Serb opposition's risky gambit

r The opposition called a general strike, starting today, to pressure Milosevic to step down.

Residents in small towns across Serbia are eagerly preparing for a general strike due to begin today, ready to disrupt everyday life to convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that his tenure has come to an end. But it's unclear whether Belgrade's Freedom Square will ring with the same revolutionary zeal.

By calling for a blockade of major roadways as part of a campaign of civil disobedience to protest next weekend's presidential runoff vote, Serbia's opposition has chosen a go-for-broke strategy that, if successful, has the potential of unseating President Milosevic in a matter of days. But a low turnout would enable Milosevic to stabilize his shaky government and remain in power, though with little democratic legitimacy.

"This is high stakes for the opposition. It's come down to the moment of truth. The protests have to be big enough to show that the Serbian people understand the stakes and are supporting their democratically elected leaders," says James Hooper, directory of Balkan policy at the Washington-based International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that works in crisis prevention. "It has to be big enough so that Milosevic understands his only option is to negotiate his way out of power."

"The government is lost and in a great panic. The idea is not to give it a breath of fresh air," adds Dusan Batakovic, a history professor in Belgrade. "The opposition must not let Milosevic prepare a counterattack."

The opposition insists that its candidate, constitutional law professor Vojislav Kostunica, won a majority in the first round of voting Sept. 24, and a runoff is therefore unnecessary. The federal election commission, dismissing complaints of widespread fraud, found that Mr. Kostunica won more votes, but said no candidate passed the crucial 50-percent mark.

"The truth is that we won. If we were to negotiate, we would admit that the will of one man is stronger than the people," Kostunica said last week. His refusal to compromise on a matter of principle, in addition to his staunch nationalist views, have impressed many Serb voters.

Over the weekend, Milosevic delivered his own message to the Yugoslav public. In a televised speech to a graduating class of military officers he declared, "We are sure that our country, which managed to defend itself in a war, can successfully resist psychological, media, and political pressures."

The Army rank and file are said to have supported Kostunica in large numbers in last month's vote, while many police officers are thought to be loyal to Milosevic. The security services have been key to his 13-year grip on power.

Moscow, a traditional ally of fellow Slavic and Orthodox Christian Serbia, warned Milosevic not to use violence against strikers this week. A pair of Russian envoys arrived in Belgrade Sunday, but Milosevic reportedly rejected Russia's offer to send its foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, to mediate the crisis.

The opposition's wisdom in jumping into a general strike and rejecting a runoff is being called into question by some analysts, and there are unconfirmed reports that Western diplomats have tried to pressure Serbia's opposition into rethinking its position.

"The opposition went straight to a strike, which holds a great risk," says Slobodan Antonic, a Belgrade professor of political science. "We don't have strong unions or syndicates, like in Western Europe, and will have to rely on a spontaneous eruption, which is always a rare event. Frankly, I'm a pessimist."

The call for a general strike is being spearheaded by Kostunica ally Zoran Djindjic. Kostunica, who is not known for his power as an orator, has never been comfortable with large street demonstrations, and the general strike is being billed as the mother of all protests.

If the strike and civil-disobedience campaign are not successful by Wednesday, at the latest, the Milosevic government will get a boost of confidence and try to ride out the storm, according to Mr. Antonic. "He will then win the runoff because the opposition didn't participate, and remain in power indefinitely as an authoritarian leader with no pretense of democratic support."

But that opinion is, for the moment at least, in the minority. Most local observers and some foreign analysts think the Kostunica camp was right to keep up the pressure against Milosevic.

"There are plenty of risks in going to the streets, but a greater risk in going to a runoff because Milosevic would use the time against his opponents and prepare something," says Mr. Hooper.

Though recent protests have wavered in size, opposition leaders are optimistic based on Friday's opening act. Following a pattern seen all year, Belgrade was fairly quiet, but protests and civil disobedience showed much more energy elsewhere in Serbia.

Citizens blocked bridges and roads, high school students walked out of class in many towns, and 7,500 miners announced they are joining the strike, as did a large textile factory. Two hundred employees at a large television station in Novi Sad vowed to strike unless the state-controlled television station broadcasts coverage of the democratic opposition.

But citizens are also tired of a decade of protests, especially in cities. "Most people I talk to say they don't have the energy to protest for three months as they did in 1996," says Antonic. Those demonstrations forced the government to concede opposition wins in several municipal elections, including the capital's. Since then, bitter rivalries had kept opposition leaders divided until last month's vote.

The opposition concedes that, whatever happens, it must be quick. "The battle will be short and nonviolent," says opposition spokesman Ceda Jovanovic.

The Milosevic camp, meanwhile, appears to be holding together under pressure. Only Milosevic's allies in Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in what remains of Yugoslavia, have distanced themselves in recent days.

The opposition believes that a Kostunica victory would be even more decisive in a runoff, but opposition leaders suspect it may be part of a new Milosevic plan to remain in power, and would at the very least legitimize vote fraud in the first round. The opposition says the election commission's final results are full of impossible scenarios, such as polling stations located in burned-out houses, and thousands of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo casting ballots for Milosevic. The Yugoslav leader was indicted by the war crimes tribunal at The Hague for his mistreatment of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, and most boycotted the vote.

The common view is, if they were caught stealing in the first round, why wouldn't they steal even more in the second?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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