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

Towards A New State Of Emergency

Serbia has just lifted its state of war. Barring a miracle, it is heading towards a new state of emergency.
By Milenko Vasovic

A hot summer and an even hotter autumn await Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic, president of what now remains of Yugoslavia--and hitherto uncontested leader--may finally have been cornered.


The moment the state of war with NATO was lifted, calls for his resignation multiplied. Many came from pre-conflict critics who have now been joined in the call for change by the influential Serbian Orthodox Church.


Opposition politicians forced to lay low during the months of NATO bombing are coming out into the open again. A group of intellectuals gathered under the Appeal 50 banner have publicly urged him to quit.


Milosevic is also losing the support of older allies, including forces that first helped him into power, then kept him there through years of crushing UN sanctions and a string of disastrous military defeats that have turned hundreds of thousands of Serbs onto refugees.


Dejan Medakovic, president of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU) has called for a change, as has Dobrica Cosic, who co-authored the notorious 1986 SANU memorandum which paved the ideological way for Milosevic's Greater Serbia project. Cosic, who later became the first president of rump Yugoslavia and is now a widely read and respected newspaper columnist, has urged Milosevic to step down and "make way for necessary change".


Cosic was roughly divested of his presidency after parting political company with Milosevic over a 1993 peace plan for Bosnia. Years of this kind of ruthlessness are bringing droves of former allies turned foes into the open.


"We were solving the Kosovo question together with the Albanians," says former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, once one of Milosevic's closest friends but ejected from politics by his machinations in 1987. "Others just cut through it with a sword," he told Radio Free Europe. "The bloody saga has come full circle during the past 12 years and is now closed."


There have been critics before, and threats to his authority, but the difference this time is the sense of public anger that permeates the air. There is a feeling that someone should be called to account for all the lives claimed, homes destroyed, businesses smashed and wars lost over the past few years.


Only the criminal community and the political elite have escaped the effects of the economic crisis that afflicts the country. More than half the workforce is without jobs, and those in work have to survive on an average monthly wage of about 100 German marks. Pensioners must live on even less--when there are state funds to pay pensions. Families who once made ends meet by dabbling in the black market have found that even that avenue is no longer as lucrative.


Army reservists in the towns of Kragujevac, Kraljevo, Trstenik and Vrbas, just back from Kosovo, protested violently when they discovered that they could not get their pay for their time under fire. Many families had gone without money while their breadwinners were called up. Even some regular soldiers have not been paid for months at a time, adding to the Yugoslav Army's palpable sense of fury that so many have died in the name of a cause which was so clearly unwinnable from the outset.


The unanswered question remains: Who among Milosevic's own party will step forward to challenge him for its leadership? No obvious candidate from within the ranks of the ruling Socialist Party (SPS) has yet emerged.


The Serbian opposition continue to warn Milosevic's SPS allies that they are facing their "last chance" to disassociate themselves from their leader, who has been indicted for war crimes committed in Kosovo by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.


Meanwhile, petitions calling for Milosevic's resignation have begun to circulate throughout Serbia. Under the constitution, 100,000 signatures will force the Yugoslav parliament to consider his ouster.


The Sumadija Coalition is leading the petition drive in Kragujevac in association with the opposition Civic Alliance of Serbia (GSS). In Novi Sad, ravaged by NATO bombs, three groups are now gathered under the banner of the Alliance of Democratic Parties. Zoran Djindjic's Democratic Party, the strongest opposition party, has also joined the drive.


The Yugoslav parliament, which contains deputies from both Serbia and Montenegro, appoints the Yugoslav president and Milosevic may reasonably expect his party and its usual allies--the Yugoslav Left (JUL), which is headed by his wife Mirjana, and the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS)--to resist any motion brought to the house by the petitioners. The Montenegrin half of the house is loyal to Federal Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic, who is in turn loyal to Milosevic.


Milosevic must now resist efforts to change this political balance. In the first instance, he has to stop any bid to call an early election in Serbia, in which he would certainly be defeated. Secondly, he has to prevent Montenegro from implementing an earlier decision to change the composition of the Montenegrin contingent in the Yugoslav parliament, replacing the existing members with deputies loyal to Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, all ready to vote against Milosevic.


In addition to the Serbian opposition, both Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), which has been in and out of government, and Vojislav Seselj's SRS now advocate early elections.


But as Democratic Party vice-president Slobodan Vuksanovic points out, early elections will only count if they are fairly held under an election law than meets Council of Europe standards and are conducted under the eye of a free media.


Things could still thus get much worse before they get better. The other prospect for Serbia is that Milosevic may declare a formal state of emergency. In such an event, all hope of elections would be suspended.


No one in Serbia has an answer to the question of how to force an early vote and tip Milosevic out of power in truly democratic fashion. Thus Milosevic remains in power, still controlling the security forces, the media and the political scene. In that sense then, Serbia is further from a peaceful transition by popular vote than it is from the unpredictable consequences of a state of emergency.


Milenko Vasovic is a journalist in Belgrade.