Mon, 07 Feb 2000

Elections loom in Serbia, but not change

By Philippa Fletcher

BELGRADE (Reuters): Serbian opposition parties have been pressing for elections for almost a year, ever since Slobodan Milosevic led the country through three months of NATO air strikes.

Now a vote is on the cards and a fierce, though undeclared campaign is already under way. Yet far from ending Milosevic's decade in power, such a poll could strengthen his grip.

The government has kept the lights on in Serbia so far this winter and prices, though rising, have not spun out of control, despite the devastation wrought by the air strikes on an economy already wrecked by years of corruption and mismanagement.

"It is already clear that our land has survived the most difficult test which winter has brought in terms of supplying people with energy and fulfilling basic human needs," Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojslav Seselj crowed last week.

Seselj, whose ultra-nationalist Radical Party rules Serbia with Milosevic's Socialists and the neo-communist Yugoslav Left run by his wife, says local elections should be held soon.

The election posters delivered to his party headquarters just as he finished a news conference last week, were clearly meant to show he did not expect to wait long.

The opposition, which holds power only at local level, knows parliamentary and presidential elections are the only ones that stand a chance of speeding an end to Milosevic's rule, and then only if international standards of fair play are applied.

Some Socialist officials have been quoted as saying a poll could be held in April and others did not rule out general polls, although publicly they say those are not due this year.

Almost every night state television shows Milosevic being reelected -- by party stalwarts preparing for a congress later this month. Meanwhile, pressure on the opposition is growing.

Police stopped members of the opposition party run by the former chief of staff of the Yugoslav army from holding a rally in a provincial town last week and ordered them to leave.

The ex-army chief and members of his Movement for a Democratic Serbia (PDS) have been touring the country telling people the government was misleading them by saying the air strikes ended in victory in Kosovo rather than capitulation.

"The PDS expects repression of this kind to continue and warns democratic parties that it is in our joint interest to prevent the ruling parties from transforming Serbia into a reservation for the exclusive use of members of the ruling parties," it said in its letter to other opposition parties.

Opposition leaders, whose deep divisions have allowed Milosevic to rule almost unchallenged for almost 10 years -- first as president of Serbia, now as president of a shrunken Yugoslavia -- buried some of their differences last month.

But with months of failed street protests behind them, they are a long way from inspiring confidence in a people put off by their infighting and mesmerized by state media.

"Apathy" begins an advertisement on Belgrade's independent Radio B292, calling people to join a nightly protest march in the capital that now draws no more than a handful of people.

The radio, along with many other non-government media in the capital and elsewhere, has encountered mysterious problems with its signal since the opposition joined forces, pledging to follow a common election strategy.

In 1996-1997, a united opposition brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets and scored its only victory against Milosevic, forcing him to admit he had cheated in local polls.

The government has recently stepped up its attacks on the local strongholds the opposition won after Milosevic's climb down. Seselj alleges these towns, especially Belgrade, are full of corruption and the government should take them back.

Asked why the authorities had not ousted opposition leader Vuk Draskovic if they had evidence his rule of Belgrade was corrupt, Seselj said they had not wanted to push him too far.

"Earlier it was to keep Draskovic under better control, to prevent him from going out onto the streets and provoking bloodshed. I hope there will be no hesitation of this kind now it has been shown that Draskovic's teeth are blunt."

Milosevic may not share Seselj's conviction that Draskovic has lost his popular appeal, and although the economy is just about holding together with help from Russia and China, it is not clear how long that can last.

Seselj said a local poll should be held by Nov. 2 unless there is a state of emergency or a state of war. That leaves Milosevic with an escape hatch if he loses his nerve.

The pro-Western government of Montenegro, the only republic left in Yugoslavia with Serbia, has refused to hold federal elections, also due around November, in protest at Milosevic's isolationist policy and refusal to reform the federation.

If Montenegro sticks to its guns, a state of emergency would be a short step away, allowing Milosevic to put off all elections and rule on in his people's name.