BELGRADE — AS the Serb capital sinks into traditional mid-summer lethargy, the communist regime of President Slobodan Milosevic is aggressively strengthening its grip on power in anticipation of new political challenges this fall.
President Milosevic's massive majority in the 250-member Serbian assembly rammed through a bill this week severely restricting demonstrations.
Lawmakers resumed an acrimonious debate yesterday on legislation that would block the privatization of the republic's largest newspaper chain and give the regime complete control over its management and editorial policies.
Other pending regime-sponsored legislation would award new powers to the police and consolidate state control of Belgrade University, a hotbed of anti-Milosevic sentiment.
The regime introduced the measures only weeks after communist lawmakers gave Milosevic sweeping powers to regulate every facet of the republic's economy in order to deal with the catastrophic effects of the United Nations sanctions imposed for its role in the war in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"Mr. Milosevic is trying to establish some special state of siege," said Milan Milosevic, a political writer for the highly respected Vreme magazine. "He is trying to minimize room for opposition action in the autumn," continued the journalist, who is no relation to the authoritarian Serbian leader.
Other analysts and Western diplomats said that, more significantly, the measures indicated that Milosevic is also girding for early elections that have been promised for November by Milan Panic, the Belgrade-born US businessman chosen as federal prime minister of the rump Yugoslavia of Serbia and Montenegro.
"They are putting the tools in place for the fall both to check renewed protests and to ensure that the mass media is in the hands of the Serbian government for a reelection campaign," said a Western diplomat.
The unprecedented economic disaster engulfing what was the largest republic of former Yugoslavia has been fueling growing demands for Milosevic's resignation.
The main opposition coalition backed the demands with eight days of protests that began June 28 in downtown Belgrade, while Belgrade University students and faculty staged a more than three-week strike and boisterous marches that paralyzed the city center.
The students and opposition leaders have vowed to resume their demonstrations this fall.
Apparently aware that the worsening economic crisis could bring new support for its opponents, the regime introduced the bills to restrict demonstrations and strengthen its control over Belgrade University, including the power to directly appoint administrators and faculty.
"It would give the regime a heavy stick if ... faculty [continue to] line up with students," the Western diplomat said.
Under the legislation, police would have the power to ban all demonstrations they saw as "advocating the violent overthrow of the legal order" or "promoting ethnic or religious hatred." Organizers would be prohibited from gathering outside the republic or federal parliaments, fined for loud music, and required to pay the costs of diverting traffic around protest sites and any property damage. "The law does not ban demonstrations outright. But it presents organizers with conditions which are virtually imp ossible to fulfill," said Zoran Horvan, a lawmaker of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement.
More controversial, however, is the measure that would give the regime total control over the Politika publishing house, which produces the republic's three main newspapers and a handful of magazines, and operates a radio and television station. Politika's assets, together with state-run television, have been the principle media vehicles by which the regime whipped up and maintained the Serbian nationalist fever on which it has sustained its power.
Politika employees yesterday announced a strike in favor of privatizing the publishing house.
Zivorad Minovic, editor in chief of the main newspaper, also named Politika, asserted that its editorial support for Milosevic and his regime would not change with privatization.
THE Politika company, particularly the newspaper, was always close to the regime. We are standing firmly for an ... independent, professional orientation. But never toward the opposition," he said.
But his assurances failed to assuage the regime's apparent fears that it could lose one of the most crucial weapons in its propaganda armory.
"This government, as long as I'm in this position, will not allow the workers' council [which controls Politika] to decide about matters that are in the interests of the state," said Serbian Prime Minister Radovan Bozovic.
So far, Milosevic has remained aloof from the public debate over the legislation.
Milosevic's silence has sparked intense speculation over whether the bill is actually part of a ruse designed to promote his re-election.
According to such speculation, Milosevic would announce that he was rejecting the measure, thereby forcing the resignation of his overzealous and "anti-democratic" prime minister.