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After Triumph in Streets, Serb Opposition Crumbles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The television moderator had to shout to be heard over his quarreling guests--representatives of Serbia’s political parties--as he tried to end the program. “This has been a discussion on national reconciliation!” he yelled to his broadcast audience. “Thank you for joining us!”

As a new political season heats up in Serbia, opposition forces are at each other’s throats. The unity that sustained three months of vibrant street demonstrations last winter and handed President Slobodan Milosevic the greatest challenge to his authoritarian rule has evaporated.

Leaders of the protest movement have not spoken to each other for more than a month. And a disillusioned public is fed up.

“I simply have a feeling that some of the leaders are sick,” said a dismayed Predrag Koraksic, Belgrade’s most famous cartoonist, whose drawings lampooned Milosevic and paid homage to the opposition. “The enormous delight that reigned during the protests, the optimism that was increasing every day and that even changed the way people abroad saw Serbia--all of this is replaced in equal parts by disappointment.”

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With the opposition in disarray, split over egos, agendas and tactics, Milosevic has been able to recover much of his once-unassailable standing. He is expected to find a way to continue in power even after his term ends this year.

Perhaps even more alarming is the steady rise of ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, an advocate of the practice of “ethnic cleansing.” Capitalizing on the collapse of the democratic opposition, Seselj may very well become the next president of Serbia.

For 11 frigid, snowy weeks, tens of thousands of Serbs poured into the streets of Belgrade, day after day, blowing whistles and marching to demand that Milosevic respect opposition electoral victories in more than a dozen cities, including the capital. Milosevic annulled those results, staged another round of voting that most people boycotted and resisted domestic and international pressure that he recant.

It was a political effervescence unseen in Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia, uniting students, pensioners and politicians in the common goal of challenging Milosevic. Finally, on Feb. 4, isolated and strapped for cash, Milosevic conceded defeat. The opposition assumed its elected offices. Zoran Djindjic, one of three leaders of the Zajedno, or Together, coalition that spearheaded the demonstrations, became the first non-Communist mayor of Belgrade since World War II.

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Almost immediately, Zajedno began to fall apart.

Where Djindjic was the smooth, attractive, eminently pragmatic politician, Vuk Draskovic--another principal leader of the coalition, fiery and bearded--was charismatic but erratic. Vesna Pesic, the third coalition leader, was the only politician with near-genuine democratic credentials but had scant clout.

Draskovic launched himself as Zajedno’s presidential candidate. It was in keeping with an earlier agreement--Djindjic’s party could name the mayoral candidate, Draskovic’s the presidential--but he made the announcement too early and without consulting the coalition partners.

Djindjic insisted on broadening the coalition as a way to include more ideas and people and pose a real challenge to Milosevic--while weakening Draskovic. Draskovic was outraged, likening such compromise to a visit to a “political whorehouse.”

“We were unified, we were victorious--for three months we defended our electoral victories,” Draskovic said at a recent news conference. “We removed the criminal’s mask from the face of the Serbian people. The problems started when my coalition partner started a campaign against the coalition.”

But Draskovic also displayed the kind of egotistical pique that frustrated his coalition partners. Asked what he would say to the tens of thousands of disillusioned citizens who once followed him, he insisted that his supporters had not wavered--clearly ignoring every opinion poll that places Draskovic in a poor fourth place, at best. He further raised eyebrows by using political rallies to pay homage to Draza Mihajlovic, a World War II anti-Communist commander of the king’s army, some of whose members collaborated with the Nazis.

Draskovic now shows no willingness to reconcile or compromise, refusing to go along even with basic agreements on election rules if Djindjic is involved.

An exasperated Djindjic, meanwhile, says that the opposition’s only future is in a wider, more inclusive coalition that brings in writers, students, trade unionists, civic activists and independents.

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“My reason for provoking a crisis in the coalition was that I realized that the victory of our coalition did not guarantee reforms in Serbia,” Djindjic said in an interview at his expansive mayoral office in Belgrade City Hall. “My aim now is to create a democratic bloc. If Zajedno appears [in upcoming elections] as a coalition of just three parties, then I don’t see any chance for victory.”

Most analysts and diplomats would agree. Even when successful in the streets, Zajedno failed to deepen its movement, develop long-term strategy or cultivate wider support. With Serbia’s economy in the dumps, salaries in the health and other sectors unpaid and numerous labor strikes, Milosevic might seem more vulnerable than ever. But the opposition is unable to exploit the public dissatisfaction.

Diplomats who have seen Milosevic in recent weeks said that while he has not recovered fully from the humiliation of last winter’s protests, he is increasingly displaying his old verve and self-confidence.

“Even a chimpanzee should have learned that once Milosevic is let off the hook, he will turn the situation to his advantage,” said analyst Vladeta Jankovic. “Milosevic is now very much off the hook. . . . For all intents and purposes, Zajedno is finished.”

While it had long been assumed that Zajedno would not last forever, few in Belgrade expected it to disintegrate so swiftly.

A visiting senior U.S. official recently tried to coax the leaders to put aside their differences and egos to unite behind the goal of democracy. The official cited the example of Chile, where diverse groups of many ideologies united to force dictator Augusto Pinochet to cede power. “It went right over their heads,” the official said.

Seizing the opening, Milosevic last month launched what many saw as his own presidential campaign. He chose to hark back to his base support, the farmers and workers who remained loyal to him during the demonstrations. He traveled to a village where peasants received him glowingly.

“You speak in Cyrillic,” one aging farmer told Milosevic, meaning: You are a true Serb, a patriot. Indeed, the tone of Milosevic’s campaign is sounding increasingly nationalistic and anti-West. Having lost the West’s support during the demonstrations, Milosevic is turning inward and blaming “outsiders” for Yugoslavia’s troubles.

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Coverage of that trip--Milosevic’s first public appearance since Dec. 24--took up 25 minutes of the night’s half-hour news broadcast. Milosevic continues to hold airtight control over the most widely watched television, while a recent population explosion among newspapers has only muddied the issues and confused the public, Serbian analysts say.

Milosevic’s term as president of Serbia ends this year, and to run for a third would require rewriting the constitution or other maneuvering. According to officials of his Socialist Party of Serbia, Milosevic has decided to become federal president of Yugoslavia, made up of dominant Serbia and tiny Montenegro. The parliament-appointed post becomes vacant this month, and he has already taken steps to enhance the powers of that largely ceremonial position.

For the federal presidency, Milosevic would need the support of Montenegrin officials. Although Milosevic recently lost a highly public political showdown with the popular prime minister of Montenegro, many observers in Belgrade believe Milosevic can still pull together the votes he needs.

If Milosevic takes the federal office, his party still stands a good chance of winning the Serbian presidential race, or at least of forcing a runoff. After the Socialists, the strongest candidate is Seselj.

Head of the Serbian Radical Party, Seselj, who once dispatched paramilitary irregulars to terrorize Muslim and Croatian villages, is looking relaxed these days. Normally gruff and intimidating, he is now quick to smile and joke.

Seselj is also quick to tease political opponents, especially on television. In fact, some analysts say Milosevic and the Socialist Party are using Seselj to provoke other politicians into heated debate. The latter look foolish, while the Socialists stay above the fray. “It’s very worrying,” analyst Jankovic said of Seselj’s growing popularity. “He’s like a dangerous dog that you let off the chain. Can you put him back on the chain?”


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