Milosevic Holds Grip On Shaky Yugoslavia

By R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post, Sunday 30 July 2000; A01

ROME—Roughly half the work force in Yugoslavia is unemployed and high inflation is eating away at citizens' already barren lifestyle. Economic sanctions continue to pinch recovery from war. Hundreds of political activists are in jail, sometimes enduring beatings, and assassinations are common.

Yet the man who presides over all of this, President Slobodan Milosevic, regarded by the United States and its allies as the greatest single threat to peace in Eastern Europe, is almost certain to secure another four-year term in elections he has called for Sept. 24, senior U.S. and European officials predict.

Through intimidation, political manipulation and lofty nationalist rhetoric, he is settling in as the Saddam Hussein of Europe, a man who lost a war but holds onto power indefinitely.

Milosevic has effectively run Yugoslavia since 1989. Today there is no credible alternative to him, laments a U.S. government analyst, who asked not to be identified. No opposition figure with the moral stature and political skill of Lech Walesa of Poland has surfaced. Most opposition leaders here have congenitally bad judgment that leads them to make self-serving decisions, the analyst said.

A Milosevic election victory, said Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the Belgrade newsletter VIP Daily News Report, would crush the hopes of the West that peaceful change can happen in Yugoslavia.

With a new term in hand, some U.S. officials fear, Milosevic may feel emboldened to incite new resistance to the Western-led peacekeeping operation in Bosnia and Kosovo. They also say they worry he will grind down the pro-Western leaders of Montenegro, a republic that is ostensibly part of Yugoslavia, or provoke an incident there that could justify a military takeover.

He would be moving at a time when there is little appetite in Western capitals for another military confrontion with Milosevic.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, command center for the 11-week bombing campaign that forced Milosevic's troops out of Kosovo last year, the mood is one of weary resignation, said a diplomat there Friday. The basic view is that he has rigged the system to get himself reelected. . . . Milosevic leaves us in a position where there is not that much we can do about Milosevic.

A U.S. official who works on Balkans issues agreed. It is difficult to see any basis for Milosevic's departure in the next few years, he complained, expressing a common viewpoint in Washington.

Fearful of assassination—a NATO airstrike demolished one of his houses—the 58-year-old president rarely appears in public, and only then to deliver brief speeches to supporters about the evils of fascism. Indicted for war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo, he is still shunned by virtually all foreign leaders, although he has hosted senior emissaries this year from a handful of other isolated states, such as Iraq and Burma, as well as the speaker of the Chinese parliament.

Our president . . . is the symbol of that struggle for the defense of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence, said Ivica Dacic, a top ruling party official, in a recent interview on state-run television. Thanks to Milosevic, he added, Yugoslavia managed to preserve our right to decide about our fate ourselves.

That kind of talk plays well with segments of the Yugoslav population, to whom he is a hero who stands up to Western intimidation. But recent polls in Yugoslavia have indicated that more than two-thirds of the electorate favors Milosevic's ouster.

The problem is that his opposition is deeply divided, and polls also indicate that each of his potential political opponents is even less popular than he is. Widespread apathy and cynicism is also likely to undermine the voting turnout.

Vuk Draskovic, who heads the Serbian Renewal Movement, the nation's largest opposition party, told Belgrade's radio B2-92 after surviving an assassination attempt in mid-June that he had no interest in the elections. Let them have everything, let them choke on it, let them choke on their own power, said the rattled politician. On Tuesday his party's spokesman reiterated that it would neither participate in the elections nor support any candidate.

The anti-Milosevic coalition that governs Montenegro has also repeatedly said its supporters will not vote.

This is a dark forest, and we are up the creek again, said Nenad Canak, an opposition political leader in Serbia's Vojvodina region, in an interview Thursday with the independent Beta news agency in Yugoslavia. If we participate in the elections, we must accept that Milosevic will cheat, and if we don't, we hand everything to him on a plate.

On Friday, Milosevic formally announced his candidacy. He would not be running at all were it not for constitutional changes that he pushed through the Yugoslav parliament. Those changes removed a bar on him seeking a new term. They also set up a system of direct election of the president, which Milosevic's supporters claim can only increase democracy.

Previously, the parliament elected the president, and its Montenegrin members were in turn selected by the republic's governing coalition.

The changes permanently diluted the governing coalition's influence in the national parliament, causing Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic to press for statements by German, Italian and other Western leaders that they will not respect the election results. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has concurred, arguing that the constitutional amendments were like ones the Nazis used to silence dissent in the mid-1930s.

Under the new rules, which were ratified by the parliament on Monday, Milosevic can win by gaining a simple majority of votes cast, no matter how low the turnout. U.S. officials also said they expect Milosevic, whose appointees will have complete control of the procedures for both presidential and municipal elections to be held the same day, to stuff the ballot boxes if needed.

A Milosevic victory would reflect a spectacular dissipation of popular anger since May 18, when 20,000 people gathered in front of the Belgrade city hall to protest the government's seizure of an opposition-controlled television station. Longstanding divisions between opposition leaders surfaced even then, as they failed to agree on a joint call to action.

Milosevic adds to the disarray through repression. A popular student movement called Otpor, or resistance, has been debilitated by a concerted government crackdown. The U.S.-based independent agency Human Rights Watch said that in May and June 500 Otpor activists had been detained and interrogated, and that beatings were administered with impunity by plainclothes thugs believed to be working for the Serbian government.

In preparation for the election, Milosevic has taken pains to rein in the country's few remaining independent media outlets. Essential equipment has been stolen from radio and television stations in the cities of Nis and Pancevo; a Radio Free Europe correspondent was reportedly assaulted by police in front of his wife and children last month; and the publication of three Belgrade daily newspapers has been undermined by a mysterious, lingering shortage of newsprint.

In the past week, Information Minister Goran Matic has also charged a Belgrade weekly, a magazine, a newspaper and a respected journalist, Liljana Smajlovic, with taking orders from the CIA, a claim that Smajlovic said has put her life in danger.

Milosevic has tried to build support inside and outside the country. He was recently proclaimed a national hero by the hand-picked general staff of the Yugoslav army; he called on Montenegrin citizens to continue to fight against fascism and for a joint life with Serbia; and he recently ousted nearly two dozen judges who refused to follow the government's orders.

The only thing that matters to Milosevic and his wife are the two of them, and their children, and their power, a U.S. analyst said. No one else matters or exists.

U.S. officials discount the likelihood that he would seek or accept a deal to step aside in exchange for a United Nations vote to expunge his 1999 indictment by the international war crimes tribunal for atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo. Likewise, a military coup is considered unlikely, given the army's continuing loyalty.

In U.S. officials' view, any transition that does come is likely to be violent, resulting perhaps from public unrest stirred by a brutal crackdown by police, or by exceptional inflation and food shortages. The moment would be messy . . . a quick and bloody transition of power . . . followed by several days of chaos, looting and burning before his successors attempt to reach out to Western powers, the analyst said.

For now, Western governments are sticking with their existing tools of pressure: diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions and offers of substantial aid if Milosevic is ever replaced. Continuation of the economic sanctions has become increasingly difficult to sell in the West, however—France, Ireland, Sweden and Finland recently have said publicly that the sanctions should be loosened, on the ground that that would promote political change.

In the meantime, some Western officials say they are particularly worried that the 10,000 to 12,000 Yugoslav army troops stationed in Montenegro could depose the government there on the slightest provocation. The U.S. analyst said about 15,000 Montenegrin Interior Ministry troops have neither the equipment nor the training for an effective resistance. They are, he said, like temporary deputy sheriffs.

President Djukanovic of Montenegro said in a recent interview that if a conflict breaks out, I am sure that the international community would not sit idly by. But U.S. officials said that NATO has not authorized planning for potential alliance intervention in an armed conflict there, partly because of general alarm about the state of chaos that still prevails in Kosovo one year later.

Some U.S. defense officials favor a more activist approach, arguing that a conflict or coup in Montenegro would threaten the peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. But France in particular is said by alliance officials to have argued against authorizing such planning, fearing it might embolden Djukanovic to move toward independence and provoke Milosevic.

U.S. officials respond that this risk can be managed. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said two weeks ago that Washington does not support an independent Montenegro. We support a democratic Montenegro within a democratic Yugoslavia, Boucher said. But he did not mention that few U.S. or European officials anticipate democracy will exist in Yugoslavia any time soon.