As presidential, parliamentary, and local elections loom, events in Belgrade are starting to resemble a sequel to "Wag the Dog." In the popular 1997 film, spin doctors fabricate a war to distract the media and the public, and win reelection for a disgraced president.
Following arrests last week, eight Westerners now stand accused of criminal conspiracies against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Western governments are taking a skeptical view of the charges. Critics at home and abroad say Mr. Milosevic is seeking to perpetuate the feeling that his country is under constant attack by NATO countries, hoping to get a boost at the polls on Sept. 24. Many Serbs remain bitter about the air strikes carried out last year over Kosovo province, now under United Nations administration.
"The arrests allow the regime to play the 'patriot/traitor' card, which still resonates with the Serbian public," says Dusan Batakovic, a history professor at Belgrade University.
When they took a weekend off from their grueling work in Kosovo, two British police officers, along with a Canadian mining engineer and his nephew didn't expect to end up imprisoned by the Yugoslav Army in Andrijevica, Montenegro. The four now stand accused of plotting "terrorist actions."
And last month, Yugoslav authorities captured a group of self-styled Dutch "weekend warriors" on the border between Serbia and Montenegro. The men were shown on television admitting to bizarre plots against Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, both of whom have been indicted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
"If we ran into [Milosevic], we had a plan to put him in a ski box on the car and drive him out of the country," said one, Johanes Kornelus. If that plan failed, he said, Plan B was to cut off the president's head, pack it in a box, and ship it back to the Netherlands. The Dutch government has denied any knowledge of their activities.
The confessions were so outlandish that some suspected they were designed to achieve the maximum propaganda effect ahead of elections. The men appeared in good health and did not appear to be speaking under duress.
One of the captives claimed Montenegrin border guards gave them permission to bring as much as five kilograms of drugs per person into the country.
Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, is strongly pro-Western and has turned against Milosevic. Western observers say the elections - which Montenegro is boycotting - have greatly increased tensions and the threat of Milosevic provoking an armed conflict in Montenegro is growing.
While the confessions may sound far-fetched to Western ears, they are believable to many Serbs. Twice over the past six months, suspected war criminals were captured on Serbian territory and whisked off to Bosnia, where they were delivered to peacekeepers for trial at The Hague. Yugoslavia has charged that NATO hired mercenaries to snatch war-crimes suspects.
The other detained Westerners appear to have been naive, or at least careless, in their travel plans. Britons Adrian Pragnell and John Yore are police officers working as instructors at a police academy in Kosovo run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE]. They headed off on a weekend vacation to a Montenegrin resort town with Canadian Shaun Going, part owner of a construction firm in Kosovo, and Mr. Going's visiting nephew, Liam Hall.
For reasons that remain unclear, the men strayed off the main road from Montenegro to Kosovo into the Lim River Valley, an area inhospitable to visitors, especially Westerners. According to the Yugoslav Army, which regularly patrols the area, the group decided to cross the Mount Cakor pass on a gravel road at night. Yugoslav authorities claimed they were carrying explosives and mining gear, and that there were indications the men were training Montenegrin police in demolition tactics - which could be used for sabotage. Confiscated rolls of wire and Swiss Army knives were displayed on television.
"It is possible that in their car there were some accessories from the last quarry mining we had," Genti Jacellari, Going's co-worker in Kosovo, told Reuters, adding that Going would not have been carrying explosives.
Britain, Canada, the UN, and the OSCE have protested the arrests. "It is unacceptable to parade British citizens ... before the world's media and accuse them of terrorism and espionage," Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement. "No evidence was produced to support these charges." A senior Canadian official in Pristina, Kosovo's regional capital, called the allegations "fanciful."
Again, the charges ring true to the Serbian public. Montenegro's president has built a strong police force with the financial backing of Western governments. Two Montenegrin soldiers recently admitted that they had been trained by British SAS troops, a charge the British government does not deny.
Observers expect the detainees to be used as propaganda as the campaign heats up. After they have served their purpose, they will be released. "I don't think this will ever go to trial," says one Belgrade-based Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In the meantime, the OSCE has ordered its staff not to travel to Montenegro, to avoid giving the Yugoslav Army any more "opportunities."
Milosevic is unpopular, but Serbia's opposition expects a no-holds-barred campaign. Efforts to agree on a single opposition candidate hit a snag yesterday. Backing off a boycott threat, Serbia's largest opposition party announced support for Belgrade mayor Vojislav Mihailovic. While the rest of the opposition has yet to announce its choice, it is expected to back nationalist politician Vojislav Kostunica.
*Material from the wire services was used for this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society