Yugoslavia's dissident trial backfires on Communist hard-liners

The outcome of Yugoslavia's most important political trial since the death of Marshal Tito in 1980 is seen by most foreign and domestic observers as a major political and moral defeat for the hard-liners in the Communist leadership. Instead of an exemplary crackdown against dissent, the three-month-long Belgrade court proceedings, which ended Monday, were a reflection of the country's deepening political and economic crisis. Despite the relatively light sentences of one to two years, the trial has seriously harmed Yugoslavia's reputation as a country of relative political tolerance at a critical time, when efforts are being made to reschedule the country's $20 billion foreign debt.

The six Serbian intellectuals who were on trial had originally faced jail terms of five to 15 years on charges of organizing ``an illegal, hostile group'' and of conspiring to ``overthrow the socialist order.'' But witness after witness called by the public prosecutor testified in favor of the defendants. The indictment had to be revised, and the defendants, free on bail, behaved at the open trial as if it were the accusers who were on trial.

In the end, Miodrag Milic, a scriptwriter, received a two-year sentence, Milan Nikolic, a sociologist, 18 months, and radio technician Dragomir Olujic, one year for ``spreading propaganda hostile to the state.'' Separate trials have been ordered for two of the other defendants. All charges were dropped against one defendant, Pavlusko Imsirovic, a translator.

But the sentences only seem mild if one neglects to ask why the six were on trial in the first place. For more than seven years, the six belonged to a discussion group called Free University, which had been meeting in private apartments every fortnight to discuss economics and politics.

The crackdown began on April 20 last year when police broke up a meeting in a private apartment in Belgrade. Milovan Djilas, the country's most celebrated dissident, was at the meeting to lecture on Yugoslavia's sensitive nationality problem.

The 28 persons present were detained, but most of them were soon released. One died mysteriously shortly after his release. Another, Vojislav Seselj, a Sociologist and former lecturer in political science at Sarajevo University, was sentenced to eight years in jail in Sarajevo for ``counter-revolutionary activities.'' The case against him was based mainly on an unpublished paper that proposed changes in Yugoslavia's federal structure. Last November, his jail term was cut in half. Mr. Seselj is currently on hunger strike.

The purpose of the campaign against dissidents was to intimidate critics and to curb potential unrest at a time when real wages are some 40 percent below the level of 1980. Inflation this year could reach 80 percent compared to 1984, when it already was some 60 percent. The number of unemployed is almost 1 million, more than 15 percent of the labor force.

It is against this background that both the controversies about the Belgrade trial and the deepening split in the top leadership must be seen.

Senior officials, including former Prime Minister Mitja Ribicic and Alexander Grlickov, who is in charge of the party's international relations, voiced publicly their doubts about the wisdom of using the police and the courts when dealing with dissent.

The powerful federation of the Veterans of the Spanish Civil War also came out publicly against what it called ``violations of the Constitution.'' The crackdown on dissidents has brought protests from left-wing and social democratic groups in the West. Last but not least, the trial has produced solidarity instead of intimidation.

It would be wrong, however, to underestimate the dynamics of the internal power struggle in a multi-ethnic country where each of the six republics enjoys a high degree of autonomy. The hard-line leaders in the republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina seek to contain not only pressures for political change, but also to block economic reforms that could threaten their power positions within the decentralized system. In intellectual terms, the leaders of Serbia, the largest republic, and Slovenia, the most developed republic, tended to be more liberal than their tough comrades in Croatia and Bosnia.

The drawn-out struggle over the fate of the Serbian dissidents reflected the debate both within the Yugoslav leadership and in Serbia. The hard-liners, aided by Stane Dolanc, the former Minister of Interior and Slovene member of the powerful state presidency, may have suffered a setback. But they were strong enough to block an across-the-board acquittal at the Belgrade trials.

With continuing ferment among the 2 million ethnic Albanians, rumblings among the Muslims in Bosnia, and a renewed campaign of harassment against the Catholic Church in Croatia, the outlook is for more turbulence.

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