A Serbian opposition to Milosevic?

Vuk Draskovic's words of criticism kindled hope that he might speak for a Kosovo compromise, but his own nationalism could stand in the way.

By Andrej Krickovic

Published May 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovics outspoken comments and his subsequent dismissal from the Yugoslav government have rekindled hopes among NATO leaders that the unity among Serbs over the Kosovo issue is beginning to erode. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said that recent developments showed that "Beneath the permafrost, there are some green shoots of democratic recovery." There are also hopes that Draskovic could be the man to lead Serbia to a post-Milosevic era.

Many in the West remember Draskovic, whose first name translates as "Wolf," as one of the more colorful leaders behind of the massive street protests in Yugoslavia during the winter of 1996-97 which almost brought down the Misolevic regime. British international development minister Clare Short told the BBC last Thursday that "(Draskovic) is a big Serb nationalist, so that could be a hopeful sign that we get a force from within Serbia that wants a settlement."

Though Draskovic's comments may reflect the feelings of many Serbs, it is unlikely that they will prove to be a wake up call for Serbia's opposition. Many believe that Draskovic has no real intention of challenging the government at this time and that his actions are designed to distance himself from the Milosevic government and to jockey for position in a post-Milosevic Yugoslavia. Draskovic has proven himself to be a political opportunist who is willing to change allegiances. Since the protests of 1996-97 he has gone from being an opposition leader to a Milosevic ally and member of the government, back to the opposition.

Nearly three years ago, Zajedno (Together) -- a coalition of Serbia's strongest opposition parties including Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), Zoran Djindjic's Democratic Party (DS) and Vesna Pesic's Civic Alliance of Serbia (GSS) led massive street protests after Milosevic canceled the results of opposition victories in local elections. For 100 days protesters battled the bitter cold to demand an end to Milosevic's regime. Crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands gathered in Belgrade's main square daily to hear Draskovic's fiery daily speeches. Students barricaded their faculties in Belgrade and Novi Sad and fought with police. Daily life in Serbia ground to a standstill and many independent observers expected that Milosevic's regime would buckle under the pressure.

Protesters were vehement in their opposition to Milosevic's regime. They were fed up with the poverty and international isolation they found themselves in  which contrasted dramatically with the wealth of Milosevic's cronies and others close to the regime. Yet most did not challenge the nationalistic policies that were the pillars of Milosevic's political platform and the root of their country's isolation and economic ruin.

In fact, the protests had deep nationalistic undertones. In his speeches, Draskovic promised that "Serbian lands" in Croatia and Bosnia would soon be returned. Djindjic's DS was no less nationalistic, and Djindjic continued to maintain his close ties to hard-line Serbian politicians in Bosnia. Both parties had actively supported Serbian nationalist policies and Milosevic's wars in Bosnia and Croatia. The one member of Zajedno with democratic and anti-war credentials, Vesna Pesic, headed a small party with little popular support and was more of a junior partner in the coalition.

"Only a small fraction of Zajedno was really concerned with democracy and human rights," says Nenad Zakosek, a professor of politics at the University of Zagreb. "The dominating forces in Zajedno, led by Draskovic and Djindjic, had and continue to have a strong nationalistic ideology."

Zajedno also failed to offer a concrete alternative to Milosevic's Kosovo policies. The Kosovar Albanians led by Ibrahim Rugova had offered peaceful resistance to Milosevic's regime for some time and many felt that they could be a valuable ally and potential partner for Zajedno. But meetings with Rugova failed to produce any tangible results. There was no popular support for an agreement with the Albanians, and at times it appeared that Draskovic and Djindjic's stance on Kosovo was just as hard line as Milosevic's.

"This whole time Serbia never had a real opposition," says Srdjan Kusovac, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe's South Slavic Service and one of the original founders of Radio B92, an independent radio station which has since been banned by the Serbian government.

As pressure mounted, Milosevic was forced to give in to part of Zajedno's demands, and agreed to recognize opposition victories in local elections. On the surface it appeared as though Zajedno had won a significant victory. Yet in capitulating to their demands, Milosevic also removed the common purpose which kept Zajedno together and exposed the rifts within the coalition.

Signs of disunity became apparent soon after Zajedno took control of local governments throughout Serbia. Djindjic and Draskovic often bickered over the spoils and Djindjic began questioning whether or not he would support Draskovic's presidential bid. The end finally came when Djindjic and Pesic decided to boycott the Serbian Presidential and parliamentary elections because promised changes of more press freedom never materialized. Vuk pulled out of Zajedno, feeling that Pesic and Djindjic had abandoned their support for his Serbian presidential bid.

The elections were a fiasco for Draskovic. He placed a distant third to Milosevic's candidate Zoran Lilic and ultra nationalist Serbian Radical Party President Vojislav Seselj. Draskovic managed to garner only 9 percent of the vote, prompting one Vienna daily to call Draskovic the "professional loser of Serbian politics." Draskovic blamed Zajedno for his humiliation and unleashed his vengeance on his former colleagues. He cooperated with Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party SPS in the Belgrade City legislature in order to oust Djindjic and gain control of Belgrade for his party. In a blatant show of political pettiness an SPO spokesman publicly justified the move as payback for Djindjic's lack of support "sabotaged" his presidential bid.

These moves weakened the entire opposition. Draskovic's maneuvers cost him much of his credibility. Djindjic and Pesic's boycott of Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections shut them out of national politics. Milosevic took advantage of these weaknesses to steadily increase his own grip on power. In May of 1998 Milosevic's socialists formed a coalition Serbian government with the neo-communist United Yugoslav Left (led by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic) and Seselj's SRS. With Seselj playing the role of Milosevic's second banana, the new coalition "Government of National Unity" passed laws that severely clamped down on independent media, universities and other centers of the 1996-97 protests. Despite these moves, Draskovic formed a coalition with the Milosevic's SPS on the Federal Yugoslav level and was appointed to the largely ceremonial position of Deputy Prime Minister.

The opposition itself has allowed Milosevic to play this game of divide and conquer, and it is doubtful now that there is any internal opposition strong enough to challenge the Yugoslav president. The Serbian opposition was unable capitalize on the momentum of the 1996-97 protests, when anti-Milosevic feeling was at its height. The prospects that a similar protest can be while the country is under attack and draconian wartime legislation is in force are slim.

The Serbian opposition has opposed Milosevic on a whole range of issues from private property to freedom of the media, but they have never seriously challenged Milosevic on the issue that has mattered most over the last decade -- Serbia's policies towards Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Montenegro. "The Serbian opposition has condemned itself to impotence and complicity with the regime because they are unable to formulate an alternative political program: Except for a few marginal groups, the opposition shares Milosevic's nationalistic beliefs," says Zakosek.

There is no real organized opposition to Milosevic because there is no popular support for one in Serbia. Most Serbs support the nationalist policies which have done them and their neighbors so much harm. One would be hard pressed to find a Serb who believe that the Albanians have just as much a right as the Serbs to live in Kosovo or that admits Serbian nationalism is responsible for the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Instead most Serbs continue to insist that Kosovo is sacred Serbian land and that the Albanians and the international community are the ones committing aggression and engaging in ethnic cleansing.

Serbs must begin to confront the guilt for their actions in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. They have to stop seeing themselves as the victims of the Albanians or the international community, or even Milosevic. Serbs must look around at the destruction that surrounds them and realize that they are the victims of their own nationalist beliefs. Until they do so Serbia will continue to be without a true political opposition to Milosevic or an alternative to his regime.

Andrej Krickovic

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