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Milosevic U-turn

In sidelining Serbia's new anti-terrorism law, Milosevic may be telling the West that he's ready for dialogue
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Yugoslavs are still recoiling this week from the shock of the abrupt withdrawal of a repressive anti-terrorism bill from the federal parliamentary programme.


Most expected the adoption of the bill, which would have granted the authorities sweeping powers, to be a formality, as the regime had spent months preparing the population for the controversial legislation with a concerted propaganda campaign on state TV and radio.


Several theories for the U-turn have emerged. Some believe it resulted from opposition to the bill from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's closest supporters. Others suspect Milosevic is attempting to send a conciliatory gesture to the West.


The proposed law, which granted the authorities a fairly wide interpretation of what constitutes a terrorist activity, was believed to have been targeted at opposition figures and the student movement, Otpor. It's the first time in years that a bill has been withdrawn with such haste.


So far the move has not been satisfactorily explained. "We received a number of useful suggestions and objections," was all that Deputy Prime Minister and Milosevic aide, Vladan Kutlesic, could come up with.


The bill may have floundered because of opposition from the leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj - a long-time Milosevic ally whose support provides the president's Socialist party with its parliamentary majority.


Some suspect Seselj fears the new law could be used against his party, should the alliance with Milosevic falter. Rumours have in fact been circulating for some time that Milosevic would like to replace the neo-fascist leader with a more moderate ally, perhaps a party led by opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic.


Another explanation is that Seselj demanded political concessions from Milosevic in exchange for supporting the bill, but his price was too high.


Opposition leader, Vladan Batic, claims the draft law also met opposition from the Socialist People's Party , SNP, led by Federal Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic, and other Montenegrin allies in the Yugoslav parliament.


Batic says opposition from the SNP stems from an emerging liberal faction within the party led by the influential Predrag Bulatovic. But this has been pooh-poohed by high-ranking officials in Milosevic's party. "It is ridiculous to think that the president would be swayed by Seselj and Bulatovic on such an important matter," said one.


The bill, continues the official, is in fact a message from Milosevic to the international community, albeit a mixed one. On the one hand, the president is making it clear that opposition activists - loudly supported by western governments - could be thrown in jail at only 24 hours notice. At the same time, by postponing the legislation he's telling the West that he's ready for dialogue.


Lawyers have been implacably opposed to the bill. It belongs to the field of "legislative psychiatry," says the eminent criminal law professor Momcilo Grubac. "Is it possible," he wondered aloud, "that there are lawyers willing to turn such paranoia into legal norms? The idea that this bill could become law is horrific."


The text of the bill is worryingly vague. Unlike the criminal code, which defines terrorism as "anti-state violence", the draft law widens the definition to encompass "generally dangerous acts" carried out to "threaten constitutional order."


The maximum length of time suspects can be held in detention would be upped from three days to thirty. Sentences against "terrorists" would run to life imprisonment, while three-year sentences would be automatically handed down to anyone "who distributes papers, audio-visual, electronic or other means that call for and incite terrorism." If the suspect has been helped from abroad, the sentence is raised to five years.


Serbs ironically point to the bill's one soft touch; a promise that "a person who is a spouse or a closest blood relative of a perpetrator of an act of terrorism will not be punished."


Article 5 is particularly contentious as it empowers people to carry out "anti-terrorist activities".


"That means in practice," says Grubac, "that someone can blow up the water system, but not be held accountable as long as he says he did it to discover terrorists."


The wide-ranging interpretations the bill affords sets it apart from previous repressive laws. "Its primary goal is intimidation," says Professor Drago Hiber of Belgrade's Law Faculty, one of many academics who lost their jobs following a draconian law aimed snuffing out dissent in the universities. Branislav Tapuskovic, president of the Serbian Bar, agrees. "Any criticism of the authorities can be interpreted as a terrorist act."


Milosevic insiders say he's hesitating over the legislation because of the scope of the powers it confers on the state. "As long as he doesn't adopt it," one source says, "Milosevic can bargain with the West. Once he adopts it, he can do nothing but implement it."


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor


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