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

Opposition Campaign Fizzles Out

There's growing public disillusionment with the Serbian opposition's campaign to oust President Slobodan Milosevic.
By Laura Rozen

The Serbian opposition's failure to offer the population any constructive response to the government's closure of key independent media, universities and beatings and arrests of pro-democracy activists underlines the utter bankruptcy of political life in the country.


The opposition's woeful response to the regime's crackdown has spawned profound apathy and resignation. At the weekend, only around 15,000 people showed up for what had been billed as a major protest rally over the government's seizure of Studio B. In the run up to the event, a series of daily demonstrations drew similarly small crowds.


Some of the harshest criticism of the opposition is coming from its own members, who say the sheer number of opposition parties, 16 in all, means they are unable to reach consensus on meaningful steps to counter Milosevic's campaign of repression.


"The opposition has two problems. It's too big - it's difficult to reach agreement on anything," said Zarko Korac, a psychology professor and leader of the liberal Social Democracy party. "The second problem is the big opposition leaders have been in power for years, and they are not willing to risk losing what they have. Some have local power in Belgrade and other towns, and that gives that more reasons not to risk [what they have]."


One such politician is Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, which controls Studio B. He has been urging caution despite once declaring that seizure of the station by the authorities would be the trigger for a massive uprising.


Many opposition politicians say Draskovic is under the illusion that Milosevic will appoint him as his successor, a kind of Putin to Milosevic's Yeltsin. "Draskovic dreams of being a kind of Putin," Korac said. "But Milosevic tried to kill Draskovic. Milosevic would never give up political power, even without The Hague indictment. Everything is profoundly different."


The former president of the Civic Alliance of Serbia, GSS, Vesna Pesic, nonetheless believes the two have worked out some sort of understanding. "I do not know what kind of link this is, but it is strange that Draskovic should say that it is Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj who is responsible for the closure of Studio B, and not Milosevic as if it is Seselj who takes these decisions, and not Milosevic and his team. I would not be surprised if, because of these underground links, Studio B is returned to Draskovic."


Some now believe Draskovic is the main obstacle to the opposition mounting a civil disobedience campaign in protest at Milosevic's seizure of the media.


"If we really wanted to intensify pressure on the regime, we should use the resources that are at the opposition's disposal," a GSS official said. "We could have, for instance, shut the water and electricity to some buildings, stopped bus service all over the city. All we had to do was make the decision.


"But, if you think there is a danger in this kind of direct confrontation, then say that, and cancel these protests. Say the situation is very complex, people are being beaten up, call off the rally. Instead, we have decided on no real activity. The rallies have died. We have achieved nothing."


Activists with the student resistance movement Otpor, which attempted to formally register as a political organisation with the Yugoslav ministry of Justice last week, are also increasingly frustrated with Serbia's opposition.


Increasingly, Otpor and college students are filling the vacuum left by the political opposition. The regime has responded by closing universities and pushing through a new law on terrorism giving it the legal power to charge and jail Otpor activists who at present can only be detained for a few hours.


"We have a great problem with those opposition guys. They are retreating yet one more step and leaving us exposed," said Otpor representative, Srdja Popovic. "People are supporting us, and we have given the opposition part of our legitimacy.


"We are being attacked by the ruling party with all the mechanisms at the state's disposal. And we are expending so much energy on the opposition, trying to get them to understand the obvious: Milosevic is turning this place into a total dictatorship."


Ognjen Pribicevic, an advisor to Draskovic, denies the opposition is retreating, "We are satisfied with the number of people attending the rallies. It's been raining, the weather is bad, and they are still coming. We do not agree with the people from Otpor. We are not retreating."


This doesn't wash with Sonja Biserko, the chair of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, "The opposition is incompetent, corrupt, immoral, and nationalistic. The opposition is dead, they have no moral energy. So the people wonder, if Draskovic doesn't care if the police closed Studio B, why should we go on the streets? In a way, the only truly dynamic actor on the Serbian political scene is Milosevic."


Laura Rozen is a regular IWPR contributor.