Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Can The Alliance Get It Together?

The public protests in provincial Serbia are tempting observers to say that Milosevic is, at long last, about to fall from power. But is the opposition serious?
By Milenko Vasovic

The Belgrade regime is cracking in precisely the places where it was once strongest - in provincial Serbia. This fact has led even the most cautious of observers to say out loud that the Yugoslav president has finally run out of time. As Aleksa Djilas, veteran commentator on Serbian politics, asserts, "This is the beginning of the end of Slobodan Milosevic."


Djilas, a historian and son of communist Yugoslavia's best-known dissident Milovan, cites opinion polls that claim that only 15 percent of voters support Milosevic. "Power cannot be defended with that percentage, and I believe that the months of his rule are now being counted down," he says. In the past, wrangling between opposition leaders had always prevented a coherent challenge to the Serbian leader. But even this will change, he argues.


"I do not know what the scenario will look like, but if the opposition leaders continue with their previous follies someone new will appear. This is what the protest in Leskovac indicates," he warns. On July 2, a TV engineer interrupted a sports programme to broadcast an appeal for political change in the southern town of Leskovac, and 20,000 people, nearly a third of the population, took to the streets three days later to support his call.


"The demands for the protests will blend into something that will bring about a change," Djilas insists. The Serbian democratic opposition must organise itself to meet this challenge or it will disappear with Milosevic.


Another effort to break the opposition habit of disunity is taking shape under the banner of the Alliance for Changes, linking the Democratic Party of Zoran Djindjic, its strongest force, with smaller oppostion groups. Djindjic has played the leading role in public statements and in rallies.


The central question is whether he will be joined by the Serbian Renewal Movement of Vuk Draskovic, among others. Djindjic says he is "ready to forget the past," which includes some bitter disputes over the years - not least over Draskovic's decision to join Milosevic's coalition government this year.


But Goran Svilanovic, leader of another Alliance for Changes member party, the Civic Alliance of Serbia, says Draskovic's future relationship with the opposition group depends on Draskovic alone, "since he is the one who was on the other side. It seems that he has not completely ruled out the possibility of continued co-operation with Milosevic even now."


Draskovic has twice stepped in to help Milosevic. The first time was when he took his party into 1997's republic elections in defiance of a boycott by other opposition groups - lending the vote a credibility it would otherwise have lacked. Then he joined Milosevic's government as deputy prime minister as war clouds loomed over Kosovo in January. He claimed that he was acting out of national solidarity but in practice he served to reinforce the president's position. He was bounced out on April 28 after he turned against Milosevic's war policy.


But with or without Draskovic, Svilanovic adds, the opposition parties will move closer to each other-inspired in large part by the rallies throughout Serbia. Elections will be an additional motive for joint action.


Draskovic has joined the call for early elections that would almost certainly unseat Milosevic's Socialist Party. He also demands the resignation of Milosevic loyalist Yugoslav Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic. A known nationalist, Draskovic has also taken care to be seen criticising Milosevic's ultra-nationalist party supporters. But he has pointedly stated that now is not the time for Milosevic to resign. Some interpret this as wise a tactic, others as proof of his continuing faith in the president.


In fact Draskovic was derisory about the Alliance for Changes until thousands started taking to the streets at its rallies in traditional opposition centres like Cacak and once-solid Milosevic strongholds like Leskovac. He has now stopped scoffing at the Alliance.


Slobodan Vuksanovic, vice-president of the Democratic Party, says formal relations between the Alliance for Changes and Draskovic's party are almost non-existent. But he believes that it should be possible to reach an agreement barring public attacks on each other. And while Belgrade opposition forces squabble, the opposition leaders in the Sandzak, Vojvodina and Sumadija regions are already cooperating.


"In Vojvodina, we are heading in the direction of creating a unified platform of the most important opposition parties," says Nenad Canak, the leader of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina. "The parties in Belgrade, preoccupied with mutual animosities, must learn to do the same. By crossing over from the opposition camp to the authorities they are trying to make petty gains. If we overcome the differences between us, we can make a good state out of Serbia."


Attorney Vladan Batic, the coordinator of the Alliance for Changes, says that a Code on Joint Action will soon be signed with a regional Alliance of Democratic Parties, comprising Coalition Vojvodina, Coalition Sandzak and the three parties from Vojvodina - the League of Social Democrats, the Reformist Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Union.


Meanwhile the campaigners continue to collect signatures on a parliamentary petition calling for a motion demanding Milosevic's resignation. This, and the mass rallies called in Cacak, Novi Sad, Uzice, and Leskovac, the whistles of protest drawn by Milosevic's loyal Serbian President Milan Milutinovic when visiting the town of Kursumlija - all indicate an end to political apathy in Serbia. The mood only lacks a force to bind it.


"The changes in Serbia are already immense," says Svilanovic of the Civic Alliance of Serbia. "The people have freed themselves of fear. Belgrade has realised a long time ago where Milosevic's regime leads, but now the rest of Serbia has woken from years of poison from state-controlled television. Confronting the truth about Kosovo, about the draft, the death, and confronting living standards, or, put better, poverty, there is pain - much more pain than that felt in Belgrade."


Svilanovic was speaking after having travelled around Serbia for ten days. His impression is that the protests shaking Serbia will force the opposition finally to put their differences aside. Then he hopes that the Alliance for Changes will become the caretaker of the people's dissatisfaction. Someone will have to.


Milenko Vasovic is a journalist based in Belgrade.