Over the past decade, the only thing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic could count on with any certainty was that Serbia's divisive opposition would inadvertently help him stay in power.
This golden rule of Belgrade politics is once again proving true. Some opposition leaders and analysts say a recent government crackdown is aimed at marginalizing and dividing the opposition ahead of coming elections.
If so, the effort appears to be working. A severe crackdown that began May 17 with the takeover of Studio B, Serbia's largest opposition-controlled television station, and was followed by the arrest of hundreds of political activists and police violence on Belgrade's streets, served to drive a wedge into the multiparty opposition.
The Alliance for Change, a broad coalition, wanted to confront the regime through massive civil disobedience. But the Serbian Renewal Movement, led by Vuk Draskovic, backed away, even though it lost the most in the government action: The party controlled Studio B.
With his party dominating Belgrade's city government, Mr. Draskovic also stood the most to lose, opposition leaders say privately.
"Draskovic was worried that the next step in the government crackdown would be the takeover of city government, which would result in the loss of the few scraps of bread his party receives," is the bitter assessment of one opposition leader, who insisted on anonymity.
The only thing moderate and radical elements could agree on was a weekend visit to Moscow, where they unsuccessfully lobbied the Russian government to withdraw support for the Milosevic regime. The lack of decisive action left Serbia's democratic movement disheartened. Attendance at nightly antigovernment rallies dwindled to embarrassingly low numbers, then were called off altogether on May 29.
All is not lost for Serbia's opposition, however. Many people see the greatest hope for change in Otpor (Resistance), a student movement founded in 1998. The group's logo, a clenched fist, has become a popular symbol of placing national interests above opposition squabbles.
The fact that the group is relatively new, has no cult-of-personality leaders, and doesn't seek political power, has made it popular.
At a protest on May 27, euphoric chants and applause were reserved for Otpor activist Nemanja Nikolic, who berated the handful of opposition leaders standing on the stage behind him.
"Leaders, you've wasted one week on vain rallies. You must tell people what you are going to do," Mr. Nikolic yelled.
"Serbia's united opposition is just a conversation forum. Anyone who listened to the opposition leaders could see there will be no united strategy," said Zarko Korac, another opposition leader.
Frustrated with the lack of coherent strategy, Otpor is proposing an incremental plan for peaceful civil disobedience. Though more popular than any opposition party, Otpor has yet to prove that such a loosely organized group can inspire a serious campaign against the government. Just in case, legislators may take up a "law on terrorism" -reportedly drafted by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic - that would give the government lavish legal power against its most dangerous political opponents, notably Otpor. Government-controlled media frequently refer to members of the group as "terrorists," claiming they are funded by the West with the goal of destabilizing Yugoslavia.
Opposition parties are waiting to see whether the law is just a threat or whether it will really be passed, perhaps as early as this week.
The apparent collapse of the opposition's hard-won unity is the most serious threat facing the democratic movement. Western diplomats spent months convincing opposition leaders to unite in order to defeat Milosevic in elections due later this year. They finally did so in January. Opposition leaders admit breaking their alliance was and is one of Milosevic's key goals.
Independent opinion polls show that a united opposition would be much stronger at the ballot box than as a group of separate parties.
But the different wings of the opposition cannot agree on fundamentals, such as in which elections to participate and under what conditions.
Nobody expects the vote to be fair, but leaders such as Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic say support for the ruling coalition is so low that it's impossible to fudge the numbers that much.
Government officials have indicated that municipal and federal elections will be scheduled this fall.
The federal elections will eventually determine Milosevic's political fate: Two chambers of the federal parliament pick the Yugoslav president.
Milosevic's term expires in July 2001, and the Constitution bars him from serving another term. He has also filled the constitutional term limit as Serbian president. But few expect Milosevic to relinquish the reins of power, especially given his indictment for war crimes by the international tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, over Yugoslavia's mistreatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Sinisa Nikolic, a lawyer and constitutional expert for the Democratic Party, says the most likely scenario is for Milosevic to be chosen as prime minister, a position currently occupied by Momir Bulatovic.
As former opposition parliamentary representative Vlatko Sekulovic puts it, "In the end, none of this really matters. He could run a tire service and remain in control."
Mr. Sekulovic and other observers believe the recent crackdown was "a training exercise" for the coming elections.
"We all know that he has to steal the elections if he wants to remain in power, but he doesn't want another 1996, when hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets for months. The police brutality was a way of telling people things have changed since then," says Sekulovic.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society