AT secret talks held Oct. 23-24, Serbia's mainstream opposition leaders tried to agree on a common set of conditions for participating in snap elections called for Dec. 19 by authoritarian President Slobodan Milosevic.
The only major demand, say several of those present, was to have access to the main independent TV station, whose signal is restricted to greater Belgrade, and to state-run television's second channel. That would have broken the republic-wide broadcasting monopoly Mr. Milosevic and his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) have used to foment the nationalist fervor that has kept him in power since political pluralism was introduced in 1990.
But the opposition's first attempt to organize for the upcoming polls collapsed, its leaders remaining deeply riven by policy squabbles, petty feuds, and personal ambitions.
Their failure to unite on securing the most-basic conditions for fair polls has all but doomed their more-ambitious idea of forming a coalition to confront Milosevic's party for 250 Serbian Assembly seats.
Without such unity and equal access to the air waves, it seems unlikely that the mainstream opposition can vanquish the SPS in Serbia's third multiparty legislative polls in as many years.
``The opposition is going to be split, and TV will be in Milosevic's hands,'' Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, the main opposition party, told the Monitor.
United Nations economic sanctions, intended to punish Milosevic for instigating the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, have instead helped boost the Socialists' ballot prospects, Mr. Draskovic says.
``The sanctions firstly affected ordinary people and the democratic opposition,'' he explains. ``We have no money, we have no cars, we have no petrol. We have no possibility to travel around Serbia to have election rallies to explain our programs.''
``The only way to campaign is TV. But the door to TV is closed to us,'' says Draskovic, who has yet to decide if his party will contest the polls. ``Under such conditions, we have no chance.''
Nor do ultra-right leader Vojislav Seselj and his Serbian Radical Party, several analysts say. The SRP precipitated the early polls by calling for an assembly no-confidence vote in the minority SPS regime of Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic.
Unwilling to see his prime minister humiliated despite failure to stem Serbia's economic calamity, Milosevic dissolved the assembly Oct. 20 and called elections. Mr. Seselj in turn called a no-confidence vote in the federal Parliament against the SPS regime of the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro, which has ruled only with the radicals' backing.
How that situation will play out is unclear, as the federal Constitution prohibits dissolution of the Yugoslav Parliament after a no-confidence motion has been proposed.
Seselj, whose paramilitary units are suspected of atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia, won second place in marred federal and republic legislative polls last December only through intense promotion by state-controlled television.
Denied such exposure this time and unable to respond to a state-run slur campaign that dubs him a ``fascist'' and ``war criminal,'' Seselj is not expected to garner anywhere close to the more than 30 percent of the vote the radicals won last year.
``The deck is stacked in Milosevic's favor for the SPS to come out in a stronger position than it had,'' a Western diplomat says. ``The key question is cutting Seselj down to size. That is what this election is all about.''
Milosevic has been unable to rule with a free hand because of the SPS's reliance on the radicals' legislative support. His main goal now is ending the UN economic sanctions. That may require compromises in coming months that ``sell out'' on Serbia's original goal of annexing the self-declared Bosnian and Croatian Serb states whose conquests Milosevic sponsored.
Seselj is the leading opponent of compromise. As such, he is a potential lightening rod for an alliance between nationalists in Serbia and Bosnian and Croat Serb leaders bent on uniting in a ``Greater Serbia,'' something Milosevic now recognizes is unacceptable because of international opposition.
The lack of a Yugoslav crisis settlement could enhance the kind of economic and social instability in which Seselj's brand of xenophobic extremism can flourish. Hence Milosevic's need to marginalize Seselj and reassert his absolute control over Serbia's political processes and agenda.
That effort began as soon as Seselj turned against Prime Minister Sainovic.
In addition to the virulent anti-Seselj media campaign and denying his former ally access to state TV, Milosevic has used radio, television, and newspapers to portray the SPS as the only party capable of guiding Serbia to peace. In other tactics, a new ultra-nationalist party is being created with the help of state-run television to attract the far-right voters who had once supported Seselj.
The Party of Serbian Unity is led by Zeljko Raznatovic, an independent Serbian Assembly member. Popularly known as ``Arkan,'' he is the leader of a notorious paramilitary force, a suspected war criminal, and a reputed underworld kingpin.
Milosevic has also employed the media to convince people that shortages of bread, meat, milk, and fuel are not the fault of his policies, but of sanctions imposed as part of a Western plot to destroy the Serbs. By holding the polls before winter's worse conditions, Milosevic will have enough resources to fill store shelves to catch votes before the state's last reserves run out.\