Crash shakes up Serb opposition

Serbs wonder, was it a well-timed accident, or the act of a regime

It's easy to see why Yugoslavia's most popular opposition leader might believe someone was out to get him.

Vuk Draskovic was the sole survivor of a car accident on Sunday that left four others dead, including his three bodyguards. There was a strong motive - his powerful opposition party last week began reconciliation talks with a rival opposition group in a move that could undermine Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's grip on power - and the circumstances were peculiar.

According to Mr. Draskovic, a large transport truck suddenly swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic in front of his three-car entourage. His vehicle hit the truck and went off the road. A second car carrying his bodyguards also hit the truck and exploded in flames.

The driver of the truck fled the scene. A lawyer for Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement said yesterday that police were holding a possible suspect.

In an appearance that night on Studio B, a Belgrade television station controlled by his party, Mr. Draskovic said the accident was "obviously an assassination attempt." Draskovic added, "Let those who have done this think well about what will happen to them."

Opposition leaders are publicly still holding their tongues on who might be behind such an attempt. Privately, many are expressing astonishment at its apparent brazenness.

"Presuming it was an assassination attempt, the ruling parties stand the most to gain and there is an implicit understanding that those are the forces behind these types of actions," says an adviser to an opposition party who declined to be identified.

Car accidents are common on Yugoslavia's narrow and poorly marked roads, and the one on which Draskovic was traveling is considered hazardous even in a country that has a reputation as the most dangerous place to drive in Europe. But for those inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, the crash could not have occurred at a more opportune moment.

For the past two weeks, the Alliance for Change, a coalition of opposition groups, has led nightly marches through Belgrade's streets calling on President Milosevic to resign.

Draskovic has refused to take part. He has warned followers that elections are the only responsible path, telling a crowd in Kragujevac over the summer, "Trying to change the regime on the streets could lead to civil war. Enough blood has been spilled in Serbia."

Alliance leaders such as Vladan Batic have called Milosevic "a piece of trash who needs to be thrown in a wastebasket."

Some alliance members also have been extremely critical of Draskovic. Although he is president of Yugoslavia's largest opposition party, the Serbian Renewal Movement, he served as a minister in the Milosevic government for two months earlier this year. His party currently controls Belgrade's city council in a ruling coalition with Milosevic's Socialists.

But as Draskovic's party remained off the streets, he became the most important variable.

The marches in recent days have drawn as many as 20,000 to 30,000 protesters, but no longer show signs of growth. That's far below the mark set in 1996-97, when 100,000 people marched through Belgrade to protest fraud in municipal election results.

Analysts agree the only figure who could dramatically increase turnout is Draskovic. On Thursday, a day after police clashed with demonstrators, beating at least two dozen, Draskovic's party took part in a roundtable discussion, the first such talks with rival opposition groups since 1997.

"I think it's obvious what we're looking at: Draskovic was making friendly overtures to the alliance and recent polling data indicates that Milosevic doesn't stand a chance against a Draskovic-Alliance for Change coalition. The opposition was turning down its rhetoric and making constructive progress for the first time since 1997," says Dragan Vucinic, an economist and adviser to opposition leader Vuk Obradovic.

Then came Sunday's incident, and claims of an assassination attempt. As one Belgrade journalist noted at a press conference, "It no longer matters if it's true, only that Draskovic believes it's true."

There have been more subtle signs of government harassment of the opposition, and the general populace, recently. Popular opposition newspaper Glas Javnosti reopened Oct. 3 after being shut down for four days, ostensibly because it employed three illegal workers. The newspaper claimed the real reason was that its press printed the Alliance for Change newsletter, which urged citizens to attend Belgrade's nightly rallies.

On Sept. 27, police began conducting door-to-door interrogations, ostensibly to verify citizens' declared place of residence. At the same time, police closed 50 Belgrade cafes, popular gathering places for opposition supporters.

In addition, 60 privately owned buses have been seized because they had not complied with a registration deadline. The buses function as public transportation in Belgrade, and without them it is much more difficult to muster large numbers of protesters.

Opposition leaders insist that the actions all were attempts by the Milosevic regime to assert authority and intimidate citizens. The door-to-door police campaign was especially criticized.

"They didn't think about where people lived for the past 10 years, and suddenly they want to know," says Biljana Stanojevic, a legal adviser with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Belgrade.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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