A Balkans Power-Broker Faces a Test of His Power

Milosevic survives upheaval he helped spawn. But yesterday's vote in Montenegro may hurt him.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The man who fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism and let them burn down Yugoslavia is celebrating 10 years in power this month. In the ashes that remain of "Greater Serbia," Slobodan Milosevic has retained his grip on power - and his position as a guarantor of the Dayton peace agreement.

But presidential elections yesterday in Montenegro, the tiny republic that, with Serbia, comprises rump Yugoslavia, could shake that hold if Westward-looking challenger Milo Djukanovic topples Mr. Milosevic's proxy, Momir Bulatovic.

Milosevic, who became president of rump Yugoslavia after his second term as Serbian president expired in July, saw his domestic stature seriously bruised in the opposition protests of last winter. Recent Serbian elections further eroded the power of his leftist coalition.

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Despite these domestic setbacks, Milosevic has remained indispensable for the Balkan peace process. Last month, Milosevic appeared to have resolved the bitter power struggle that threatened to split the Bosnian Serb republic.

In separate meetings with Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic and her arch-rival in the Bosnian presidency, Momcilio Krajisnik, Milosevic brokered an agreement that paves the way for parliamentary and presidential elections in the Bosnian Serb republic later this year. The two leaders were back in Belgrade Oct. 13 for in a meeting that confirmed parliamentary elections would be held later this year.

"Milosevic wants to present himself with the Krajisnik-Plavsic agreement as the only person who can create peace in Bosnia, but he's the man who started the war in Yugoslavia," says Ognjen Pribicevic, a researcher at the Belgrade Institute of Social Sciences and author of a recent book on Milosevic. He credits the Serbian leader's continuing success with political opportunism.

Milosevic began as a rising star in Yugoslavia's Communist Party apparatus but soon adopted nationalistic rhetoric in the late 1980s. Under his regime, Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia were encouraged to fight for the dream of a Greater Serbia. Only when United Nations sanctions against rump Yugoslavia began to bite and the Bosnian Serb leadership became disobedient did Milosevic take on the new role of peacemaker.

Milosevic's economic and military ties to the Bosnian Serb leadership of Radovan Karadzic made him a useful partner for the international community. Two years ago, Milosevic signed the Dayton agreement on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs.

While Milosevic has managed to retain power, it has come at a price to Yugoslavians. Battered by socialist mismanagement and a UN embargo, the economy is a shambles.

The democratic process in Yugoslavia - once the most liberal of Eastern European countries - has been damaged by Milosevic's use of state media as a propaganda machine and his successful marginalization of the opposition.

Dejan Anastasijevic, a staff writer for the independent Belgrade weekly Vreme, calls Milosevic "a brilliant tactician, but lousy strategist. He's the guy who wins all the battles and loses the war."

Although Milosevic has kept the support of workers, peasants, and government employees, many Serbs see their leader as a traitor to the cause of Greater Serbia.

Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the rabidly nationalistic Serbian Radical Party, made significant gains in recent elections. Once an ally of Milosevic, Mr. Seselj makes no secret of his desire to unite the Bosnian Serb republic with Serbia. His party won almost a third of the seats in the Serbian parliament. Seselj was the leading vote-getter in the election for president Oct. 5. The election was invalidated because fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. A new election must held within 60 days.

The Western-oriented opposition coalition Zajedno, which captured the world's attention in protest marches six months ago, is shattered. Infighting among leaders has only strengthened Milosevic's hand.

"With the opposition divided, Milosevic looks like the only stable person," Mr. Pribicevic says.

America has refused to grant full diplomatic recognition to rump Yugoslavia, but the Clinton administration has consistently found itself dealing with Milosevic as the representative of Bosnian Serbs.

"If Bosnia-Herzegovina functioned as planned by Dayton, Milosevic would be out of business," says Mr. Anastasijevic. "It's the ideal situation for Milosevic - the condition of perpetual crisis. That's how he's stayed in power." The visits of foreign diplomats are hardly friendly, but in the state media, Milosevic is shown as one among equals. Still, Anastasijevic says that Milosevic is walking a tightrope. While Milosevic claims that his influence on Bosnian Serbs is limited, he cannot leave the impression that he has no leverage at all, since then there would be no reason for the international community to seek his help.

Ms. Plavsic has been a critic of Milosevic. And Milosevic's relation to Krajisnik has cooled. Nevertheless, Belgrade continues to cooperate economically and militarily with the Bosnian Serb republic. Milosevic has to be careful not to let either side fall, especially Krajisnik's.

"A change of administration would probably lead to investigations of the misuse of funds and of various criminal activities, including war crimes," says Anastasijevic. "We all know where this thread leads: to Milosevic."

It is not the first time that the Serbian leader has won a gamble, but many observers see threats to Milosevic's power in the rise of Seselj's nationalists, Serbia's continuing economic decay, and the Bosnian Serb republic spinning out of Belgrade's control, not to mention Montenegro.

For the international community, however, an alternative to the state of confusion would not necessarily be more palatable.

So far Milosevic has only profited from crisis. And he knows it is his signature that made Dayton possible.

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