Divided Behind Milosevic

Serbian political parties are united only in opposition to NATO. Their inability to elaborate any coherent alternative positions leaves Milosevic, as ever, in full control.

Divided Behind Milosevic

Serbian political parties are united only in opposition to NATO. Their inability to elaborate any coherent alternative positions leaves Milosevic, as ever, in full control.

Soon after the beginning of NATO's bombing campaign, the government launched a new slogan: "All of us are one party now - its name is freedom."

Despite the war, the partners in the ruling coalition are anything but united. Nevertheless, Western hopes that sustained NATO bombing would encourage the emergence of an internal opposition within Serbia to dislodge Slobodan Milosevic appear unrealistic to those Serbs who would presumably be the current regime's natural opponents.

Although Serbs marched daily in the streets of Belgrade in protest against Milosevic's rule throughout the winter of 1996-97, the opposition coalition Zajedno ("Together") which organised the demonstrations broke up in acrimony soon after the Yugoslav president granted minor concessions. It is hardly in a position now to come together again under NATO's bombs.

Vuk Draskovic, the recently dismissed deputy Prime Minister of Yugoslavia, was one of the Zajedno leaders who was then co-opted into a government of national unity formed in 1997. The governing coalition included Vojislav Seselj's ultra-nationalist Radicals as well as Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and his wife Mira Markovic's United Yugoslav Left (JUL), in addition to Draskovic's Serb Renewal Movement.

Draskovic's dismissal for "speaking in public against the government's position" simply confirmed the long-standing divisions. Despite Western excitement, however, it has not changed the balance of forces within Serbia and does not herald the emergence of a moderate alternative to Milosevic. The fact that the most influential Belgrade daily newspaper Politika deemed news of the dismissal only to be worthy of page 16 is perhaps the best illustration of Draskovic's relative standing within the administration..

Draskovic's power base had consisted of Belgrade and a handful of municipalities in inner Serbia. But his party would not have been allowed even this, without the tacit agreement of the SPS and JUL, the two parties which continue to dominate all aspects of Serbian life.

The issue now is whether other divisions within the ruling coalition will lead to further splits or possible challenges to Milosevic's rule. The most obvious alternative to the Yugoslav President is Serbia's other deputy Prime Minister, Vojislav Seselj, not that his elevation would improve the situation from NATO's point of view.

In contrast to Draskovic, Seselj has demonstrated in successive elections that he commands a substantial following among within the Serbian public. To date, however, it seems that the idea of challenging Milosevic has not entered Seselj's mind.

Since the beginning of NATO's bombing campaign, Seselj has been uncharacteristically reserved, possibly aware that a premature move may backfire. Indeed, Seselj has only spoken out on one occasion to suggest that the killing of Slavko Curuvija, the owner of the newspapers Dnevni Telegraf and Evropljanin, was a political assassination.

Western leaders say they are not at war with the Serbian people but just with Milosevic and his "war machine". Yet every example of "collateral damage" is more than enough to generate the very opposite feelings among ordinary Serbs to those which they hope to achieve.

Regardless of the extent to which the Serbian media systematically distorts reality, the West persistently ignores the fact that a large number of Serbs--including the majority of the armed forces--remain motivated to defend their country.

The reason is simple. War against a vastly superior foe evokes historical memories and is viewed as a struggle for the very survival of the country and the nation. In such circumstances, many people feel, no sacrifice is too great.

Even individuals who consider themselves opposition activists have adopted an almost identical vocabulary to that used by the government-namely, that the only goal at present is to stop the bombing, in such a way as to preserve the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of the country. In effect, the issue of a change of regime has been put off indefinitely.

Agreement over the overriding importance of ending the war does not, however, equate to the homogenisation of all Serbs behind one party, one ideology and one man, as the official media attempt to present it.

Probably the only significant change in Serbia's political landscape since the beginning of NATO's bombing campaign has been the beginning of a rapprochement between two of the former Zajedno coalition leaders, Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party. Djindjic managed briefly to put personal differences aside to state in public that he supported the views Draskovic had expressed before his dismissal.

To the surprise of most viewers, Djindjic's support for Draskovic was broadcast on Studio B, the Belgrade television station which Draskovic controls and which has demonised Djindjic since the two men fell out.

According to sources close to Djindjic, it seems that it took several hours to persuade him to support Draskovic publicly. This hesitation is yet another illustration of why Milosevic is Serbia's undisputed ruler, and why, despite NATO's bombs, he is likely to stay so for a long time to come.

The author is an independent journalist in Belgrade.

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