, Serb greatness and kingdom. As Croats and Muslims began to respond to Serbian nationalism with their own, Draskovic became infamous for his remark when a Muslim flag was hoisted at a political rally in Sandzak, a part of Serbia with a significant Muslim minority: “Whoever raises any other flag in Serbia but the Serbian one shall have both the flag and the arm cut off.” From there it was a natural step towards the establishment of the SPO’s own paramilitary unit — the Serbian Guards (Srpska Garda), which attacked the Croatian town of Gospic in 1991. In contrast, Milosevic promoted Serb nationalism in more general terms, talking of national injustices to their great nation. 

In the first ever Serbian parliamentary multi-party elections in December 1990, the SPO emerged as the second-strongest party, but was still deeply unhappy with its result. While Milosevic’s communists (renamed the Socialist Party of Serbia — SPS) secured 46.1% of the electorate’s vote against the SPO’s 15.8%, the peculiar electoral system translated the votes into 194 SPS deputies in the 250-seat parliament and only 19 for the SPO. Draskovic’s ambitions were shattered in the presidential elections: he managed to beat all other opposition candidates but his crucial opponent Milosevic, who claimed 3.28 million votes to Vuk’s 824,000.

Bitterness at the electoral system that denied the SPO adequate parliamentary representation led Draskovic to the streets. On 9 March 1991 his inflammatory speeches in Belgrade drew a huge crowd, and led to clashes with the police and then a rampage through the city’s streets. Milosevic responded by sending in the VJ with tanks. Draskovic was branded a traitor, hate-monger and the cause of the first Serbian spilt blood. Milosevic’s success in attaching an aura of unreliability and suspicion to the SPO would henceforth mark its fortunes.

The 1990 elections were an indication of events to come. Apart from the ethnic Hungarians who united behind their national alliance, the only other party to get more than two seats in the Serbian parliament was the Democratic Party (Demokratska Stranka — DS). Led by a professor of sociology, Dragoljub Micunovic, the DS tried to present itself as a moderate civic organisation with a focus on democratic and civil rights, and the economy. Sadly, the message appealed to only 374,000 Serbs (7.4% of the electorate), which translated into seven seats. All other parties trailed behind, most notably the non-nationalist and non-violent ones.

Following the wars in Slovenia and Croatia, and the independence of four of the former six republics, the new federation — comprising Serbia and Montenegro — was proclaimed on 27 April 1992. A month later the first elections for the new federal parliament were held, but the SPO and the DS decided not to compete, attempting instead to instigate change by forming a loose coalition called the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (Demokratska opozicija Srbije — DEPOS) and initiating street protests. Both groups counted on the incumbent prime minister, Serb-American Milan Panic, to remove Milosevic and invite the DEPOS to form a government; their hopes were eventually dashed. 

The coming together of the SPO and the DS was made possible by Draskovic’s sudden about-face: after the war was lost in Croatia, Draskovic’s response to the Bosnian war was to advocate peace. This left his incited electorate puzzled and created an opening for Seselj, who had by then established the Serb Radical Party (Srpska Radikalna Stranka — SRS). Ex-SPO rampant nationalists openly supported him, allowing Seselj to achieve an unexpected 30% of the votes, trailing behind the SPS who won 43%. Through his poor political judgement, Draskovic may have established DEPOS but he also gave Seselj some much-needed legitimacy.

However, even that situation was untenable and more elections, this time for the Serbian and federal parliaments were scheduled for December 1992. There were also Serbian presidential elections in which Milan Panic, boosted by international support and the DEPOS, hoped to oust Milosevic. He came close, but failed. 

More important was the decision of the Democratic Party to run for both parliaments independent of the DEPOS, a decision prompted by the notorious rivalry between opposition leaders and infighting within the DS between its leader, Dragoljub Micunovic, and his young and ambitious deputy, Zoran Djindjic. Both 1992 elections offered important lessons that the Serbian opposition failed to learn. Division, mistrust, jealousy and accusation among the leadership projected a poor message to the anti-Milosevic and anti-war electorate, forcing many to opt for the seemingly united and uniform warmongers. Milosevic and Seselj unofficially formed a coalition.

After the 1992 elections Djindjic orchestrated a coup within the DS and removed Micunovic, who went on to establish another party — the Democratic Alliance (Demokratska alijansa — DA). In response to the Democrats increasingly non-nationalist rhetoric, the nationalist wing of the party, led by the ‘non-violent nationalist’ Vojislav Kostunica, split to form the Democratic Party of Serbia (Demokratska stranka Srbije — DSS). Thus instead of uniting, the Serbian opposition continued to splinter and create more micro-leaders with huge egos. 

In late 1993, Seselj overestimated the power of his 73 deputies — who provided Milosevic’s party with a majority in the 250-seat Serb parliament — and pressed Milosevic too far over the war in Bosnia. Instead of submitting himself to the indignity of a vote of no-confidence, Milosevic dissolved parliament and called early elections, confident that his propaganda and the well-known disunity of the opposition would perpetuate his rule.

The outcome of the elections held in December 1993 proved his confidence to be well founded. Draskovic’s ego forced all the parties who could potentially win seats separately out of the DEPOS, which remained a thin cover for the SPO and very minor political forces. The DS and DSS fought the campaign individually. With the crucial boost of a divided opposition, Milosevic’s SPS won 123 seats. Yet, he was also able to entice the insignificant and almost non-existent New Democracy (Nova demokratija — ND) to break ranks with the DEPOS and provide him with a parliamentary majority. Thus Draskovic, Djindjic and Kostunica found themselves alongside Seselj on the opposition benches.

From then on, even the politically inexperienced Serbs lost patience with the opposition’s constantly shifting alliances, mutual back-stabbing and secret talks with Milosevic. When the Bosnian war ended sanctions against the FRY, the opposition tried once again to unite for the municipal elections of 1996, including in their coalition for the first time a small but influential anti-war party, the Civic Alliance of Serbia (Gradjanski Savez Srbije — GSS). 

The head of the GSS, Vesna Pesic, lent the ‘united opposition’ — this time under the banner ‘Together’ (Zajedno) — a new lease of life. Draskovic and Djindjic failed to project any meaningful message, but because of a post-war desire for change were successful in the cities. The SPS refused to step down and the Serbs took to the streets for three months. Faced with huge international pressure and total paralysis of the country, Milosevic allowed the opposition councils to take over.

However, Milosevic could have relinquished power without suffering the mayhem of popular protests; as soon as the opposition mayors and councils were sworn in, they revealed their true colours. In some cities nominal coalition partners focused all their energies against each other, dissolving the coalitions and opening hostilities. In most municipalities they quickly proved to be more corrupt and less capable than the SPS councils they replaced. 

Sensing that Zajedno was weakened by the usual bickering and back-stabbing, Milosevic called elections in Serbia in September 1997 as he moved to the post of federal president. This time it was Djindjic’s turn to find ‘good reason’ not to participate. Serbia ended up with an authoritarian coalition of Milosevic’s SPS, his wife’s neo-Communist Yugoslav Left (Jugoslovenska levica — JUL) and Seselj’s far-right SRS. As a result, the opposition fragmented even further, with increasing numbers of parties splintering off. This not only confused voters, but also mystified the international community.

As Kosovo burned in 1998 the opposition was again stunned into inaction, unable to distance their politics from rampant Serb nationalism and anti-Albanian rhetoric. The situation became even more confused when former VJ Chief of staff General Momcilo Perisic, removed by Milosevic over his conduct during the Kosovo campaign, announced the formation of another would-be party. International envoys and diplomats found themselves facing at least two dozen self-proclaimed leaders who could only promise, but not deliver.

A major blow to the idea of unifying against Milosevic came with Draskovic’s acceptance of the post of deputy federal prime minister while still claiming to be in opposition in Serbia. This was largely seen as a reward for the SPO’s role in the downfall of Zoran Djindjic, then major of Belgrade and a formal Zajedno coalition partner. The electorate was as bemused as the outside world.

NATO bombing further incapacitated the opposition. Djindjic was immediately proclaimed a traitor and moved abroad. However, while he avoided arrest, his absence damaged his popularity in the eyes of the Serbs who watched helplessly as the bombs fell. Meanwhile, Draskovic was removed one month into the war after criticising strategic decisions. Milosevic was again in full control, with nobody in a position to challenge him. Draskovic and Djindjic tried to associate themselves with Montenegrin President Djukanovic, who was by now a staunch opponent of Milosevic and the war, hoping that his charisma and the aura of a capable leader would brush off onto them. Djukanovic was careful to lend them only limited verbal support, wisely opting to stay out of the internal Serbian quagmire.

The end of the war brought with it the opposition parties’ hopes that this was one defeat too many for Milosevic. Reservists protested over unpaid war allowances, parents of fallen soldiers expressed their anger and the disgruntled population craved for change. The outside world also engaged in wishful thinking, believing that the loss of Kosovo — the central element of the Serb national and nationalist myth — would spark popular dissent that could sweep Milosevic away. 

However, the opposition failed to optimise the situation even after a massive showing at an August rally in Belgrade and remained divided. Finally, by autumn the opposition attempted to head up the spontaneous protests, but even these attempts were half-hearted and too late. Having survived the first two vulnerable months following the war, Milosevic displayed the best of his cunning, proclaiming a campaign to rebuild the country. State television showed pictures of government officials laying foundation stones, scores of military and civilian engineers bridging rivers, and patching up railroads and highways, and farmers working together to re-roof damaged homes, barns and stables.

However, last summer the students’ movement emerged as a new force, sensing an opportunity where the established opposition parties had failed. The Resistance (Otpor) started as a spontaneous movement against the regime in 1988 as Milosevic used his wife, Mirjana Markovic, a professor of sociology, and Vojislav Seselj, newly appointed professor of law, to subdue the rebellious University of Belgrade. 

Initially, the students acted as small groups of concerned and surprisingly responsible individuals protesting against the lowering of teaching standards and new laws that removed autonomy from the university. As a symbol of their resistance to the new higher-education law enforced by the SPS-JUL-SRS coalition, they painted symbols of protest — a clenched fist — on official buildings in Belgrade. The police, as usual, responded heavy-handedly, arresting 20-year olds and sending them to magistrates charged with disturbing the public order. The repression strengthened the determination of Otpor and produced more volunteers. Every night, clenched fists adorned more facades.

The post-bombing apathy among the opposition leaders gave Otpor new confidence and they began to exert pressure on opposition leaders to seize the initiative. Otpor learned from experience. In 1998 they resisted police repression by maintaining a de-centralised organisation, with no obvious leadership structure. Whenever the police arrested a prominent member, others took their place virtually overnight and the organisation was never deprived of its leadership.

Otpor also learned not to repeat the mistakes of the 1992 students’ protests when the leaders and the spokesmen were enticed by offers from the opposition parties to assume official functions, which again emasculated the movement. Otpor realised that its strength was in running alone, setting the pace that the opposition parties had to follow or risk being left behind. However, for all their commendable courage, the egos of the opposition leaders and their notorious mastery at intrigue were too much even for the students and the movement lost impetus. With the threat of being overrun by the students apparently removed, Serbian opposition leaders returned to emphasising their differences. Djindjic attempted to establish a new coalition called Alliance for Changes (Savez za Promene — SzP), with Draskovic making a point to keep the SPO out.

As anti-Milosevic rallies, all with separate agendas, started again, a curious road accident on 3 October 1999 halted the opposition from mounting a meaningful campaign. Draskovic’s motorcade was hit by a truck full of sand. Although Draskovic escaped with bruises, his brother-in-law, also a prominent SPO official, and Draskovic’s most trusted security officers were killed. Draskovic blamed the Serb State security department (Resor Drzavne Bezbednosti — RDB) for the incident, and although evidence was submitted, nothing could be proven. Although he survived the incident, Draskovic’s mental state declined and his involvement in the joint opposition effort floundered. Strongly attached to his men, and obsessed with the ‘assassination attempt’, Draskovic devoted all his energies to unsuccessfully uncovering the plot. 

Under external pressure, 14 opposition factions proclaimed ‘unification’ on 10 January 2000, endorsed by the Patriarch of the Serb Orthodox Church. For a time they concentrated on obtaining heating oil for opposition-ruled towns under the West’s ‘Oil for democracy’ programme. However, as the spring ‘rally season’ drew near, the rifts started to appear, this time over policy issues; whether to run in the elections due in autumn, and if so, how.

Elections for the federal parliament are due later this year. Although on paper parliament enjoys sweeping powers, it has been blocked by Milosevic’s refusal to recognise the Montenegrin — and therefore anti-Milosevic — deputies to the upper chamber. Montenegro withdrew from all federal institutions and would have maintained its position even without the constitutional changes that were pushed through the Milosevic-dominated parliament on 7 July. 

The reform means that the election of the Federal president is by direct ballot, rather than appointment by parliament. This allows Milosevic two more terms after the expiry of his current one in 2001, and, more importantly, blocks any influence Montenegro would have. Djukanovic’s response was a declaration of the Montenegrin parliament practically proclaiming a moratorium on all federal decisions. These events guarantee the dissolution of the federation, but the notion of it remains. The Serbian opposition now faces a seemingly impossible choice of deciding what to do when federal and local elections are called.

A decade of Serbian party politics clearly illustrates that the opposition will only succeed if it is united, yet the SPO staunchly rejects a joint approach before the elections are called, despite pleas from other parties and the international community. A united front is the only hope is for the minor parties to have a few of their leaders elected on the back of SPO and DS support. Otpor, still refusing to appoint a central leadership knowing that its strength lies in its invulnerability to penetration by Milosevic’s secret service or intimidation by its police, is increasing the pressure on the Serb opposition to unite, but in vain. Draskovic has become the obstacle for the creation of a united opposition even though there is some truth in his claims that uniting before the electoral rules are clarified would put Milosevic at an advantage.

As if to prove that just a degree of incapacitation does not satisfy Milosevic, a second attempt was made on Draskovic’s life. On 15 June his apartment in Montenegro was sprayed with gunfire, with two bullets grazing Draskovic’s head. The Montenegrin police reacted promptly and made several arrests, but there is little doubt that the order could only have come from Belgrade, although such a claim is difficult to prove. Even so, the attack served the purpose: Draskovic, the only leader among the Serbian opposition with enough charisma to draw thousands of people out in the open, has practically been incapacitated as a political leader. Witnesses say that he is a broken man, overpowered with fear. There are clear indications that he intends to remain in exile in Montenegro.

Such an outcome leaves the SPO without a leader and it is likely that the party, so long identified with Draskovic, will slowly succumb into apathy and infighting as Draskovic’s lieutenants vie for power. His determined wife, Danica, might try to hold the SPO together, but she is only likely to slow the inevitable process.

With Draskovic practically eliminated, the rest of the Serbian opposition remains without a leader who has ever approached a 15% popularity rating. The prospects for the Serbian opposition look bleak, if they agree to unite under SzP leadership, the SPO will not accept such a decision for fear that Draskovic will see it as a betrayal. Yet there seems little hope that Draskovic will be able to regain his composure and former standing. However, even if he did, he would only engage the rest of the opposition head-on over the issue of whether to run in the elections in the first place. The international community, which is stubbornly advocating opposition unity, seems unaware that Draskovic is no longer a player. The community is also wasting its time trying to persuade Montenegro to accept the federal elections, despite the smaller republic’s clear and definite refusal to give any credibility to Milosevic’s newly-tailored federal constitution.

The only hope for Serbian opposition rests with Otpor. However, even if the rest of the opposition were to overcome their fears of being swept away, the students’ movement has lost impetus; failing to obtain registration as an organisation, it remains in legal limbo. It is already being referred to by the government as a fascist group or terrorist organisation. With the possible activation of the new anti-terrorist law — with unprecedented powers of detention and arrest without court order, search without warrant and jail terms for the simple possession of foreign press — Milosevic would have a potent, and technically legal, tool against any dissent.

With his latest moves, Milosevic has further narrowed the playing field and in the long run he cannot win. Nevertheless, as always, he is playing for time, hoping that his mastery of tactics will overcome his inept strategy once again.

Taken from Janes.com

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-ARCHIVE-


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