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

Provincial Resistance

Opposition parties in the province are more effective than their national leaders at resisting the regime
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The strongest and best-organised resistance to the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic continues to come from the Serbian provinces, where local opposition parties have avoided the arguments which divide and weaken their leaders in Belgrade.

This despite continued attempts from the regime to provoke rifts between provincial coalition partners. And an ill-judged decision by opposition party leaders to bring local candidates lists under central control - a move which risks importing metropolitan rivalries to the provinces.

The opposition coalition, Zajedno, won local elections across Serbia in November 1996, but the competing ambitions of Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, leader, Vuk Draskovic, and Democratic Party leader, Zoran Djindic, soon wrecked the alliance on a national level.

In the provinces it was a different story. Under pressure from ruling party deputies in regional assemblies, local opposition parties had no choice but to put their differences aside for the good of their towns. A safe distance from the "high politics" of Belgrade, towns like Nis, Kragujevac and Novi Sad have enjoyed the fruits of successful co-operation between democratic parties.

Indeed, as opposition politics in Belgrade become hamstrung and sclerotic, the provinces have offered a far more serious challenge to the regime, precisely because they have so far resisted SPS attempts to divide and rule.

For example, three years ago the charismatic Mayor of Kragujevac, Veroljub Stevanovic, was elected by the Zajedno coalition. Stevanovic belongs to the SPO, who no longer co-operate with other parties at a national level, but when the local SPS managed to have his election declared illegal in late June, members of the Democratic Party and the Citizens Council of Serbia joined the SPO to re-elect him.

The alternative would probably have been an SPS mayor. In Nis, the biggest town in southern Serbia, the coalition managed to stave off a similar attempt to unseat Democratic Party mayor Zoran Zivkovic.

Opposition support in central and southern Serbian towns such as Kragujevac, Kraljevo, Cacka, Uzice and Nis has been bolstered by the arrival of Serbian refugees from Kosovo, whose very presence is a reminder of the devastating consequences of Milosevic's rule.

In Kraljevo, frequent protests by refugees and former military reservists puts constant pressure on the regime. The police blocked a protest rally of 1,500 refugees planned for June 18, but it has been rescheduled for July 17.

On July 25, the trial of journalist, Miroslav Filipovic, for espionage and dissemination of false information will begin in Nis after a series of articles in which he exposed many of last year's atrocities in Kosovo. The Filipovic case is an important development - until a few years ago, major revelations tended to come from the Belgrade press, as provincial journalists were under the thumb of local regime politicians.

Even in towns ruled by Milosevic's coalition, anti-regime feeling is rising. In Leskovac, traditionally a Milosevic stronghold, several hundred citizens clashed with police on June 24, when a member of the anti-regime movement, Otpor, was arrested.

In Belgrade, where arrests of Otpor members are a daily occurrence, no one protests. In Milosevic's home town of Pozarevac, three local judges refused to preside over a trumped up murder trial of three Otpor members who were attacked by Marko Milosevic's bodyguards in May. The trial will now go ahead, but only after the Serbian parliament held a special session to remove the three rebellious judges.

In some areas, however, internecine rivalry is beginning to undermine the provincial opposition. At the end of May, the SPO tried to overthrow the popular Mayor of Cacak, Velimir Ilic, who left the SPO two years ago and founded his own party, New Serbia.

The main body blow to provincial co-operation, however, has come from the capital. At the beginning of July, opposition leader agreed that for towns with a population over 100,000, candidate lists should be compiled in Belgrade. Placing such lists under central control means that Belgrade rivalries could be imported to towns whose political representatives have co-operated successfully.

The effects of this ill-advised decision were seen almost immediately in Novi Sad, capital of Vojvodina and Serbia's second city. A rift has opened between opposition parties with a head office in Belgrade (the SPO and the Democratic Party) and parties who advocate greater autonomy for Vojvodina, whose centre is in Novi Sad. The Vojvodina parties want to control 51 per cent of seats on the candidate lists, but their counterparts in Belgrade are not satisfied with the remaining 49 per cent.

The ruling coalition's constitutional amendments seem designed to sow further discord amongst its rivals. The opposition is now required to elect a single candidate to challenge for the Yugoslav presidency in direct elections. Opinion polls show that neither Zoran Djindic nor Vuk Draskovic stand a chance against Milosevic. For the opposition to mount a serious challenge, its leaders would endorse a candidate from a smaller party, a sacrifice for the greater good, which neither Djindic nor Draskovic has ever shown any sign of making.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor