Vuk Draskovic waits for his close-up

The Serbian opposition leader explains how and why he'll topple Milosevic.

Published November 22, 1999 9:00AM (EST)

Serbian opposition leader politician Vuk Draskovic looked uncomfortable as he entered the grand lobby of his Istanbul hotel. Returning from an afternoon spent touring mosques in Istanbul, the head of the Serbian Renewal Party, dressed in a dark three piece suit, his dark beard neatly trimmed, stared out the hotel's massive atrium windows at a magnificent view of the Bosporous, as if uncertain where to go or what to do next, or as if at any moment security police might pounce on them.

Draskovic was in Turkey last week for the OSCE summit, as an honorary member of the Czech delegation along with fellow Serbian opposition politicians Zoran Djindjic, Zarko Korac and Montenegro's pro-Western president Milo Djukanovic. He seemed out of sorts in Istanbul. He has a few reasons.

For one, it was his first trip to the former capital of the Ottoman empire, which subjected the Serbs to some 500 years of domination. For Draskovic, being in Turkey is like visiting the evil empire, which, though now defeated, still resonates with historical menace.

Draskovic is also uncomfortable because no one recognizes him here. Clearly accustomed to being treated as a political celebrity, Draskovic isn't used to life as an ordinary mortal, and to being upstaged by the other OSCE delegates, including President Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin, as well as the crisis in Chechnya.

Finally, Draskovic is sick to death of spending time with his slickest political rival, Zoran Djindjic, leader of a pro-Western coalition of opposition political parties, the Alliance for Change. The two men, dragged from meeting to meeting together with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, openly despise each other. They said nasty things about each other at their joint press conference, with Czech president Vaclav Havel looking on benignly.

Draskovic didn't seem to get his bearings until two reporters recognized him and pulled him to a table for an interview. Once seated with a cigarette in his hand and an espresso in front of him, Draskovic seemed relieved, and settled in to sell his political strategy for ousting Milosevic which he presented to Western leaders at the summit.

"I demanded two things," Draskovic said. "First, the very urgent unconditional lifting of oil and air sanctions. And secondly, I said that Europe and America should make a public statement, that at the moment of an approaching settlement about democratic elections monitored by the OSCE, at that moment, all sanctions should be lifted, and Serbian police and soldiers -- a few hundred -- would return to Kosovo. I am quite sure in the case of extraordinary democratic elections we will win."

The offer "has to shock the people of Serbia," Draskovic continued. "If the regime rejects the West's offer to lift sanctions if elections are held, millions of people in Serbia will go on the streets, to protest such leaders who are not ready to accept."

Draskovic is frustrated that Western leaders continue to pressure him to join forces with Djindjic, whose Alliance for Change has been holding lightly attended anti-government demonstrations for the past three months in Serbia. Draskovic led massive anti-government street protests together with Djindjic back in 1996-1997, but they broke down when the two achieved local government control in some towns and then started quarreling. He doesn't sense that the much weaker protests currently taking place have any chance to succeed in ousting Milosevic.

But Draskovic has another complaint with the Western diplomats urging him to cooperate with Djindjic: Djindjic needs him more than he needs Djindjic, and Djindjic is a man Draskovic has no intention to help. Draskovic believes, with some polling evidence to back him up, that he is the most popular politician in Serbia, and that should elections be held, he would win. While Djindjic, a German educated philosopher with a polished, clean shaven image, is the favored candidate of the U.S. and Europe, he is not that widely popular with people outside of liberal intellectual circles in Serbia's big cities.

Draskovic on the other hand, with strong nationalist credentials, has a much more passionate following among Serbs, the majority of whom live in the countryside. Draskovic also controls the capital's only independent television station, Studio B.

"I know the winning plan," Draskovic said, explaining that if the West were to pressure Milosevic into holding elections, his party would bring in 1 million votes, Djindjic's Alliance for Chance would probably bring in only 300,000 votes; the coalition of pro-European, leftist democratic parties such as former Gen. Vuk Obradovic's Social Democratic Party would bring in about 400,000 votes. And a coalition of parties of national minorities such as those in Serbia's ethnically mixed northern province Vojvodina, would likely pull 200,000 votes.

"After that we will create a post-election coalition, a government even for just three months, that will send Milosevic and the Socialist Party away, change the laws, re-establish links with Europe and the West, and to involve Serbia in the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe," Draskovic said

When he explained the numbers to Albright at a meeting during the OSCE summit, Draskovic said he was able to make her understand why it was useless to force him to call for street protests now with Djindjic.

"I don't want to spend the energy of the people, to go on the streets and call for the resignation of Milosevic by using whistles and their running shoes. This is not 1996," he said.

Djindjic's Alliance for Change, Draskovic scoffs, "produced a blah-blah-blah strategy. They said, in June, in 10, 15 days, Milosevic will resign. They have wasted the energy of the people and the regime is stronger than before. It is shameful they are holding demonstrations" and so few people are showing up, he complained.

"What can we do now? I think we need to stop these shameful demonstrations. Give the people time to recharge their batteries, to settle on a new strategy. To decide on a goal, a rallying call, a slogan to get them on the streets."

Musing on a rallying cry, Draskovic says, "if we have a public statement from the West that all sanctions will be lifted, and if I can show that the situation for Serbs in Kosovo is getting better, and Serbs return there, I will have the cake in my hands. In that case, I will win."

Western governments have provided Draskovic with information on who ordered what he believes was an assassination attempt against him two months ago, when his convoy was hit by a truck, killing four close associates. "Until now the Milosevic investigation didn't find two simple things: who was the driver of that truck, and who was the owner of the truck," he says. Draskovic believes leaders of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party and Milosevic's wife's party, the Yugoslav United Left, ordered the assassination.

On Monday, the Serbian daily "Blic" quoted Draskovic's party associate Borivoje Borovic, as saying the Serbian Renewal Party had proof that the sand-laden truck that his Draskovic's convoy belongs to Serbia's SDB (state security), based on registration information and various interviews. Borovic accuses the official in charge of the investigation, police general Dragan Ilic (whose wife is also in charge of the office controlling vehicle registration information), of a cover-up.

Draskovic warns the information he has obtained on who specifically ordered the attack is so sensitive, that if not broken carefully to his supporters, "it could trigger the beginning of a civil war. I must avoid that. I must prepare my supporters, and explain that it is not the voters for the Socialist Party who targeted me, but three or four men in the regime. These people are a great danger for Serbia."

By Laura Rozen

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

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