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The Serbian Opposition's Metaphysical Unity in Istanbul

A unified Serbian opposition failed to materialise in Istanbul, but agreement was reached on a number of key issues, including participation in the Balkans Stability Pact.
By Srdjan Staletovic

Leaders of the Serbian opposition parties have agreed to join the Balkans Stability Pact - an international agreement designed to promote democracy and market economics in the region - following a series of meetings at the OSCE Summit in Istanbul.


Vuk Draskovic, leader of the leading opposition party the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), Zoran Djindjic, leader of the Democratic Party (DP), and Zarko Korac of the Alliance of Democratic Parties (SDU), were all invited to Istanbul by Czech President Vaclav Havel. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic also attended the summit at the invitation of OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek. The Yugoslav authorities condemned the OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperaion in Europe, for refusing to invite representatives from the Yugoslav government.


The opposition leaders met US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright November 18 to discuss sanctions in place against Serbia. Djindjic asked Albright to lift the sanctions and to send humanitarian aid including medicines, food, clothes and fuel to opposition controlled towns in Serbia. Draskovic reiterated to journalists that sanctions represented a "collective punishment of Serbia" and were not directed at the individuals responsible for the present situation.


Albright said the United States was prepared to lift the oil and air traffic embargoes on Serbia if "free and honest" elections were held. The US has also agreed to support aEuropean Union initiative, "Energy for Democracy", to supply heating fuel during the winter months to Serbian towns run by the opposition parties.


But the obstacles to achieving a united opposition in Serbia were not overcome in Istanbul.


Even before travelling to Turkey, Draskovic's political advisor, Ognjen Pribicevic, dismissed the possibility of uniting the Serbian opposition. He said the opposition in Belgrade had already reached agreement on electoral conditions. This he argued was "more than enough."


A source in the SPO presidency told IWPR that Draskovic "would most probably agree to a united opposition if he secured the key role of leader in any such alliance." The source went on to say, however, that contacts with the Alliance for Change (SZP) - an alliance of 18 parties, movements and individuals led by his rival, Djindjic - had not received "encouraging signals."


Djindjic, leader of the Democratic Party, has declared that he is ready to unite against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. "The Democratic Party and I are ready to accept anything that contributes to a fast and effective change of regime, including, of course, unification," he said.


However, before travelling to Istanbul, Djindjic changed his line, saying that forming a united opposition electoral list and deciding on one candidate as leader is "unnecessary." "Stories about electing one of us as a leader of the opposition are abstract and metaphysical, and it is still too early for that," said Djindjic.


SDU leader Zarko Korac said, however, that an agreement had been reached in Istanbul on the creation of "a trilateral commission" - involving the US, EU and the democratic opposition in Serbia - to collaborate on the process of change in Serbia.


Also, under the terms of the Balkan Stability Pact, several projects will come on stream over the next few months, according to Djindjic. "The projects involve humanitarian assistance, mostly medicine...and support for local independent media, aid to Kosovo Serb refugees and plans for economic reconstruction once democratic changes take place in Serbia," Djindjic said.


But democratic change in Serbia still seems a long way off. Personal rivalry between the opposition leaders and serious divisions over policy preclude any chance of united opposition.


Draskovic's SPO has 45 deputies in the 250 strong Serbian Parliament - in both the upper and lower houses. Draskovic and two other SPO politicians were members of the Yugoslav government between January and April 1999. The SPO holds power in the Belgrade municipality, controls the Belgrade TV Studio B and has a majority in several local assemblies.


Since his departure from the government, Draskovic's party has seemed like a real opposition party but in fact it wishes to preserve much of the status quo. For example, the SPO controls lucrative "oligarchies" in Belgrade and other municipalities where it holds a majority.


Both Djindjic's SZP and Draskovic's SPO demand immediate presidential, national and local elections but their conditions for elections differ. The SZP have demanded the Milosevic government agree conditions for free and fair elections and international monitoring of these elections. The SZP has threatened to continue organising demonstrations until these terms are met.


Some SPO officials have mooted the idea of the SPO assuming a lead role in organising anti-regime protests. Draskovic is the only Serbian opposition leader who has succeeded in drawing mass crowds onto the streets. But Draskovic has a track record of coming to compromises with Milosevic and abandoning the opposition struggle.


Meanwhile Milosevic intends to call only local and federal elections. Yugoslav Vice President Tomislav Nikolic announced November 17 that local and federal elections would be held in March or April next year.


Given the opportunity Milosevic will probably delay these elections until the end of winter. In the meantime plans are in place to change the law on local government autonomy to ensure increased support for Milosevic and to restrict the influence of opposition parties. Djindjic's SZP has already announced plans to boycott the elections.


The opposition control nearly ten of the larger towns in Serbia. Since in Serbia local authorities determine the editorial of local media, this means that the oppositon holds sway over the local media supplying information to half the population.. To compensate, it seems likely that in advance of any elections, Milosevic will also tighten his grip on the media, using the substantial legal and extra-legal means at his disposal.


As Milosevic perseveres with his machinations to hold onto power, the opposition in Serbia must resolve some of their differences if they are to succeed in ousting the regime. The constructive steps taken in Istanbul may seem small, but they do suggest some realisation among the opposition that it is time they got their act together.


Srdjan Staletovic is a regular IWPR correspondent in Belgrade.


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