Unsettling prelude to Yugoslav vote

As the Sept. 24 election nears, one of Slobodan Milosevic's best-known critics has vanished.

Hopes are dwindling in the Yugoslav capital that former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, Slobodan Milosevic's estranged mentor, will reappear after he vanished Friday while out on a morning jog.

Mr. Stambolic was once Serbia's most powerful politician and Mr. Milosevic's best friend, but in 1987 he was ousted from power in a Milosevic-staged political coup.

After a period of public withdrawal, Stambolic recently emerged as a fierce critic of the Milosevic family and regime, giving interviews to Serbian and Montenegrin media as Sept. 24 elections near.

Stambolic's disappearance appears to reflect a pattern of violence against those once close to the Milosevic family who have since broken ranks and spoken out against the regime. The cases include the April 1999 unsolved slaying of Slavko Curuvija, a dissident journalist who earlier had been close to the Milosevic camp.

Stambolic was most likely kidnapped, according to a security guard who saw him last. "A security guard at a restaurant saw Ivan resting in the parking lot. A white van stopped briefly in front of the restaurant and when it moved on, the guard couldn't see Ivan anymore," said Stambolic's lawyer, Nikola Barovic.

Police combed the woods near the restaurant, where Stambolic disappeared, but have made no statements on the progress of the investigation. Stambolic's wife, Kaca, said she did not believe her husband's kidnapping had a political motive, but some opposition leaders and Stambolic's lawyer are pointing the finger at the regime.

"Stambolic was president of Serbia, an important former political figure who disappeared in the middle of an election campaign, yet state-media and government officials haven't even mentioned his disappearance. The message is that this was a political act," said Barovic.

Serbia's largest opposition party, the Serbian Renewal Movement, demanded Stambolic's immediate release and referred to the kidnapping as a "terrorist act."

The party's president, Vuk Draskovic, has been the target of two assassination attempts in the past year and has accused the Belgrade regime of "state terrorism." Citing security concerns, Draskovic refuses to set foot in Serbia, and is residing in the pro-Western republic of Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation. His home is under constant guard by Montenegrin police.

Draskovic is not alone. Dissident journalist Alexandar Tijanic also stays away from Belgrade since being publicly rebuked by the president's wife.

Belgrade has been rocked by a series of high-profile killings in recent years, especially in the wake of NATO's bombing campaign last year. Company directors, a popular journalist, businessmen, and underworld figures like Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan" have all been victims. The crimes remain unsolved.

Stambolic is the first pubic figure to have simply vanished.

"This reminds me of Argentinean-style terror," says Nenad Stefanovic, an opposition strategist with the Democratic Party. A funeral can draw a large crowd, which in itself becomes a political event. When someone goes missing, there is an added element of fear."

Though Stambolic was not active in opposition politics, he did maintain contacts with some opposition leaders. His recent interviews were a reminder to the Yugoslav public of President Milosevic's personal and political failings. As Milosevic's mentor and former best friend, Stambolic spoke with singular authority about the man who betrayed him.

Stambolic called his political disciple a "master of consuming and reproducing chaos" and predicted that Milosevic "was approaching a violent end. At the end he must be destroyed; most people are against him, and they will get him ... He will never go in peace."

Opposition leaders agree nobody knows President Milosevic as well as Stambolic. "Stambolic knows Mr. Milosevic's soul," says Nebojsa Covic, a former member of Milosevic's party, now turned opposition leader.

Milosevic and Stambolic met in the early 60s while in law school. Milosevic, a young man from the provinces, latched on to Stambolic, whose prominent family name foreshadowed political success. Beginning in the late 60s, Milosevic followed his mentor through a series of prominent positions in state enterprises and the Communist Party. In 1986 Stambolic became president of Serbia and lobbied hard for Milosevic to fill his old job as president of the Central Committee.

In April 1987 Stambolic asked Milosevic to go to Kosovo to appease angry Serbs who were threatening to demonstrate in Belgrade over increasing tensions with ethnic Albanians. The casual request created the Milosevic cult. Milosevic was confronted with a violent demonstration in Kosovo Polje, where police were beating Serbs in front of a crowded town hall. Pale-faced and overwhelmed by the scene below, Milosevic uttered the line that turned him into a political star overnight: "No one should dare to beat you!"

The sound bite, endlessly repeated on television, ended Milosevic's reputation as Stambolic's sidekick. From that day on, Milosevic began to harness the forces of nationalism - a move his mentor opposed.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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