Serbia's fracturing opposition

Opposition leaders say US policy - backing various leaders - plays into

One thing is abundantly clear here: As the calls for President Slobodan Milosevic to step down increase, the opposition parties - including the Serbian Orthodox Church - that possibly could provide an alternative to his regime are evermore fragmented.

A large opposition rally in Belgrade at the end of last week clearly illustrates the lack of organization and the leadership needed. Some leaders did not show up; others competed aggressively for the crowd's attention.

Part of the problem, several opposition leaders here say, is Washington's stance toward Yugoslavia. The United States wants to get rid of Mr. Milosevic, but the way it's carrying out its policy is seen to be hurting the opposition more than helping it.

Late last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the "Serbian Democratization Act," which authorizes $100 million in "democratic assistance" to provide training, equipment, and technical assistance to opposition parties, as well as help for the independent media.

Days later in Sarajevo, President Clinton said he would add another $10 million for promoting democracy in Serbia, saying: "Serbia will only have a future when Mr. Milosevic and his policies are consigned to the past."

This may play well for American lawmakers keen to show they are promoting democracy in Yugoslavia. But not here, where 78 days of US-led NATO airstrikes destroyed much of the economic infrastructure and enraged ordinary Serbs, while leaving their president virtually unscathed. More important, opposition leaders say, it tarred democratic opponents of the regime.

"[Milosevic's regime] portrays the leaders of the opposition as NATO servants, and that's not helping us," says Zarko Korac, an opposition politician and professor of psychology. "Their message is: 'What NATO didn't get through bombing, it will get through the opposition.' It's a serious accusation, because the opposition was against the bombing."

Few want to reject money for their cause. But the public manner in which US support has been declared, opposition figures say, seems to be undermining stated US policy. Less-than-subtle meetings with US officials and opposition figures in nearby Montenegro, one of the two republics that make up Yugoslavia, reinforces ties that the regime has been quick to exploit.

"If you are going to [financially support the opposition] and have any hope of succeeding, you must do it covertly," says a senior Western diplomat in Belgrade. "It is blindingly idiotic not to."

An identical dilemma faces groups that oppose Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. Congress authorized $97 million last year to fund their efforts, but nine years of tough United Nations sanctions on Iraq, of which the US has been a chief supporter, has meant that any exile group seen to be taking American cash raises suspicion in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. Some key groups, therefore, publicly refuse to accept US funds.

Though many people here admire US culture and the ideals of freedom it symbolizes, the smashed and graffiti-covered offices of the American, British, French, and German cultural centers in downtown Belgrade are ready reminders of the 11 weeks that people spent hiding from NATO bombs. Scribbled on one of the walls of the American center: "Hitler Klinton."

"We are tired of being seen as cash-and-carry spies," says Nenad Canak, leader of the League of Social Democrats, and a figure in the Alliance for Change coalition. "Now our credibility is under question because of those stupid things."

Zoran Djindjic, the veteran leader of the Democratic Party, says, "We need a concrete proposal, not to give money to one party or a group, but to strengthen democratic institutions."

Despite the surge of anti-Milosevic feeling that erupted in a series of demonstrations across the country after the end of NATO bombing in mid-June, the opposition is divided as never before.

"The problem [for the opposition] is that there is no clear plan, and the old foxes of the regime know that," says Mr. Canak. When he speaks at rallies, the loudest applause erupts when he criticizes the disarray within the opposition. "Talking about the history of democracy in Serbia is like talking about a vegetarian crocodile. It sounds nice, but does not exist."

A recent poll found that more than 70 percent wanted the president to step down, and that was evident at the large rally Aug. 19 in Belgrade - the first major protest in the capital since the airstrikes, which had been billed as a "test" of strength. State-run media denounced it as a "NATO rally."

The gathering attracted tens of thousands of people - some estimate 100,000 - but there was little visceral anger, too, of the type that rocked Belgrade during weeks of protests in the winter of 1996-1997.

Opposition divisions were on full display, and the messages were mixed. Mr. Djindjic told the crowd that Milosevic risked the "whole of Serbia rising up" if he didn't step down in 15 days. Then his chief rival Vuk Draskovic, the maverick chief of the Serbian Renewal Movement who had pulled out of the meeting at the last minute, forced his way onto the stage in a theatrical moment. He called for early elections - echoing a ploy that just hours before had been offered by ruling parties that want to take advantage of opposition divisions.

Many Serbs at the rally were disappointed at the scale of disunity. "I'm afraid that nothing will change," said Nabojsa Spaic, the director of the independent Media Center in Belgrade.

The protest was organized by the Serbian Orthodox Church and professionals known as Group 17. Church leaders are expected to convene opposition leaders this week to look for a common stand.

"Milosevic will see that his ability to divide the opposition is better than he thought," says the senior diplomat. "If I were him, the rally might even reinforce my strategic plans."

Few in Belgrade see the president ruling beyond the new year, with a winter of deprivation sure to harden attitudes on the streets.

"We'll keep on punching the regime: This will not be a knock-out, but a win by points," says Mr. Korac, the professor.

"He can postpone it, but he can't win. Serbs are where eastern Europe was in 1989. This is a Jurassic Park. Milosevic is the last obstacle, and the people know that," Korac adds.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.