The new Serbian police state

As Serbia's opposition unites to demand early elections, Milosevic reveals signs of desperation.

Published October 18, 1999 10:30AM (EDT)

President Slobodan Milosevic's ruling coalition appears to be refining a strategy of intimidation against pro-democracy leaders working to oust him. In response to a unifying opposition, state security agents are hauling in student activists and opposition supporters for "informative talks." Students and other Milosevic opponents are being arrested and held for a day or two, and are being beaten at demonstrations both by police and by young men with sticks who wear leather jackets and sport short, neo-Nazi-style haircuts.

At the same time, the regime is distancing itself from its instruments of repression. A week after uniformed Serbian riot police savagely beat demonstrators marching from downtown Belgrade across a bridge to New Belgrade, it is now in some cases employing young toughs from local football, boxing and karate clubs to beat up anti-government demonstrators. Analysts say the reemergence of freelance toughs in the pay of the police -- a feature of the demonstrations in 1996 and 1997 -- is one more sign that the government is more frightened of the political opposition than ever.

"We can expect more repression in the coming days, because the opposition agreed to press for early elections yesterday," said Ljubica Markovic, editor in chief of the independent Beta news agency in an interview Friday. "The opposition parties together have more public support than Milosevic's ruling-party coalition. I can't say exactly what kind of repression will appear, but I imagine that Milosevic will work on dividing the opposition, perhaps by revealing financial scandals and corruption involving [opposition leader] Vuk Draskovic."

Draskovic, who lost his wife's brother and three other close associates in a highly suspicious car crash two weeks ago, heads the Serbian Renewal Party, known by the Serbian acronym SPO. Local analysts say Draskovic is a particular threat to the Milosevic regime because he served as vice prime minister in the government early this year, and has gained crucial knowledge about how state power functions here. Secondly, Draskovic's SPO is shown by several recent polls to have the most widespread public support of any political party.

On Thursday, Draskovic joined with other opposition parties, including the more liberal coalition "Alliance for Change" headed by Zoran Djindjic, to demand a roundtable with the government to negotiate when and how early elections would be held. Draskovic has made other signs this week that when he and his wife finish their period of mourning for her dead brother, Veselin Boskovic, he will call their supporters onto the streets to demand early elections.

Students in the SPO say they are "waiting for Dana," the nickname given to Vuk's wife, Danica Draskovic. A tall, dark-haired Montenegrin, Danica is considered the more aggressive of the passionate, slightly irrational, charismatic husband-and-wife team, who have played a high-profile and sometimes controversial role in Serbian politics for the past 10 years.

Danica comes from a Montenegrin family of six sisters and one brother. Analysts here say that in Montenegrin tradition, the brother is particularly revered, and a sister will die to save him. Danica is said to be so full of rage against the Milosevic government, which she considers responsible for the car crash that killed her brother, that she will seek to avenge his murder.

As SPO supporters wait for signals from the party leadership to join the street protests, Serbia's political landscape is showing other signs of rapid change.

"We are seeing a period of great cohesion among the opposition, one we have never seen before," said editor Ljubica Markovic. "Now for the first time, people in small Serbian towns that always used to support Milosevic are protesting against him. It is no longer impossible for people to imagine an alternative to Milosevic.

"As Djindjic said today," Markovic continued, "the opposition has succeeded in two important ways: People have less fear, and they have seen that change is possible."

The Milosevic government's increasingly crude police-state tactics -- Wednesday night's beatings in front of Belgrade's old Communist Party headquarters, the almost daily arrests of student protest leaders and the closure of opposition-literature publishers -- reveal a new desperation.

A crucial pivot over the past week seems to have put time on the opposition's side. Its move toward elections reveals its growing confidence that it can afford to seek power through legitimate means. Once eager to overthrow Milosevic through a street revolution, his opponents now seem ready to settle down for the long haul and topple Milosevic and his whole ruling coalition through the ballot box.

At the same time, the Milosevic regime is gradually shedding the illusion of legitimacy, an illusion it has until recently taken pains to project. It is more willing to use brute force, occasional assassination attempts and thugs in the pay of police to intimidate its increasingly sophisticated opposition. There's a nearly comical tone of hysteria in the descriptions of opposition leaders that state-controlled Radio Television Serbia broadcasts on its nightly news program, "Journal."

"I myself have to sometimes get a Serbian dictionary to find out what RTS is saying about Djindjic," laughed one pro-democracy activist who asked not to be identified. "I have never heard some of those adjectives."

But not all the opposition is laughing. The regime, feeling increasingly threatened, is becoming more dangerous. As it lashes out, the police state structure of the Milosevic government, understood by few, is under greater scrutiny.

The Milosevic government is controlled by a coalition of his Socialist Party of Serbia, his wife's Yugoslav United Left (JUL) and extreme nationalist Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party (SRS). The stakes are high not just for Milosevic, but for a whole class of leaders of all three parties, high enough for them to use violence. While JUL has little popular support, Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, has used the party as a vehicle to reward friends of the ruling couple with control over Serbia's key industries and assets, such as the telephone, energy and other companies.

Now many of those friends are on a list of more than 300 people banned from travel to Europe. Many have quietly had their foreign bank accounts and businesses frozen.

Not only Milosevic, but an entire class of people affiliated with the ruling coalition of SPS, JUL and SRS stands to lose everything should the opposition come to power.

"JUL is this huge, underground, un-transparent organization," Markovic explained. "It is completely linked to the state security, which is trying to defend the interests of the regime. These are not just simple policemen. They are taking orders from somewhere else."

One of the men considered most dangerous is Rade Markovic, who is believed to be the head of a kind of Serbian secret police branch known as the Resor Derzhavnost Bezbednosti (RDB), or "State Security," the mostly plainclothes police division considered responsible for recent violence against opposition members. Markovic was also once a personal bodyguard of Milosevic's son, Marko Milosevic.

"The RDB is not so huge -- only a couple thousand police agents," explained one Serbian analyst Friday. "But it is very powerful. Markovic used to be the head of the Belgrade police, and he personally beat Danica Draskovic at a demonstration a couple years ago. She has promised to seek revenge for that."

Markovic, although not considered to be a member of any party, is close to Mira Markovic's JUL party, and the darker, more violent side of the ruling coalition.

The thugs who beat demonstrators and seriously injured five in Belgrade Wednesday night are believed to have been hired by Markovic's state security unit.

"They were certainly hired by the police," said Bratislav Grubacic, veteran Serbian journalist and editor of VIP News. "We can expect more gangster boys to be used by the police; the police will put a layer of these thugs in front of them at the demonstrations, to try to make confusion."

Grubacic said the particular thugs responsible for attacking demonstrators Wednesday are believed to have been recruited from a boxing club in the Belgrade suburb of Zemun, which is controlled by Milosevic's ultra-nationalist partner in the ruling coalition, Vojislav Seselj.

A former paramilitary leader in Bosnia, Seselj is considered to be the other really dangerous wild card in the regime's defense against the growing strength of the opposition.

"Seselj is losing popularity," Grubacic said. "But he is getting more inside the power structure, taking control. Certain particularly dangerous elements of the police are loyal to Seselj."

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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