Bit parts for officers in Milosevic's latest power-play

By Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online

Adrian Pragnell and John Yore travelled to the Balkans as British police officers seconded to an international initiative to train a new police force for Kosovo. They nowfind themselves with unwelcome, involuntary bit parts in Slobodan Milosevic's latest power-play.

Adrian Pragnell and John Yore travelled to the Balkans as British police officers seconded to an international initiative to train a new police force for Kosovo. They nowfind themselves with unwelcome, involuntary bit parts in Slobodan Milosevic's latest power-play.

Their arrests, with those of two Canadians and four Dutch citizens on suspicion of terrorism and intended kidnapping, are part of a triple-edged campaign launched last month by the Yugoslavian President, aimed at consolidating his position, picking off his rivals and embarrassing his Western adversaries.

By amending the constitution and calling direct elections on 24 September, Mr Milosevic is seeking to extend his own power and in doing so crush the separatist aspirations of Western-oriented Montenegro, Serbia's last and highly reluctant partner republic in the federation of Yugoslavia.

The arrest of the two Britons and two Canadians, a classic piece of mischief-making by Yugoslavia's leader, fits in with both goals.

As foreigners, portrayed as Nato spies on a mission to beef up Montenegro's own forces, they serve Mr Milosevic's efforts to present himself as a Serb nationalist, fighting to save the nation from destruction by the West. Secondly, the fact that they were detained in Montenegro enables the state-controlled Yugoslav media to depict the four as agents of that republic's reformist President, Milo Djukanovic.

Their main alleged crime, according to Yugoslavia's army, was to have plans to train the Montenegrin police, which Mr Djukanovic is trying to make a more credible counterweight to the 15,000 regular Yugoslav army troops stationed in Montenegro. Mr Milosevic is thus placing a double squeeze on his rival. By calling direct elections that replace a carefully calibrated rotational system for filling the presidency, he has ensured Montenegro's influence in the rump of the federation will be minimal, its 600,000 population swamped by Serbia's 9 million or more people.

By having the foreigners arrested while they were on holiday in Montenegro without valid visas, he is asserting Belgrade's power over the wayward republic, and challenging Mr Djukanovic to assert authority, perhaps affording a pretext for a full takeover.

All the while, Mr Milosevic's chances of securing another four-year term are improving by the day. Incapable as usual of uniting, the opposition parties have failed to nominate a common candidate. Instead, there are two contenders. Vojislav Mihailovic, Belgrade's mayor, will run for the largest opposition grouping, the Serbian Renewal Movement, headed by the erratic and untrusted Vuk Draskovic. The 15 other parties have put forward Vojislav Kostunica, head of the much smaller Democratic Party of Serbia.

On top of that, despite strong pleas from the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, Mr Djukanovic plans to boycott the elections entirely. This would make it even more likely that Mr Milosevic would secure an overall majority in both chambers of Yugoslavia's parliament. So far, his Western supporters have argued in vain that the only hope of defeating Mr Milosevic lies in a single opposition candidate, backed by the maximum possible vote.

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