Crack opens for dissent in Serbia

Encouraging public discourse, high-ranking official raises possibility

Vuk Draskovic has been a man of many faces - a playwright, prisoner, and political leader both for and against the governing coalition.

Now he has become an advocate of public discourse and free speech, and in some ways the first to challenge the authoritarian hand of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic during the NATO airstrikes.

In a series of interviews and press conferences this week aimed at the international media, Mr. Draskovic, a powerful speaker, has hinted that it is time for Serbia to make concessions to end the NATO airstrikes. He has also criticized state propaganda, telling Serbian journalists here that "you are not brave enough."

The full implications of his comments are not yet visible. So far Mr. Milosevic has not reacted, and it is unclear if Draskovic has enough influence to alter the course of the ruling coalition.

Draskovic has, however, created a public forum and inspired other like-minded politicians to speak their minds.

"The most important thing right now is that he has helped create an informal coalition of [opposition political parties]," says one high-ranking opposition leader.

Zoran Djindjic, the president of the Democratic Party of Serbia, was inspired enough by Draskovic to make one of his first public statements since the airstrikes began March 24, saying April 26 he "completely agrees" with most of the things Draskovic said.

Draskovic and Mr. Djindjic were close allies in the winter of 1996-97, when they led mass anti-Milosevic demonstrations in the streets of Belgrade. They had since gone their separate ways.

Another political party, New Democracy, which dropped out of the ruling coalition a year ago, now says it supports Draskovic.

Tahir Hasanovic, the party's spokesman, says Draskovic's outburst was very important, more to public opinion than to the inner circles of power.

Situation in a different light

"It's the first time after 30 days of war that someone started to discuss the situation in a different light," he says.

The creation of public discourse could give Serbs a chance to consider various options of ending the airstrikes against Yugoslavia. Many are already frustrated with Milosevic, who seems to be the only one not frazzled by bombing.

Both Draskovic and Vojislav Seselj, another former opponent of Milosevic, have been part of the government for the past year, and both have been under the tacit control of Milosevic, analysts say. They are on opposite sides, however, with Mr. Seselj the radical and Draskovic the moderate.

At times, Milosevic has used either one of them to push political momentum in the direction that he favors. He could be doing the same now.

"President Milosevic is doing and thinking the same way I am," Draskovic says. But "there are many idiots in Serbia doing many wrong things in the name of Milosevic."

As it stands, NATO and Yugoslavia are in a deadlock, with both sides saying they will not concede until the other backs down first. NATO wants Yugoslavia to agree to let alliance forces, possibly as many as 30,000, into Kosovo.

One possible solution, raised by both Draskovic and Russian envoy Victor Chernomyrdin, would be for United Nations forces to enter Kosovo rather than NATO forces.

And if Serbian forces were to withdraw from Kosovo, Draskovic says, NATO would have to stop bombing as an act of goodwill. "The best is that [NATO and the Yugoslavs] do it at the same minute," Draskovic said April 27.

Nevertheless, it is questionable how much real power Draskovic wields. He is a vice premier of the federal government, which is under the firm control of Milosevic.

But, if he were able to broaden his support base and include other leaders like Djindjic, he might be able to force Milosevic to some sort of compromise.

Milosevic's profile during strikes

For his part, Milosevic has remained mysterious throughout the crisis, rarely addressing the public and rarely elaborating his position. The one American television interview he has given since the crisis began was to a CBS affiliate in Houston last week. It was arranged by a Serbian group in the United States.

He is shown daily on Serbian television, either sitting in a familiar pose in his official residence talking with international allies, or at the head of a long wooden table with his most loyal deputies.

Diplomatic developments in the crisis are virtually ignored by the local media, which on April 27 were focusing on anniversary celebrations for the 1992 Yugoslav Constitution. Foreign journalists cover the diplomatic moves more closely; Draskovic has even begun to give press conferences in English.

One point of friction between Draskovic and Milosevic has been the Belgrade television station Studio B, which has been under Draskovic's control. On April 25 Draskovic gave a lengthy interview to a Studio B reporter, and it was aired several times.

In the interview he discussed an armed UN peacekeeping force and said that Serbia would have to expect NATO countries to be a part of it.

Draskovic claims that Yugoslav Army censors came to the studio the following day and commandeered the evening newscast.

He threatened to organize demonstrations in the streets if the TV station continued to be censored. On April 27 he said his demands had been met.

One constant of Draskovic's up-and-down political career has been nationalism - a point that makes him unpalatable to most Western leaders. He even favors the restoration of the monarchy, abandoned when the Communists took power during World War II.

Draskovic was arrested and beaten for demonstrating against the Croatian and Bosnian wars in 1993. A year and a half ago, when other pro-Western opposition leaders refused to participate in elections, Draskovic decided to join the Milosevic regime, a move he justified as being the best way to have a positive effect on the government.

He has long been at odds with Seselj, a radical Serbian vice premier who was a paramilitary leader in Bosnia and Croatia. On April 26 he accused Seselj of being behind the censoring of Studio B, saying the Army had taken their orders from him.

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