Vuk Strikes Again

Vuk Draskovic, Serbia's ultimate political chameleon, did his best to divide the opposition and undermine Thursday's key Belgrade demonstration.

Vuk Strikes Again

Vuk Draskovic, Serbia's ultimate political chameleon, did his best to divide the opposition and undermine Thursday's key Belgrade demonstration.

Wednesday, 16 November, 2005
While the eyes of 100,000 or more demonstrators at Thursday's rally in Belgrade focused on the evocative figure of Vuk Draskovic, casually attired and making a surprise and energetic appearance on the stage, only those closest to the platform could notice the constant twitch in the left hand of rival opposition leader Zoran Djindjic.

It had taken long enough to stage the rally in the first place. In the early blush of post-war demonstrations, the opposition coalition Alliance for Changes had decided to delay holding a Belgrade rally until it was sure a strong showing would be made.

The inevitable squabbling among the Serbian opposition, especially Djindjic and Draskovic, had also hampered efforts to mount a common, anti-regime front, with the latter formally pulling out of the meeting only days beforehand.

However it was one of the largest-ever gatherings in Belgrade, with some international press putting the figure of protestors at 150,000. Efforts by the regime to block participants had not succeeded, and besides one tear-gas canister, the affair was peaceful and security forces notably absent. (They remained in the federal parliament building, while the rally continued in front.)

Attracted by the size of the crowd, and "spontaneous" calls for his appearance, Draskovic himself had consented to participate - receiving, at least among some of his own party supporters, a rapturous if not downright crazed reception.

"Serbia is in jail. We are in jail," the former deputy prime minister declared, because the country is "lead by those who are totally isolated from the world. . . . They must go to the political past so Serbia can go to the future."

But while many in the crowd roared, Djindjic's left hand, unconsciously but very noticeably, continued to twitch.

The gap in party strategy was enough to make anyone nervous. Draskovic insisted that opposition demands for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stand down immediately in favour of a transitional government were unrealistic. He urged the opposition to negotiate with Milosevic over the terms of early elections, which have been offered in November. "We will fight with Milosevic over elections and vote for a new Serbia," he added. While some in the audience on the bright and warm summer evening cheered loudly, others called out "traitor".

Djindjic himself, in his forceful speech earlier, had fudged the strategy question. In his opening remarks, he called on Milosevic to resign within two weeks. By the end of his talk, he demanded that Milosevic step down immediately, and suggested boldly that demonstrators remain on the streets of the capital until he does so. The call was echoed by other leaders, but by the end of the rally a follow-on demonstration was proposed for September 21.

Either way, Djindjic, like many people in the opposition, fears that any agreement with the regime over a vote - as Draskovic proposes - can only result in an effectively rigged process that will, once again, confirm Milosevic and his clique in power.

But whatever the best strategy, the real point of anxiety for any opposition figure must have been the dynamics of the meeting itself. While very large, it also had a casual atmosphere. It seemed more of a street festival than a political event, with many people attending as much out of curiosity as commitment.

The divergent reactions among the crowd also suggested that some substantial sections were orchestrated by particular parties for their own purposes. After certain party leaders finished speaking, certain segments of the crowd left - suggesting that the opposition coalition was hardly a coalition at all. "We want work!" one placard demanded, but few seemed interested in the broader political activity that will be necessary to achieve that.

The most notable of the party-specific supporters were those of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), who bolted en masse after the departure of their leader, Draskovic. Indeed, they had supposedly compelled Draskovic to appear, after drowning out Belgrade Mayor Spasoje Krunic, a senior SPO figure, with calls of "Vuk, Vuk, Vuk."

Hardly any such political gestures in the Balkans are spontaneous, and the whole affair seemed quite staged - Draskovic's way of showing that he is the only real opposition figure. Inter-party tensions were so high that when he unexpectedly appeared, SPO bodyguards scuffled with bodyguards for the umbrella Alliance for Changes.

At one point, Velimir Ilic, the well-known mayor of Cacak with the New Serbia party who had had to go into hiding during the war, could be seen moving to try to get Draskovic to cut his speech short, but a colleague from the Democratic Party urged him back, and Draskovic droned on.

And therein may lie the gravest cause for anxiety, both for Djindjic and anyone else interested in real political change in Serbia. Djindjic himself was indeed forceful and powerful on the platform. He was particularly critical of corruption around the regime, which he blamed in part for creating so many economic difficulties in the country.

But in a suit and tie, and formal language, he seemed truly from another Serbia. He called for a normal government, with normal policies and normal politicians, to rebuild the country and make Serbia normal again.

But Serbia has never really been normal, and it has certainly never had "normal" politicians or politics. Draskovic, heavily bearded in his casual attire and fiery, flowery rhetoric, knows that, and taps into it. Even if in part orchestrated, his charisma - his ability to speak to ordinary Serbs - is real.

Thus with this power, he continues to be able to flirt with both the opposition and the regime. His current manoeuvres, up to and at the rally, could hardly be better designed to split the opposition and confuse any broader opposition movement. They will also help to buy time for Milosevic to organise elections (if they are ever held) to his best advantage.

Indeed, Ivica Dacic, a spokesman for the ruling Socialist Party, said that the conditions for extraordinary elections would only be agreed among those parties already in the Serbian parliament - that is, including Draskovic's SPO and two parties representing Vojvodina's Hungarian community but excluding Djindjic's Democratic Party, the Civic Alliance, and all other parties participating in the demonstration.

Meantime, additional time also gives the regime more opportunities to pressure opposition leaders. Former Civic Alliance leader Vesna Pesic, for example, who returned from the United States, was effectively hounded out of Serbia by attacks on her in the state media and is now staying in Montenegro. As expected, Serbian TV showed only small portions of the rally, with film suggesting only tiny attendance, and opened its report with footage of the lone tear-gas canister thrown at the event.

In short, as ever, Milosevic seems one step ahead of a disorganised and unfocused opposition.

The rally was held on an Orthodox holiday to celebrate the ascension of Christ, and some placards stated: "Serbia: It's time to move up." In the heart of the crowd a group of four students believed that something dramatic could happen at the rally.

But when the Draskovic fiasco started, their hearts sank. "Serbia is here to stay," one said. "We do not deserve to overthrow Milosevic."

Another was even more disappointed. "We expected people would realise that Serbia is at the edge and we have to overthrow him," another said. "But now I realise I have to go abroad, because this is not our country anymore."

Srdjan Staletovic is an IWPR correspondent in Belgrade.

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