His Opposition May Turn Out to Be Milosevic's Best Friend

Robert Thomas is the author of "The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s."

In the aftermath of the war in Kosovo, politics in Serbia is entering a new and potentially critical phase. When he rose to power a decade ago, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic constructed his own personal political mythology in which he portrayed himself as the "strong man" ready to defend the Serbian claim to Kosovo at all costs. Now, the columns of Serbian refugees who have been fleeing north, and the unpaid reservists who have regularly been blocking main roads across Serbia, are providing human evidence of the failure of his policies in Kosovo.

Since the end of the war, the state-run media has sought to feed the Serbian public an increasingly unreal diet of "good news" stories. Milosevic has been shown supervising reconstruction work on bombed bridges and factories and awarding medals to senior soldiers and policemen. His politically powerful wife, Mirjana Markovic, has appeared at the opening of a new theme park run by their playboy son, Marko. Such stories, however, have been unable to conceal from the Serbian people the extent of the defeat they have suffered. Support for Milosevic and his regime has slumped even among groups who were previously considered to be his hard-core supporters.

The Serbian economic infrastructure has been devastated by the three months of NATO bombing. This has had the effect of dramatically increasing the numbers of impoverished and desperate people in Serbia. In addition, and perhaps more importantly for Milosevic, it has deprived him of a crucial source of financial patronage with which he has been able to buy the support of the country's financial elite during his years in power.

Milosevic's indictment by the International International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia and statements by Western leaders that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will not receive any reconstruction aid while he remains in power has strengthened the conviction of many ordinary Serbs that the country can never enjoy a "normal" life. The dissatisfaction of the Serbian people has been manifest in a series of antigovernment demonstrations, which have taken place in such places as Leskovac and Prokuplje, in the south, and Valjevo, in central Serbia. These areas had been regarded as bastions of support for the regime. The opposition Alliance for Change coalition has sought to take advantage of the popular mood by collecting signatures in 20 towns and cities across Serbia calling for Milosevic's resignation. An Alliance for Change spokesman stated that, in spite of harassment and attempts at intimidation by the police, more than 150,000 signatures have been collected so far. He suggested that by the end of the summer, that figure would have risen to 2 million.

In spite of all these factors, however, the signs are that political change in Serbia will not come easily or swiftly. Milosevic has always been an individual imbued with an intense will to retain his hold on the structures of governance. His indictment will have strengthened his determination not to yield to external or internal pressure and relinquish power. Peaceful retirement now offers him only the prospect of eventual trial at The Hague. The simultaneous indictment of other key members of the political and security bureaucracy such as Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, Interior Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic and Yugoslav Army chief Draglojub Odjanic, has created a powerful, if negative, "community of interest" in the upper ranks of the state apparatus.

The NATO bombing left the Serbian police and Interior Ministry forces intact and loyal to the regime. The apparent unwillingness of the Serbian police to intervene in recent days against opposition demonstrators may be indicative of Milosevic's reluctance, at present, to seek confrontation by raising the political temperature rather than any wavering support for the government on the enforcers' part.

There has, as yet, been no sign of significant dissent within Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party of Serbia or the Yugoslav United Left led by Mirjana Markovic. The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj, an intelligent and dangerous demagogue, initially indicated that it was ready to leave the governing coalition "the moment the first soldier of the NATO aggressor sets foot in Kosovo." When the Radicals attempted to resign, however, they were "ordered" to remain in the government by Milutinovic to preserve the country's stability. The Radicals have now made it clear that they are ready to support the current Serbian government against those opposition forces, such as the Alliance for Change, that it regards as "traitors." This whole "resignation" episode has been widely seen as an elaborate charade whereby the Radicals could preserve their "patriotic" credentials while maintaining the material benefits made available by their proximity to power.

Although antigovernment demonstrations are now an almost daily event, the numbers involved have not yet reached a point where they are likely to be creating an atmosphere crisis within Serbia's corridors of power. Most of the demonstrations, so far, by the Alliance for Change have involved fewer than 10,000 people. In terms of scale, they have not been able to approach the mass demonstrations witnessed in Serbia in the winter of 1996-97. The largest of the demonstrations, in the town of Leskovac on July 5, attracted 20,000 people and was organized on the initiative of a local TV producer, Ivan Novkovic, without the involvement of opposition political parties.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, many Serbs appear alienated from the regime, but are unsure as to the way out of the crisis in which they find themselves. The economic desolation in Serbia is as likely to encourage apathy and concentration on the essentials of survival as it is to prompt political activism. Many Serbs are also suspicious of the opposition parties, which have a record of factionalism and internal bickering. In Valjevo on July 12, Bogoljub Arsenjevic, a local artist, organized an antigovernment meeting at which the help and attendance of opposition parties was actively discouraged. Arsenjevic asked them: "What have you done over the last 10 years?"

Divisions and tensions within the opposition's ranks have, if anything, been increased by the experience of the war. Vuk Draskovic, the flamboyant and unpredictable leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement who served briefly as deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia during the war, has been trying to reestablish his position as an opposition leader by proposing to organize a series of rallies to rival those of the Alliance for Change. The intense personal and political rivalry that exists between Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, the leader of the Democratic Party, the main political formation in the Alliance for Change, is well known. Such a competition on the streets between opposition factions would, however, profit only Milosevic.

The assumption made by some observers in the West that defeat for the Serbian regime in war would naturally lead to a social and political revolution on the home front is not borne out by the facts on the ground. Milosevic appears to believe that if he keeps his nerve, present discontents will dissipate and he will once again be able to assume the aura of political inevitability that has served him so well both domestically and on the international scene.

Against this it should be said that the ferment currently being experienced in Serbia may increase rather than decrease as summer turns to winter and economic hardship heightens. The challenge faced by the Serbian opposition over the coming months is to provide an organization sufficiently coherent to give effective expression to the discontents of the Serbian people and overcome the "tyranny of the status quo" the regime is seeking to perpetuate. The consequences of failure will be to see Serbia sink into even greater isolation, a political and economic black hole into which no light can penetrate. Such a result would not only be disastrous for Serbia's population but also for the wider region. It is, however, as yet unclear whether the Serbian opposition will have the capacity to meet this challenge.*

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