Belgrade heads for dictatorship: Repression is nothing new in Serbia, writes Marcus Tanner, but now it is closer to home

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WHEN Serbian intellectuals yesterday condemned the reported torture of Serbia's imprisoned opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, they highlighted the distance Serbia has travelled towards dictatorship.

The Serbian Writers' Association condemned all forms of political violence, but emphasised they were 'deeply worried by information that the writer Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, after the recent street unrest in Belgrade, has been beaten and tortured in prison, together with his wife and colleagues'.

The beating of Mr Draskovic has created an impression of Serbia as a Balkan banana republic. But little of what is going on in Serbia is really new. Serbia was never - except for few years before the First World War - a Western-style democracy with established freedoms and the rule of law. It sometimes went though the motions, feebly imitating forms of political organisation that were fashionable in more advanced states.

There was never an anti-Communist revolution, never a real shake-up. Along with the Russians, with whom they identify, Serbs accepted the Communist revolution of Tito's partisans in 1945 in a way Catholic Slovenes and Croats never did.

And when Communism cracked in East Europe in 1989, most Serbs were passive or hostile, especially when the Soviet republics clamoured for independence. The Serbs had little interest in Communism as an ideology, but they instinctively understood the party as a weapon to preserve Yugoslavia, which most saw as an extension of Serbia. When the Communist Party in Slovenia and Croatia panicked in 1990 and called multi-party elections, and when Catholic nationalists swept the board, Serbian forebodings about multi-party democracy as a virus imported to destroy Serbian rule in Yugoslavia appeared to be confirmed.

Serbia's Communist Party, renamed the Socialist Party but with the same leader, Slobodan Milosevic, coasted to victory in Serbia's first multi-party elections. But the Socialists had not come under pressure to allow other parties or to hold elections. Mr Milosevic allowed both. It was an indulgence. There was a feeling that the new freedoms were dependent on good behaviour and could be withdrawn.

Serbia's retarded political atmosphere is partly a result of the lack of an urban middle class. There is no real bourgeoisie, no equivalent of the prissy but legalistic-minded Catholic middle classes of Zagreb and Ljubljana. It was a result of savage ethnic tension inside Serbia, which kept nationalist themes bubbling at the top of people's minds.

Some 2 million Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo make up 20 per cent of Serbia's population. Their poverty, large families, different tongue and Muslim faith inspire hatred, horror and fear among the Serbian majority.

When Mr Milosevic seized power in the Serbian Communist Party in 1987, he pledged to keep the Albanians respectful. He has honoured his vow: to crush the aspirations of Kosovo Albanians. The policeman's knout was always the principal instrument used by the Serbian authorities in Kosovo and in the mainly Muslim Sandzak region.

But just as the bombardment of Dubrovnik focused international concern on Serbia's war in Croatia, which had been going for months, so the arrest of Mr Draskovic has spotlighted a state of affairs inside Serbia which has not changed much.

Belgrade, with its large population, free media and cosmopolitan atmosphere, was always a different Serbia, contemptuous and fearful of the countryside and jealous of its freedoms, which is why Belgrade-based intellectual forums like the Writers' Association fulminate about torture and even fascism. But there is a certain hypocrisy in their complaints. They had only to go to Pristina in Kosovo to hear about torture.

The folly of nationalist opposition leaders like Mr Draskovic was their failure to realise that the policeman's whips used against uppity Muslim Albanians in Kosovo could easily be turned on nice people like themselves if they made trouble.