THREE weeks ago Serb president Slobodan Milosevic deposed, in a classically authoritarian way, the president of Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cosic. The next day Vuk Draskovic, Mr. Milosevic's main opposition, was arrested and brutally beaten as he led a protest against the antidemocratic Serb government. Mr. Draskovic and his wife were put in jail for what could be 15 years; last week his injuries were serious enough to transfer Draskovic to a hospital.
During the brief Belgrade riots following Mr. Cosic's ouster, two policeman were killed and many participants hurt. Does this mean a settling of accounts - "Serbs against Serbs" - has begun? No. Recent events in Belgrade signify the steady elimination of all Milosevic's political opponents, save one. Moreover, this "political cleansing" campaign was conducted by the last contender for Serb president - the self-proclaimed fascist "Chetnik" leader Vojislav Seselj. I feel it is only a matter of time before Mr. Seselj himself is eliminated by Milosevic.
The character of these events must be known. Cosic supposedly threatened a coup. This is absurd. As the main author of "the memorandum," the intellectual argument for a "Greater Serbia," Cosic is the spiritual father of Serbian nationalism. In United Nations and EC negotiations, Cosic bought Milosevic much time to plunder Bosnia by proposing various peacemaking schemes. In the late 1980s, Cosic wrote the speeches Milosevic used in rallies preparing Serbia for war.
Unfortunately, Cosic wanted to become a politician with a policy of his own. This made him an unnecessary obstacle; like others in Milosevic's path he was mercilessly brought down. This was quite predictable. When the international community decided not to intervene in Bosnia, Milosevic no longer needed anyone to be a make-believe peacemaker. Washington's capitulation gave Milosevic a free hand not only to go on massacring in Bosnia, but it also gives him power to become the absolute, untouchable master of Serbia.
If the means of the federal president's elimination turn out to be a stronger fascist named Seselj, so much the better.
Does a Milosevic-Seselj power nexus mark the beginning, as some say, of a red-black alliance in Belgrade? Nowhere in the world, except Russia, do we find the communist-fascist connection now found in Serbia. Still, there is no real coalition. Seselj's radicals are useful to Milosevic for silencing the opposition, replacing the disobedient, for street fights, and for suppressing strikes. They are like Nazi brownshirts. It is clear the political leadership of Serbia participates in the distribution of loot
obtained by paramilitary plundering, racketeering, blackmail, and smuggling. Belgrade needs paramilitary leaders. Still, Milosevic carefully oversees Seselj's power and recently retired several Army generals close to Seselj.
Milosevic knows Seselj wants his job. But the Serbian dictator is not a fossilized old communist who will relinquish his throne. This is the heart of my argument: I do not believe events in the former Yugoslavia can be seen simply as "Balkan atavism." There is a much bigger game being played here. It is often forgotten that Milosevic was given his credentials in 1988 by Mikhail Gorbachev - at the same time the West was enchanted by "the Kremlin reformer." Milosevic enjoys the support of Boris Yeltsin's M oscow too - though not as strongly as in Mr. Gorbachev's days. But Milosevic is admired by many top Russians as one who has, with extreme efficiency, destroyed a unified Europe - and a Euro-American alliance. Such a man creates an open space for the never-say-die idea of Russian expansionism. The West threatens Milosevic only if he spreads his aggression to Kosovo. But Milosevic will not be caught in that trap. He does not make suicidal political moves.
Hence, the thought that a local fascist named Seselj, however ambitious he may be, could spoil such a big game is not serious. Seselj may be of use to Milosevic for many months. Serbia is pressed by economic sanctions, and it is only a matter of time when social discontent reaches a dangerous level.
In countries with scant democratic culture like Serbia today, discontent is controlled and channeled only by radicalism. So for reasons of self-preservation, Milosevic will in time move closer and closer to Seselj's extremist program - only to absorb him ideologically in the final move, and perhaps eliminate him physically. That will probably not happen before autumn. But nor will it happen later than next spring. Moreover, it will happen with no major rebellion or civil war. Milosevic's particular mixtu re of totalitarianism and demagoguery cannot be destroyed "from within."
Is there a reason to mourn for Cosic, as some Serbs do? No. The West is lost in various types of egotism and in useless micro-strategies. It doesn't matter whether on top of the Kremlin, from which the disintegration of the Western alliance is being observed, there is a red or black flag. The present one is only temporary. Milosevic knows this.