Election May Boost Milosevic As Powerbroker in Balkans

Serb leader recasts image from nationalist to bearer of prosperity

On the airwaves all across Yugoslavia, young rappers intone "JUL is Cool." JUL - the Jugoslav Left Alliance - is the new party in the coalition headed by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his powerful wife, Mirjana Markovic. On JUL's omnipresent posters - and even its World Wide Web page - technicolor flowers splash a message of hope and peace.

Mr. Milosevic is counting on the power of flowers and music to transform his image from ardent nationalist to guarantor of peace and prosperity.

And although Milosevic is the Balkan leader thought most responsible for the region's recent war, his new image is bolstered by the United States having crowned him the major peacemaker in the region during the 1995 Dayton peace talks. This new image, along with his typically heavy-handed election tactics, is likely to ensure his long grip on power.

Still, the crucial issue on Sunday is not whether Milosevic's coalition actually wins this federal parliamentary vote - because by all accounts it will - but the size of its victory. Two-thirds is Milosevic's target number.

Although Milosevic is not up for election, his term as Serbia's president expires next year, and he is constitutionally barred from running again. But if his coalition can secure two-thirds of the vote, it could appoint him to the hitherto figurehead post of Yugoslavian president.

"The opposition can't win ..., but they can get enough votes to make his job more difficult," says journalist Dejan Anastasijevic, who writes for Vreme, an independent weekly magazine here.

Biased media

And Milosevic is doing all he can to hit that target. There is the blanket of campaign posters, TV ads, and government-biased news coverage on state-owned electronic media that overshadows the campaign of the poorly organized, underfunded coalition of opposition parties "Together."

Independent media in Yugoslavia - the only opportunity for the opposition's message to reach the public - fare poorly.

Radio B92, which gets funding from the New York-based Soros Foundation, has no permit and can be closed any time. The station's weak signal can't broadcast outside Belgrade.

Milosevic is tolerating the existence of the nongovernmental media, says Mr. Anastasijevic, and if it engages in any sort of politics, it will be pushed to the margin of public life by being hit with financial and tax burdens.

Little world focus

There is also a lack of international attention, as only a handful of international observers supplemented by a dozen US Embassy diplomats are to oversee the election in Yugoslavia on a last-minute invitation from the foreign minister.

Jack Zetkulic, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy, says the absence of a formidable international monitoring presence is because of a late invitation.

International monitors had only days to prepare for the elections instead of months, as they are used to. "Milosevic is obstructing international monitors, although he's not openly rejecting them," says Anastasijevic.

The opposition parties were almost absent from local election committees too, before they threatened to boycott elections last week. By Monday, negotiations with the ruling party resulted in allowing opposition representatives to participate.

US complicity?

Vuk Draskovic, leader of Serbian Renewal Party (SPO), a coalition member, even publicly accused the US and European Union countries last Friday of propping up Milosevic's regime.

His charges echo the sentiments among many in Belgrade who believe the West needs Milosevic to guarantee peace and stability in the Balkans.

"We all think Western countries support Milosevic and the socialist regime, and now we can freely say the Western world is on their side," says Slobodan Vuksanovic of the Democratic Party.

These accusations have been received with annoyance by the US Embassy, which has been attempting to put to rest a number of accusations by the opposition.

Among them is that pressure exerted by Western diplomatic circles on former coalition leader Dragoslav Avramovic influenced him to leave the coalition in mid-October - not poor health - as he had officially announced.

"The West is not ready to risk it [a change in leadership] because Milosevic has become the ... solution of the Balkans," says Milan St. Protic, analyst of Balkan affairs with the independent Center for Serbian Studies. "His role in the Balkans is becoming very important."

But not exclusive, maintain US diplomats in Belgrade. "This is the Balkans; you can't turn around without bumping into a conspiracy," says the US Embassy's Mr. Zetkulic, "The US isn't colluding with anybody. It would be comical if it weren't so sad.

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