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

Milosevic Second Term Bid

Constitutional changes permitting Milosevic another term in office have enraged the Serbian opposition and the Montenegrin leadership.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The Yugoslav parliament this week voted through constitutional changes enabling President Slobodan Milosevic to run for re-election when his current mandate runs out in a year's time.


The changes throw down the gauntlet to Serbia's divided opposition and Montenegro's pro-Western president, Milo Djukanovic.


Under the new system, the country's president and parliament will be elected directly through the ballot box - providing Milosevic with an opportunity to secure a second term in office and dramatically reducing the status of Serbia's sister republic, Montenegro.


With a population of only 600,000, compared to Serbia's 10 million, Montenegro loses its treasured parity in the upper house of parliament - both republics used to send 20 deputies each. This could end up increasing the number of pro-Belgrade Montenegrin representatives in the federal assembly.


The Podgorica parliament met in emergency session to debate the changes. Miodrag Vukovic, a senior advisor to Djukanovic, said they "would not be valid in Montenegro".


"Since this is tantamount to the constitution of a new country, Montenegro is forced now to take inevitable steps, " he said. " In the next days, Montenegro will adopt laws which will wrap up its independence in all fields."


Djukanovic, however, stopped short of calling for outright independence, a move which could provoke the intervention of the Yugoslav Army.


"Montenegro will have to find mechanisms to protect itself from such constitutional and legal violence, through its parliament and with the support of its citizens," a presidential statement said.


The Serbian opposition was also caught off-guard by the speed of the constitutional changes. Outraged opposition deputies complained they were not informed of the changes in advance and denounced the process as illegal.


"Even though I am a member of the constitutional commission, I have not received the text of the draft changes," complained Laszlo Jozsa of the Vojvodina Hungarians' Alliance. "The constitution is not supposed to be changed in this way but it seems that in this country nobody cares about that."


Tomislav Jeremic, of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, labelled the changes a "constitutional coup" adding, "This is what we call legalisation of tyranny."


Despite the downward spiral in Milosevic's popularity since the NATO bombardment, the opposition appears to stand little chance of victory in a direct election against the president.


Polls indicate Milosevic's rating is currently only 14 per cent. Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic, however, scores only 6 per cent and Zoran Djindjic, leader of the Democratic Party, 3 per cent.


The National Democratic Institute poll from May 2000 indicated 38 per cent of Serbs would still vote for Milosevic on the grounds that he is "better than the opposition".


One senior official from Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, said the president's latest move indicates he feels secure for the first time since the NATO air campaign. "He now is on the offensive and believes he can strike the final blow against the opposition and Djukanovic," the official said.


The official believes Milosevic's triumph in direct presidential elections would persuade the United States' government to renew official contacts with Belgrade. He said the Milosevic government has information indicating opinion in Washington increasingly favours discreet, but direct links to the Yugoslav president.


Unnamed sources in the SPS were reported on July 5 as saying Milosevic was working on a "deal" with Washington, which would facilitate his retirement in exchange for immunity from prosecution by The Hague Tribunal.


The news comes a week after the New York Times reported US and Russian officials were discussing possible immunity for Milosevic in exchange for his resignation. The White House denied the rumours on June 20. Spokesman Joe Lockhart said, "Our policy is he [Milosevic] must be brought to The Hague and face charges he has rightfully been indicted for...Our policy has not changed."


"He [Milosevic], of course, will not miss the opportunity to rule for another 10 years," the SPS official told IWPR. "But if he is not able to do so, he will need more than ever a long-term and very powerful successor - his own Putin."


According to Serbian media reports, Jovica Stanisic would be Milosevic's most likely heir apparent. Stanisic, head of the Serbian secret police during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, was removed from his post in late 1998 following a disagreement over Yugoslav policy in Kosovo.


Political analyst Aleksandar Tijanic reckons there is a stream of thought within the SPS, with one eye fixed on self-preservation, which sees in Stanisic a reliable successor, one who could bring in support from sections of the opposition.


But Stanisic's name is just one of several options to leak from the ruling coalition. Slobodan Unkovic, Yugoslav ambassador to Beijing, is frequently mentioned as a choice acceptable to the West. General Nebojsa Pavkovic, Yugoslav Army chief-of-staff, has also been mooted, as has Ljubisa Ristic, a senior official in the Party of the Yugoslav Left run by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic.


Zvonimir Trajkovic, a former Milosevic advisor, believes the president must find "his Putin" if he is to ensure a peaceful handover of power. The SPS official said, however, the succession issue was "secondary" at this time.


"First one has to see whether he [Milosevic] will succeed with the constitutional amendments, whether the opposition and Djukanovic put up an effective response and, if he wins through, whether he is accepted by the Americans as a direct interlocutor, even if it is under the utmost secrecy," the official said.


Željko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor.


More IWPR's Global Voices