After Paris

Kosovo is the only political glue binding Belgrade's fractious governing coalition together. Milosevic's real problem will be after a deal, when Serbia finally has to face itself.

After Paris

Kosovo is the only political glue binding Belgrade's fractious governing coalition together. Milosevic's real problem will be after a deal, when Serbia finally has to face itself.

The regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is spread thin, and much weaker than it looks. When the talks on Kosovo finally opened in Rambouillet, many observers were surprised by the relatively low level of the Serbian delegation. It cannot even be called "Serbian", since most of its members are not Serbs, but representatives of collaborationist "loyal" Albanians, and small ethnic communities (Turks, Roma, "Egyptians"). Most analysts concluded that this move by the Serbian leader was aimed at lowering the status of the talks, and possibly underplaying the eventual results.

So why the Egyptians and others? Part of the reason is probably Milosevic's sick sense of humour. But there is a pragmatic side to it, too, paradoxically in order to address an internal problem which has little to do with Kosovo. Milosevic included all these political non-entities because his clique at this point is so severely divided from within that a dozen Serbian dignitaries would probably spend more time trying to back-stab each other than to talk with the other side. Unable to find 12 trustworthy people, Milosevic sent out three, and filled the remaining seats by a string of place-setters.

Although Milosevic looks strong on the outside, his popularity in Serbia has been slowly but steadily declining since 1994. It now hovers at around 25 per cent of the electorate. This is not enough to ensure a smooth rule, so Milosevic has been forced to forge a coalition with other parties. His first partner was his own wife, Mira Markovic, a hard-line communist and leader of the Yugoslav United Left (YUL), who provided an ideological transfusion to Milosevic's anaemic Socialist Party of Serbia. Next were the radicals from the Serbian Radical Party, led by ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, who helped Milosevic maintain a safe majority in the parliament. Finally, Vuk Draskovic, former opposition leader with the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) who led street protests and was once arrested and severely beaten by Milosevic's police, has now agreed to support the Serbian strongman in exchange for a handful of seats in the cabinet. At this point, Milosevic ran out of opponents, as every single parliamentary party was included in the government. The opposition in Serbia was officially declared dead of natural causes. All that remains is Milosevic and his government.

They call it "The Government of National Unity", but it is in real life a fragile coalition composed of some strange bedfellows: communists and fascists with opportunists posing as centrists. Milosevic maintains his power by carefully balancing these factions against each other, while intimidating extra-parliamentary opposition, such as university students and the free media. Apart from ideological differences, which tend to fade before issues of national interest such as Kosovo, the four parties in the governing coalition are engaged in a bitter, sometimes bloody competition for lucrative state positions and government-issued import licences, which they tend to see as a necessary price for their loyalty to Milosevic. However, loyalty to Milosevic does not extend to their coalition partners, and thus the constant in-fighting, which results in permanent reshuffling of all state positions.

The problem for Milosevic is that he will not be able to satisfy all of these conflicting interests for much longer. After years of direct and indirect trade sanctions, combined with the nearly as disastrous effects of a badly run economy, Serbia is in dire shape. Money is getting increasingly tight even for the well-connected entrepreneurs, and the doles and handouts are not nearly what they used to be a couple of years ago. The price paid for loyalty is going down, and so is loyalty itself. As a result, the government is becoming increasingly greedy, taxing the economy and the people beyond a tolerable level.

Milosevic can overcome the fragility of his system by waving the issues of greater national interest--such as Kosovo--in front of everybody's face and screaming high treason at everyone who shows dissent. However, that will not work forever. The economic and political system in Serbia is imploding, and it is in fact only the Kosovo issue that keeps it together.

The issuing of hard-line statements followed by unashamed retreats continue--with hardly a word from other parties. Last year, Milosevic refused to accept a small delegation from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and even held a referendum to confirm Serbia’s opposition to any foreign involvement on Yugoslav soil. Two months later he agreed to accept 2,000 OSCE monitors. On the eve of the talks in Rambouillet, the Serbian government declared that it was "absolutely unacceptable" to hold any negotiations about Kosovo outside the Yugoslav borders. Shortly after, and with a parliamentary rubber-stamp, Milosevic sent a delegation to France. Now Milosevic is reiterating that Yugoslavia will never accept foreign troops in Kosovo. The implication may well be exactly the opposite.

Milosevic is probably aware that he will eventually have to give Kosovo away in one way or another. Yet to avoid another early retreat, and to keep the political focus on Kosovo rather than other domestic issues, it is in his interest to stall the talks. Even there, however, he faces a delicate balancing act, since his bargaining power with the West may be reduced if a deal is not struck before NATO’s fiftieth anniversary in April. But eventually, he will sell out. Thus the real challenge for him--and for Serbia--will come after Rambouillet. Without the Kosovo issue overshadowing the state of the nation, Serbia will finally be forced to look itself in the mirror. It will not be a pretty sight.

Dejan Anastasijevic is a journalist with Vreme in Belgrade.

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