Serbia's Divided Opposition Is Boon to Communist Ruler

Ideological, strategic, and leadership feuds block calls for change

SPEECHES and ear-shattering music have been replaced by invective and criticism as Serbia's opposition debates the outcome of the largest and longest protest against communist President Slobodan Milosevic in his five-year rule.

"I feel I stood before people who won a great victory," said Vuk Draskovic, the charismatic leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, the vanguard of the Democratic Movement for Serbia, which sponsored the eight-day rally and nightly marches.

But critics of the coalition, known by the acronym DEPOS, stressed that the so-called "St. Vitus Day Meeting" ended Sunday without achieving any of its goals, because it failed to mobilize the "critical mass" of a half-million people its organizers boasted they would rally to force President Milosevic from office.

"There were no results in the sense of overthrowing Mr. Milosevic," said Ratomir Tonic, the president of the liberal Republican Club, a partner in the small but influential four-party Civic Alliance, many of whose leaders refused to join the rally.

The crowds of up to 150,000 people, the lack of any specific program of action, and the organizers' refusal to confront the thousands of riot police deployed near the rally site posed no threat to the regime, he and other opposition leaders said.

"You have to have something to scare the government with. They didn't," said Nenad Canak, the president of the League of Social Democrats, which maintains a strong base in the restive, nominally autonomous province of Vojvodina.

There are more than three-score opposition parties in Serbia, ranging in strength from Mr. Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement and the Democratic Party, through the Civic Alliance, to organizations whose memberships consist only of their leaders.

Most share demands for the resignation of the regime, an end to state control of the news media, the formation of a "government of national salvation," and elections for an assembly that would write a new constitution.

But that is where their unity ends and the feuding begins.The debate highlights the ideological, strategic, and leadership feuds that continue to divide Serbia's opposition groups long after their counterparts have replaced communist regimes elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

The disputes have been a boon to Milosevic as he struggles to contain the potentially explosive political and economic disasters wrought by his sponsorship of the Serbian uprisings in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Many opposition groups, including DEPOS, have yet to offer concrete programs capable of winning over Serbia's masses of peasants and workers, restricting their appeals only to criticism of Milosevic.

The parties call for an end to the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. But while privately saying Serbia should recognize the independence of the two former Yugoslav republics, they have not taken the risk of publicly advocating such steps.

Virtually all advocate Western-style economic reforms, but none have produced specifics on how to reverse the republic's plunge into total economic collapse.

And those parties that have detailed agendas lack any significant following among undereducated Serbs lulled into a political stupor by almost a half century of communism followed by Milosevic's Serbian nationalist revival.

Furthermore, the most prominent opposition leaders, including Draskovic, carry the stigma of being former Communists.

Most were also fervent supporters of Milosevic when he first took power by vowing to restore "Serbia's pride" and launching repressive crackdowns on the secession-minded ethnic Albanian majority in the province of Kosovo.

For those reasons, the mainstream parties have been deprived of the potent support of Belgrade University students and faculty, who have remained aloof from political affiliations in pursuing a more than three-week-old strike for the regime's ouster.

"We are opposed to the parties. I think we will be more successful because our past is clean and our future is clean," said Aleksandra Ilic, a 20-year-old law student.

Draskovic's party is by far the largest and best organized, and his crowd-drawing abilities and fiery rhetoric are essential to any successful anti-Milosevic movement.

But in joining DEPOS, Draskovic aligned himself with prominent old guard nationalists who helped bring Milosevic to power and are believed to have broken with him only because of his failure to carry the Serbian uprisings in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to successful conclusions.

In addition, Draskovic's strong advocacy of the restoration of the Serbian monarchy has alienated other potential partners in DEPOS, including half of the leadership of the Democratic Party, the only other opposition group of major strength.

Many opposition leaders outside DEPOS also fervently objected to the strong Serbian nationalism of the eight-day rally, including the presence of paramilitary groups in camouflage uniforms and militarist slogans, flags, and songs.

"People are sick and tired of nationalism and nationalist concepts. They want money, bread, and peace," said Mr. Canak, the president of the League of Social Democrats.

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