Power at Any Price

A year after NATO’s bombing campaign, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic maintains his grip on Serbia. And the view from Belgrade is that he will go to any length to hold on.

“The war strengthened Milosevic’s authority as a supreme commander, but the end of the war and loss of Kosovo have resumed the discussion of the catastrophic consequences of his 10-year-long rule,” wrote the independent newsmagazine Vreme (Jan. 1).

“The sense of defeat in the country and the International Tribunal for War Crimes in Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indictment for war crimes abroad have made his remaining in power hardly imaginable. On the other hand, the international community’s indictment has solidified his regime and toughened his resolve to maintain power,” the weekly said.

Promulgating propaganda about “continuing NATO aggression against the country,” the regime has divided the population into “patriots” and “traitors and NATO mercenaries.” In the first group are all those loyal to Milosevic. In the second are the opposition, independent media, and nongovernmental organizations, as well as ordinary people who question Milosevic’s policies.

The regime’s crackdown has intensified since Jan. 10, when political opposition leaders gathered to hammer out a joint strategy against Milosevic and called for general elections by the end of April. The regime has rallied the pro-government media in an intense propaganda campaign against the dissidents, condemning any critical voice.

First, the regime attacked the opposition, which has been trying to end the country’s international isolation by meeting with European Union and U.S. officials and negotiating for humanitarian aid and the lifting of sanctions.

Alluding to the opposition’s meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and EU foreign ministers, Belgrade’s government-controlled Borba said in an editorial (Jan. 12) that Vuk Draskovic, the most prominent opposition leader, “and other conscripts were successful hand-kissers and head-nodders.” The editorial dismissed the opposition leaders as “political amateurs who could not seriously be counted on.”

According to an editorial in the nationalist Politika Ekspres of Belgrade (Jan. 12), the opposition had only one aim—“to turn Serb against Serb”—and might “bring an initiative to offer NATO a partnership” which “would pardon the commanders and executors of the crimes committed during the aggression against Yugoslavia and put the entire blame on our country’s leadership.”

Despite its efforts, the opposition has failed to mount sufficient political momentum to oust Milosevic. “The opposition proves [to the people] that they will endure poverty and freezing cold until they oust the regime, while the regime threatens to kill those who rebel, promising a more successful war than the one against NATO. In such a situation, it would be cynical to say that the people are apathetic.

“Who would be happy after being told that he would die slowly if he did not move and promised the same, but quickly, if he dared to move?” wrote Stojan Cerovic in Vreme (Oct. 30).

Ilija Vujacic, a political science professor at Belgrade University, told the independent weekly Reporter (Dec. 15), “It may be freely said that such an opposition is a pillar of Milosevic’s power. The opposition has so far followed the regime and reacted to its moves, instead of turning itself into an alternative.”

Opposition leaders believe that the mounting repression is central to Milosevic’s strategy in the run-up to elections. Goran Svilanovic of the Civic Alliance told Reporter (Dec. 15) that “people are afraid to participate in [pushing for] changes.”

The murders of Serbian warlord and indicted war criminal Zeljko Raznatovic (who was known by the nom de guerre Arkan) and Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic in the space of a month this winter increased fear that the country was slipping into total lawlessness.

As Ljubica Gojgic wrote in the independent weekly NIN (Jan. 20), although “there have been more theories in Arkan’s killing than in an Agatha Christie novel, the most often mentioned is the one which says that the regime stands behind it.” But pro-government media, including Belgrade’s influential, nationalist Politika, are doing their best to downplay the case, arguing that it is “quite clear it was simply a clash in the underworld” (Jan. 21). Police arrested three people in the murder, but offered no motive.

The regime might use Bulatovic’s murder “as a perfect excuse to impose martial law on the country,” wrote NIN (Feb. 10). It quoted the prominent Serbian military correspondent Ljubodrag Stojadinovic as saying, “It is not out of the question that those in power might reach for the institution of martial law, even open dictatorship, since our country has not been stable for a very long time.”

In the same story, Cedomir Cupic, a political science professor at Belgrade University, told NIN, “Bulatovic’s killing also could be used as a warning to those in governing circles considering distancing themselves from the regime. It might be used to frighten all political opponents or even all citizens as a preventive measure to keep them from possible rebellion.”

Cupic’s words may turn out to be prescient: At a press conference three days after the murder, hard-line Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj called independent journalists  “accomplices in the murder” and threatened them with liquidation.

It is still possible that Milosevic will reach for another war—this time against his own people, as opposition leader Mile Isakov predicted in an interview in Belgrade’s independent Danas (Dec. 18): “For him, power is a question of life or death. Bearing that in mind, we know that he would try to remain in power at any price, even the price of our lives, because that is the only way for him to survive.”