Balkans: The arch-manipulator of Serbia triumphs over people power

At the beginning of this year, Slobodan Milosevic's hold on power in Serbia appeared to be collapsing as protesters filled the streets of Belgrade. But the opposition, then superficially united, has split ahead of tomorrow's elections. Steve Crawshaw reports on the arch-manipulator of the Balkans and his enemies.
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The Independent Online
"One for all," says the poster that gazes out everywhere in the centre of Belgrade. The accompanying portrait is of a grave-looking man in a beard with a distinct resemblance to Nicholas II, Russia's last tsar.

Even by the standards of election propaganda, the slogan for Vuk Draskovic - once Serbia's wild-maned Rasputin, now the would-be dignified president - is misleading. Not all for one, nor one for all. Mr Draskovic has quarrelled bitterly with the two other members of the opposition troika which spearheaded huge popular demonstrations in Belgrade and across Serbia at the beginning of this year. United, they were powerful; divided, they are not.

Zoran Djindjic and Vesna Pesic, with whom Mr Draskovic shared a platform during the opposition rallies in December and January, are boycotting Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections tomorrow. Mr Draskovic - after an apparently cosy meeting with Serbia's brilliant manipulator, Slobodan Milosevic - has broken ranks, and is selling himself as Serbia's latest saviour. The opposition, which at the beginning of the year was more powerful than ever before, has stumbled back into the political quagmire, while Mr Milosevic watches from the sidelines. For Mr Milosevic - who has been written off at regular intervals since he came to power in 1987 - the scenario is reassuringly familiar.

Mr Milosevic is not himself a candidate in tomorrow's polls. He is now Yugoslav president, after serving the maximum two terms as president of Serbia. Unsurprisingly, Mr Milosevic has taken the real power with him: the Yugoslav presidency used to be powerless when Mr Milosevic was president of Serbia; now, the Serbian presidency looks set to be meaningless, as power has moved to the office of President Milosevic of Yugoslavia.

The uninspiring Zoran Lilic, candidate of the Socialists (former Communists), until recently president of rump Yugoslavia, hopes to do a job-swap with his political patron, becoming Serbian president. The other main presidential candidate, apart from Mr Draskovic, is the far-right Vojislav Seselj. In short: unappealing prospects all around.

The meeting between Mr Milosevic and Mr Draskovic, his former sworn enemy, has not been fully explained. Mr Draskovic - who has dramatically repackaged himself, with a short back and sides and a neatly trimmed beard - emerged triumphant, after apparently being charmed by Mr Milosevic. The pro-government Serbian media started giving Mr Draskovic favourable coverage, for the first time. In a country where conspiracy theories are two a penny, everybody has a different theory; even the least conspiracy-minded analysts insist that some secret deal must have been struck. One suggestion is that he might become Serbian prime minister, following the parliamentary elections, also held today.

When hundreds of thousands filled the streets, Mr Milosevic made some retreats. The opposition was able to take power in major cities, including Belgrade. But none is better able than Mr Milosevic to win a chess-game when checkmate seems inevitable. The only crucial requirement for the opposition was that it should stay united until Mr Milosevic was gone. The opposition promptly started tearing itself apart - and Mr Milosevic could rejoice.

Mr Djindjic became mayor of Belgrade - and thus gained a higher profile than Mr Draskovic, to the latter's annoyance. Mr Draskovic, meanwhile, who had briefly renounced nationalism, started to bang the nationalist drum once more, mixed in with a strong dose of monarchism.

Cracks in the regime in the neighbouring republic of Montenegro - the other remaining member of the Yugoslav federation - could mean greater difficulties for President Milosevic. His main ally there is under threat, as never before. Even so, few in Serbia are ready to predict an early end for the man who has re-invented himself so many times before. The optimism of just eight months ago now seems to come from another era.