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

July 18, 1999|Robert Thomas | Robert Thomas is the author of "The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s."

LONDON — 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.

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