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Serbian Opposition Parties Unite

Serbia's opposition parties have come together to issue President Milosevic an ultimatum: call elections by the end of April or face united and unrelenting mass protest.
By Milenko Vasovic

At a meeting in Belgrade on January 10, the leaders of 17 opposition political parties and alliances finally agreed on a united stand, issuing a public demand to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to call elections to all levels of government by the end of this April.

The opposition gathering was organised by Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO). All parties at the meeting signed up to a joint strategy document aimed at forcing the government to call early democratic elections. Should the Milosevic government refuse, the signatories have pledged to call mass demonstrations in Belgrade and other towns across Serbia beginning in March. The protests would continue until elections are called.

A previous opposition agreement signed on October 14, calling for early elections under a system of proportional representation across a maximum of eight electoral districts, provides the basis for negotiations with the Milosevic regime on conditions for any would-be elections.

In a joint statement the opposition declared: "The ten-year-long rule of Slobodan Milosevic's regime has reduced Serbia to a wasteland. The country is biologically, materially and morally destroyed. All those institutions essential to a successful democracy have been destroyed and devalued. Serbia has become a one party state, ruled by brutal repression and state terrorism, the most blatant example of which was the attempted assassination of the leader of the SPO and the murder of four leaders of the SPO on October 3 last year."

The statement went on to say that the victims of organised state terror and repression were not limited to leaders and members of democratic opposition parties, but included journalists, members of the independent media, university professors, judges, students, teachers, pupils and refugees.

In a separate document the opposition leaders issued an invitation to the European Union, the United States, Russia and China to lift sanctions against Serbia and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) as soon as an agreement to call early elections is reached with the government.

These four powers were also asked to ensure adherence to United Nations Resolution 1244 on Kosovo, providing for self-rule for the non-Albanian population. In addition, the opposition called for an increase in humanitarian aid for the one million refugees and two million needy people in Montenegro and Serbia. Furthermore, the signatories requested the reinstatement of FRY to the Organisations for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the return of FRY institutions and police officers to Kosovo as agreed at Kumanovo with NATO.

The opposition leaders have agreed to respect the equal legal status of Serbia and Montenegro within FRY, respect the rights of minorities, harmonise FRY legislation with EU laws, sign up to the Pact on Stability in South East Europe and re-establish diplomatic relations with the US, France, Britain and Germany.

General Momcilo Perisic, former head of the Yugoslav Army (VJ) headquarters and now leader of the Democratic Movement for Serbia, is the only opposition leader not to sign the documents. He insisted that members of the federal parliament should address the question of who is the "major culprit behind the crisis in Serbia".

Those leaders who did sign the January 10 agreement were unanimous in their assessment that Serbia has finally achieved a unified opposition - although the opposition is not united in a single party.

But the international community does expect a joint approach, a fact made clear to opposition leaders by US and EU representatives at meetings held in Berlin and Brussels in December.

The Serbian public, disappointed and frustrated by a procession of failed short-term opposition alliances, wants the same. Given its past highly fractious history, any plans for bringing the opposition together must be greeted with some caution. But it may be that the increasingly repressive nature of the Milosevic regime has finally forced the opposition to unify.

The agreement represents a genuine compromise and some opposition politicians had to bend over backwards for agreement to be reached. Speaking at a press conference after the recent meeting, Draskovic sought to suggest that any previous disagreements had been put aside, saying, "Concern for the people and for Serbia are of primary importance."

Vladan Batic, representative for the Alliance for Changes, said, "On this occasion the opposition persuaded the domestic public, the international community and finally, the dictatorial regime, that it can agree."

Notably, Zoran Djindjic, president of the Democratic Party, did not attend the gathering. But his party was represented by the Alliance, and assurances came from Djindjic's party that the agreement will be respected.

A united opposition would almost certainly defeat the ruling coalition parties in open and democratic elections. A fierce anti-opposition campaign by the state-controlled media has failed to rally Milosevic's popular support. Draskovic and his "treachery" were singled out as the principal target. In December footage of Draskovic kissing the "blood-stained" hand of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was shown over and over again by Serbian state television.

At a ceremony to mark the 55th anniversary of "Film News", the Yugoslav minister for information, Goran Matic, accused Draskovic of contacts with the French intelligence service. According to Matic, "Draskovic is simply offering himself as an associate of any foreign agency for money, to do in our country whatever they ask of him."

On January 10 the state controlled daily newspaper Borba accused Draskovic of preparing an amnesty for NATO for bombing Yugoslavia; the accusations were repeated in Politika, another state controlled daily newspaper. The Nis branch of the Serbian Radical Party denounced the Serbian Renewal Movement as one of the most dangerous sects in Serbia.

The same tactics were used during the protests sponsored by the Alliance for Changes held from September to December, when Djindjic and other party leaders were routinely denounced as traitors.

Bolstered by a successful campaign surrounding the post-war reconstruction, Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia has enjoyed something of a revival in recent opinion polls. But such gains would not be enough to ensure an electoral victory. Polls indicate only one-fifth of the electorate supports Milosevic and his coalition partners.

Milenko Vasovic is a journalist with Blic daily in Belgrade.

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