BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA — Vuk Draskovic is a self-proclaimed Serb nationalist who wants to bring back the king. Vojislav Seselj is a bull-necked radical who used to lead paramilitary missions against the Croats. Zoran Djindjic is well connected in Germany and is accused by his enemies of not being a loyal Serb.
What they all have in common - besides histories that read like soap operas - is a desire to rule Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.
But, analysts here say, their ineffectiveness as opposition leaders is one of the primary reasons Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has stayed in power for the past decade - despite his record of starting wars and losing territory.
Furthermore, their unclear and ailing political platforms have allowed Mr. Milosevic to dominate the issue of Kosovo, where a year-long war with ethnic Albanians has left some 2,000 dead.
As delegates of Milosevic try to talk peace at an internationally sponsored conference in Rambouillet, France, there is simply no significant power at home to provide a voice of reason.
"Nobody so far has offered a comprehensive alternative to Milosevic's program regarding Kosovo," says Ilija Djukic, who has ties to Mr. Djindjic's Democratic Party and was the Yugoslav ambassador to China under Josip Broz Tito. "Milosevic's plan is based on repression and a refusal to acknowledge the national existence of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.... That's the only choice we have for now."
Dimming the hopes of the opposition in recent months, Mr. Seselj and Mr. Draskovic have joined the governing coalition as vice premiers.
While Draskovic has been calling for resolution of the Kosovo problem through international mediation, Seselj has maintained that "terrorists" (as he labels the ethnic Albanians) should be taken care of forcefully within Serbia. While their methods may differ, both are unwilling to relinquish control of the province to the 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority.
In Serbian presidential elections last year, Seselj nearly defeated Milosevic's candidate, Milan Milutinovic, who appeared as a moderate in comparison. Now Seselj is Milosevic's designated attack dog, ready to fight NATO if necessary. "With all available means we will prevent NATO troops in Kosovo," he said last week about a possible peacekeeping plan.
For his part, Djindjic, having boycotted elections last year, has no representatives in Parliament and risks dropping from the political radar screen.
It was not always that way. In massive anti-Milosevic demonstrations two years ago, the opposition, led by Draskovic and Djindjic, formed the Zajedno (or "Together") coalition and seemed well positioned to take on the regime. But as Zajedno got closer to power, the coalition unraveled, with the two leaders fighting for top billing.
"After the disillusionment of our people following the demonstrations, the opposition never progressed," says Cedomir Antic, a former student leader in those demonstrations who until recently worked for Djindjic's party. "Now we have some alliances, but they are destined to fail. If Milosevic were to call elections, the alliance would break up in a simple fashion: Who would be the presidential candidate?"
The latest grouping of opposition leaders is called the Alliance for Change, which includes some 30 political parties but has yet to come up with a palatable platform and has yet to capture the hearts of the voters.
The Alliance for Change throws into the mix its front man, Milan Panic. A former Yugoslav premier and ally of Milosevic, Mr. Panic is now a successful businessman in the US who wants to open Yugoslavia to the West. People here are beginning to view him as the most hopeful opposition leader, but many say he has a long way to go, and his grass-roots support base is questionable.
Drawing the aforementioned political opposition together are their histories of about-faces and month-to-month makeovers - which prompt voters to lump them all together under the category of "can't be trusted."
One such leader, critics say, is Draskovic, who after Milosevic won elections in the early 1990s criticized Serbs for choosing "darkness, bondage, and Bolshevism." Now, after joining Milosevic's government, Draskovic says: "Slobodan Milosevic never was my personal enemy. I was against the consequences of his policy, and I'm now trying to change that policy. For nine years I tried to approach the majority [through elections] without results. I'm very disappointed with the election results, but the wish of the people is the voice of God."