Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Dissident Or Double Agent?
Just how angry are people in Serbia? If they really are angry enough to challenge the government, then the government will want to know how long they have got. The opposition Alliance for Changes is riding the tide of spontaneous protest but also need to get the measure of the people's fury.
Everybody wonders, not least Vuk Draskovic, controversial leader of the Serbian Reform Movement (SPO), Serbia's second biggest party. On Saturday he called a major street gathering in Kragujevac, 100 kilometres south east of Belgrade, publicly to mark his position after the recent months he spent on the side of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
An estimated 15,000 people heard him call for an end to Milosevic's 10 years in power, but then - once more - take the line of least resistance to the Yugoslav president, urging early elections to settle the issue rather than back opposition demands for his immediate ouster.
He also indirectly criticised the opposition for fomenting popular unrest in the hope it might force Milosevic's departure, a strategy, Draskovic says, that risks civil war. And he pointedly argued for a role for Milosevic as the head of a new "transitional government" tasked to end sanctions and ensure the return of Serbs to Kosovo.
It all came as little surprise. For weeks, he has avoided supporting the protests called by Alliance for Changes, led by his rival Zoran Djindjic. And SPO sources said before the event that in Kragujevac he did not plan publicly to demand Milosevic's ouster, as he had not yet cut his umbilical cord to the government.
Apparently oscillating "somewhere in between" standing by and standing against Milosevic, Draskovic has many options open to him, but little time in which to make up his mind. Whichever way he goes, it will have a significant effect on the Alliance's prospects.
Although Djindjic has declared that Draskovic has been "forgiven for everything" he did while serving in Milosevic's government, most of the opposition fear he may be out to neuter the protests by feigning support for change, while secretly working on Milosevic's behalf to broker a deal that would keep the president in power.
Draskovic, unlike the other opposition leaders, has actual political influence through his party's control of the Belgrade city assembly. Through that, he has control of state funds to the city and, not least, control over the Studio B TV station.
Draskovic's strategy is already in operation elsewhere in Serbia. In Leskovac, the local SPO branch is now leading the extensive protests. But as soon as the protestors try to force the organisers to call for Milosevic's ouster, the demand is blocked. All else is possible, but not that. If it comes to a straight vote on a formal call for his resignation, in Leskovac or elsewhere, the SPO members simply vote against or abstain.
And in the federal parliament the SPO is still siding with Milosevic's Socialists (SPS) to block the efforts of Djindjic's Democratic Party (DS) to get the house to formally remove Milosevic. Other SPO sources suggest that the SPS and the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of Vojislav Seselj threatened to oust Draskovic from the parliament unless he co-operated.
Significantly, as Draskovic mulled over whether to join the opposition, ten of his SPO officials, including several parliamentary deputies, were arrested on smuggling charges. This may have been a warning shot from Milosevic across Draskovic's bow.
It is still highly possible that Draskovic may yet accept Milosevic's offer to rejoin the Serbian or Yugoslav government, three months after he was fired from the Yugoslav government after criticizing Milosevic's war policy. Despite being accused of "making comments contrary to the interests of state" and losing his job, other SPO party members have stayed in their government posts.
Getting Draskovic back in the government might help maintain an illusion of popular unity, while he could act as a shock absorber against protracted demands for reforms. This would also give Milosevic time to ease relations between Serbia and its junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, Montenegro.
Here too Draskovic has played a part. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has been seeking to unseat the pro-Belgrade federal government of Momir Bulatovic, himself a former Montenegrin president. Draskovic has opposed Milosevic's efforts to stop this move. Draskovic has argued that Djukanovic should be allowed to choose the republic's prime minister and, more significantly, pick the people to fill the Montenegrin seats in the federal cabinet.
Even if Djukanovic manages to add critics of Milosevic to the federal cabinet, Milosevic can still reasonably expect Draskovic to ensure that the SPO will vote against a vote of no confidence in Milosevic in the federal parliament - the only clear constitutional way to eject him from power outside an election.
By way of insurance Milosevic is also considering asking Seselj's SRS to join the government, with Seselj becoming deputy premier in charge of state security - a job Seselj is known to covet and a development that would surely herald a major crackdown on the opposition.
Draskovic's problem is that it is all or nothing. By standing against calls to unseat Milosevic while backing calls for an early election, his party runs the risk of being seen as a Milosevic ally, and pay the price at elections Draskovic had facilitated.
There is still a possibility that Draskovic, perhaps encouraged by poll support for the SPO, might take the bull by the horns and openly challenge Milosevic. He could also join in a new opposition alliance with the small non-parliamentary party New Democracy (ND) and maybe with the Democratic Alternative (DA) party established by former top SPS functionary Nebojsa Covic.
ND leader Dusan Mihajlovic confirmed last weekend that the ND and SPO are already successfully cooperating at a "political and party level" and sources close to Draskovic say talks with Covic's DA are "in progress". He may even win over a group of leading SPS members who were marginalised three years ago by Milosevic's moves to ever more closely link the SPS and the Yugoslav Left (JUL) party led by his wife.
It is nearly ten years since Draskovic began taking the star role in opposition street protests, and while his loyalty to the cause of political resistance to Milosevic has often wavered since them, his ambition to become president has never faltered.
The coming days will test his commitment and ambition, but most of all his ability to turn round public opinion. And in this he has a way to go. He must win over a substantial proportion of the opposition who believe that he is at best, Milosevic's lightning rod, ready to draw the hostility of the crowd, at worst, a double agent, out to strangle the revolution at birth.
Srjdan Staletovic is an IWPR correspondent in Belgrade.
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