Milosevic Reelected By His Defiant Party

By R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post, Sunday 26 November 2000; Page A20

BELGRADE, Nov. 25— Anger, nostalgia and defiance were apparent today at the closed congress of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party, as men and women who were once the nation's most powerful met to somberly discuss their future after the party's devastating loss in presidential and municipal elections.

After being besieged by the public, hounded from important jobs and sometimes forced from their publicly financed homes, the Socialist Party faithful found comfort in the familiar leadership of Milosevic, who created the party and has ridden its fortunes for nearly 11 years.

Emerging from relative isolation in his guarded Belgrade house, Milosevic cheered the delegates with a slashing speech about the country's new rulers and what he called its Western oppressors. He particularly emphasized the risks to Yugoslavia of what he referred to as unbridled terrorism and genocide against ethnic Serbs in the disputed province of Kosovo, the locus of renewed violence in recent days.

The speech was meant to chart the themes for the party's campaign to hold on to political power in the Yugoslav republic of Serbia, where critical parliamentary elections are slated for Dec. 23. Many analysts consider this ambition hopeless and say that Milosevic's reelection today as the party's president will doom it to collecting perhaps a fifth of the popular vote.

The United States was among those denouncing Milosevic's return to the political stage, saying he had negligible popular support and should be punished for war crimes.

“It is a desperate attempt by a former dictator to reassert himself,” a Clinton administration official said in Washington. “It [the Socialist Party of Serbia] is out of touch with what the Serbian people want and deserve. The Serbian people want to move forward, not backward.”

Milosevic's party has already splintered into three groups, with two led by the frustrated opponents of his continued rule. But here in the Sava convention center, a site of the party's past triumphant political celebrations, the outcome of today's vote came as no surprise, because Milosevic—ever the political Houdini—had left nothing to chance.

In meetings before the session, he had persuaded all the other candidates for party president to withdraw. As a result, a tally at the end of the day by officials he chose showed that he had the support of 86 percent of the delegates.

It wasn’t unanimous, as one former Socialist Party official said, but it was a fairly impressive performance for a reclusive leader who had just presided over a huge defeat and felt at ease among the party faithful only while strolling inside a phalanx of 10 beefy bodyguards.

“Milosevic is the essence of the party,” said delegate Bojan Paunjelovic, 20, whose father's job as head of the cultural center in Boljevac, southeast of Belgrade, is in jeopardy. “No one can rally the party like he can, and they need unity to protect themselves against the retaliation” by Yugoslavia's new ruling politicians, who now seek to strip party members of jobs, power and perquisites.

Meanwhile, across town, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who succeeded Milosevic after elections in September, sought to chart an alternative national future by signing an agreement providing the framework for roughly $2.5 billion in European Union aid over the next five years, which is contingent on Milosevic remaining out of power.

“The EU is our strategic partner,” Kostunica said, neatly trying to upstage Milosevic's return to public view and emphasize the benefits of his ouster.

As in communist parties around the world, the vote for continuity by today's congress followed a brief, tightly controlled, public ventilation of the frustration felt by the roughly 2,500 delegates, many newly disenfranchised by what speaker after speaker depicted as an ungrateful public.

Aspersions were cast by some of the delegates against those who surrounded Milosevic during the party's recent decline and who sat uneasily with him on the podium. Several men said the leadership had “become distant” from the party's members while others decried its economic corruption.

“The people in the [Socialist Party] . . . who were interested in exclusive business arrangements and exclusive business clubs . . . in the party now, said Jovan Radisaljevic, a delegate from Indjija, north of the capital. No progress will be made “until we get rid of those Socialists who are interested only in personal wealth and prosperity.”

But no speaker dared directly criticize Milosevic, and no public mention was made of his wife, Mirjana, who some privately said had led her husband and his party to ruin.

Instead, those who spoke critically mentioned only the Socialist Party's “election partner,” a euphemism for the Yugoslav United Left party run by Mirjana Markovic, which has perhaps the lowest approval rating of any political grouping here. It is, said one delegate, “a collection of thieves,” widely seen by the public as using its political power for private economic gain.

But Milosevic brooked little criticism, and his speech at the opening of the congress offered strong evidence that his isolation has done nothing to tame his intolerance for foreigners or political competitors.

“Everybody in this hall knows of the violence and lawlessness that has come after the coup of October 5th,” Milosevic said. He was referring to demonstrations by Kostunica supporters, who were insisting that he accept Kostunica's election victory and step down—demonstrations that Kostunica has described not as a coup but a flowering of democracy after years of totalitarian control.

“The war against this country is now being led by money,” Milosevic said, referring to a commodity in short supply here in recent years. He alleged that the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, the coalition of 18 parties that helped orchestrate Kostunica's victory, was the recipient of a “major bribe” and that all the media are now in the hands of “foreign secret services.”