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Shoring Up The Home Front

Belgrade has accepted defeat over Kosovo. Now it is playing for the domestic propaganda - rebuilding political alliances, and securing Milosevic's position in power.
By Anthony Borden

While international diplomats debate the nuances of the "sequencing" of the military deployment in Kosovo, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is, step-by-step, ordering the conditions which he hopes will ensure his continuation in power within Serbia.

The first manoeuvre has been to stabilise the government by securing the participation of his intermittent partners in the ruling coalition.

Several weeks ago, with the NATO bombing heavy and no end in sight, Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), put his head above the parapet to criticise the regime propaganda and point out Serbia's slim chances for "defeating" NATO. For the first time in the war, it seemed that there was a chance for a domestic voice of opposition, and he was promptly sacked from government.

Just days ago, immediately after the Serbian parliament voted on Milosevic's instruction to accept the peace deal for Kosovo, Vojislav Seselj, leader of the extreme nationalist Radical Party and also a deputy prime minister, stormed out of the chamber - denouncing the deal and President Milosevic, and issuing veiled threats against any international troops in Kosovo.

These comments raised concerns not only of retribution against internal opposition but - given Seselj's strong contacts with the military - of potentially serious opposition within the security forces to Milosevic and any peace deal. He also threatened to quit the government.

Now, for the moment at least, Milosevic has brought the two controversial figures back into the fold. SPO ministers remained in government despite their leader's sacking, and now Draskovic has come out in support of the peace deal - and the government.

According to a senior SPO source, the party has ruled out forming an opposition coalition such as the old Zajedno with such parties as Zordan Djindjic's Democratic Party. The SPO, according to this source, would only support a call for "extraordinary elections" if the "authorities are not working".

Milosevic and his Socialist Party may be weakened by the bombing. But the SPO also belonged to the coalition which led Serbia into the war, and its support is also uncertain. The base of Draskovic, the great chameleon of Serbian politics, must also be unclear.

The implication of such statements by senior SPO officials is thus that power itself is the party's first priority, and as long as Draskovic and the SPO can remain with the coalition, they will support the current president.

For his part, Seselj may continue to sound off against the peace deal and the president. But after a "secret" meeting Saturday, June 3, with Milosevic, the Radical leader has again pledged to support the government. According to sources close to the government, it is understood that, even if Seselj does depart the government, he will lend support to Milosevic and not organise opposition.

With the country prostrate and the president facing an indictment for war crimes, it would seem to be a propitious moment for opposition. But with the electorate uncertain and the main levers of power - including the security forces and the media - still under government control, it appears that Milosevic the leader, Seselj the extremist and Draskovic the moderate have all concluded that, for the moment, their fates are tied.

The other central problem facing Milosevic is the spin - how to sell the domestic public his capitulation to NATO's demands and justify putting the country through the bombing rather than accepting essentially the same demands three months earlier. It may seem difficult for the president once again to portray himself as the saviour of the nation. But the outlines of a new line, highlighting the role of the UN, are emerging.

The first signal has been a marked softening of the extreme propaganda in the regime media. News has continued to focus on the NATO bombing. But for the first time, reports have referred to "attacks" and "air strikes" without reference to "fascist aggression", the "criminal Nazi NATO" and other examples of the severe speech evidenced throughout the bombing.

Notably, this new tone first appeared in the initial reports of the peace deal itself, when it seemed the media, and the government itself, were not exactly clear how to present the developments and therefore relied - perhaps for a first time - in unemotional and informative reporting.

The hardest issue to spin will be the deployment of foreign troops. Milosevic and his ruling establishment deeply oppose international, and especially NATO forces, on Yugoslav soil. There would also appear to be legitimate concerns from Belgrade's perspective over the terms under negotiation now.

It may simply be physically impossible to remove in seven days, as NATO has demanded, men and materiel which have been built up in Kosovo over many months. Serbs in Kosovo would also seem to have reason to fear, with the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces, being at the mercy of NATO and Kosovo Liberation Army troops - the very two forces with whom they have been at war.

Although the main details of the settlement are not up for debate, the Yugoslav government's main priority is to be able to present the entire peace process as a UN matter - with the accord having the imprimatur of a Security Council resolution (approved by Belgrade's "friends" China and Russia) and with foreign troops under a UN flag.

Reports in the Belgrade press have referred not to NATO troops in Kosovo but the UN. Crucially, the serious foot-dragging at the military talks over the weekend in Blace, Macedonia, which were intended to agree the technical requirements for a Serb withdrawal, may have been largely for the same propaganda purposes.

Having sent junior officials lacking the authority to complete an understanding with NATO, and having raised several detailed objections, Belgrade threw the process over to the Group of Eight leading industrialised states plus Russia, meeting in Bonn. This has also had the result of expediting the timing of a resolution being brought to the Security Council in New York - which is now expected as soon as an understanding between the Western industrialised nations and Russia can be reached.

The remaining technicalities - a unified command structure including the Russians, "robust" rules of engagement in Kosovo, and especially a reference within the document to the war crimes indictment against Milosevic and other Yugoslav leaders - are important, and will drag out the haggling a bit longer. But they will not block a deal.

Rather, through these delays, Milosevic has held off any withdrawal until after a UN Security Council vote. The role of the UN, and Russia, in the plan and in the deployment will be emphasised, and the participation of NATO minimised - if not somehow avoided altogether.

Facing serious questioning over the war, Belgrade will trumpet Serbian heroism in standing up to the world's strongest military alliance and boast of its own accomplishment in achieving a resolution through the UN that (on paper) maintains Serbian sovereignty in Kosovo.

One implication of these developments is that, barring unforeseen events, a final acceptance by Belgrade of the peace terms hammered out by the great powers is guaranteed. Another is that Milosevic is contriving means, as ever, to stay in power - for the time being at least.

Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. An independent journalist in Belgrade, whose name has been concealed, reported this article.

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