Can an American Bring Free Speech to Serbia?
AZANJA, SERBIA — Why would an American citizen leave a cushy professorship at the City College of New York and a comfortable life on New York City's Upper East Side for the political wilds of the Balkans?
A woman named Radmila Milentijevic is doing it because Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's powerful president, asked her to. He just appointed her minister of information for his embattled regime.
Mr. Milosevic understands that he lost the national and international propaganda battle with opposition protesters during their 12 weeks of street demonstrations against his regime, Western diplomats say. And it may be that this savvy New Yorker, a fluent English speaker who has lived in the United States for more than 40 years, can better present the government's case, both at home and abroad.
Ms. Milentijevic has spouted the Serbian line before, appearing often in the American media. And recently she has been saying the things Western governments want to hear. "We will guarantee the freedom of the press," Milentijevic says. "We are going to find the most liberal legislation in the West European countries and ... adapt it to our conditions."
But skepticism abounds.
"Milosevic is the one who appointed Milentijevic," says Belgrade commentator Dejan Anastasijevic. "And if he wanted a free media ... then he wouldn't have put up a well-known hard-liner and propagandist who never did any real journalism in her life to become information minister."
"What she says is actually an exercise in propaganda in itself," says Zarco Korac, an opposition member of parliament. "We don't think she is going to do anything. She is just going to gain time for Milosevic while the Western democracies wait for the results of what they're promising."
Sunday street demonstrations to focus on media
To push the government to allow more media freedom, opposition groups have called for more mass demonstrations this Sunday, March 9 - the date six years ago that the first antigovernment protests were crushed by Milosevic.
Their most urgent demand is reform of RTS, the state-run TV station. In a country where perhaps 10 percent of people are illiterate, control of the only national radio and TV broadcasts confers a huge advantage on the governing party.
The opposition also fears that Milentijevic's new media laws will be used to bring in repressive measures: tough penalties for "defaming" the government and a ban on foreign funding of independent radio and TV stations.
But Milentijevic says that she, too, is concerned about propaganda. "You don't have to go to the opposition for ... criticism," she says. "I have heard this from ... very influential members of the [ruling] Socialist Party.
"There is a perception, a knowledge, that RTS does not cover adequately Serbia's political life in all its complexity. We are going to try to do whatever we can to change that."
Her Belgrade-based skeptics are watching closely to see if she will.
A bedrock of rural support
In the town of Azanja, far from Belgrade and even farther from the concrete canyons of New York City, there is a bedrock of support for Milosevic and Milentijevic
Azanja is the kind of town that many call the "real Serbia." It is home to peasant farmers and country folk who account for half the population. Milentijevic, who was born here, is the town's most-famous daughter.
Minana Jevremovic is Milentijevic's proud aunt. Bringing her small tractor to a halt, she denounces the notion that she and other peasants are manipulated by RTS.
"These demonstrators are misused children," she says. "They destroyed our dear Belgrade probably because they didn't have anything to do with themselves."
Milosevic's control of the media means that people here rarely hear contradictory opinions. So many, like the opposition member of parliament Korac, doubt Milosevic will surrender control. "He does not have too many pillars of his power any more and certainly one of the strongest he has right now is control of the media," Mr. Korac says.