Britons are pawns in Serb election battle

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The Independent Online

The fate of two British police officers held by the Yugoslav army on spying charges could hang on the result of crucial elections called by President Slobodan Milosevic on 24 September. Faced with opinion polls showing he could lose, Mr Milosevic is responding as he always does in a crisis: by a show of force in which several foreigners have been seized.

The fate of two British police officers held by the Yugoslav army on spying charges could hang on the result of crucial elections called by President Slobodan Milosevic on 24 September. Faced with opinion polls showing he could lose, Mr Milosevic is responding as he always does in a crisis: by a show of force in which several foreigners have been seized.

British diplomats are still seeking access to John Yore, 31, and Adrian Prangnell, 41, arrested with two Canadian citizens on Tuesday near the border between Montenegro and Kosovo. The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has demanded that they be released "at the earliest opportunity", but the four men, along with four Dutch citizens detained earlier on similar charges, may find that their best hope is an election defeat for the hardline Yugoslav president.

Five opinion polls taken in Serbia last month show Mr Milosevic in danger of losing an election for the first time in 10 years, with most respondents saying the country's economic collapse has disillusioned them. The arrests, say analysts, have a twofold purpose. Apart from seeking to rally public support by exploiting the familiar theme of foreign conspiracies against Serbia and Mr Milosevic personally, they also serve as a warning to Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner within Yugoslavia, which is boycotting the election and edging ever closer to breaking away.

By claiming that foreigners are training Montenegro's special police, Belgrade's message is that only the Yugoslav army can keep order and unmask "terrorists". Some suggest Mr Milosevic may be laying the ground for military intervention against Montenegro to bring down the republic's reform-minded President Milo Djukanovic.

The opinion polls showed that a united Serbian opposition incorporating the maverick Vuk Draskovic and his Serbian Renewal Movement would win 44 per cent of the vote, while Mr Milosevic's Socialists, his wife's JUL party and the Serbian Radical Party of the ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj would win just 19 per cent. If the opposition united around the most likely candidate in the presidential race, Vojislav Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, he would win 43 per cent against Mr Milosevic's 28 per cent. But yesterday Mr Draskovic said he expected his party to put up a candidate as well, which would split the opposition vote.

President Milosevic's decision to call the elections has put the opposition and its Western allies in the most acute of dilemmas. He not only controls the official media, but has also changed the constitution in a way which disadvantages Montenegro and allocates extra seats to southern Serbia to make up for the loss of Kosovo.

These are, as one Western official puts it "unfree and unfair elections in which Mr Milosevic's side will count the votes". To make matters worse the Serbian opposition is fractured, with Mr Draskovic, leader of the largest opposition party, feuding with his main rival, Zoran Djindjic.

Nevertheless the West is determined that the elections should not go by default, partly because such an outcome might strengthen the Yugoslav president further. As one official put it: "This is still a test of public opinion, albeit a skewed one, and it will be used by Milosevic as a demonstration of his mandate. So why make it easy for him? If you fight and get a lot of votes you are saying to him, hang on - you can't just ignore this public opinion." The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has also fought hard - so far without success - to persuade Montenegro to take part.

As far as Serbia is concerned the West's priority is to pressure the opposition to agree on one candidate. On a pragmatic level the opposition also needs practical advice on how to run a modern election campaign, including basic democratic practices such as door-to-door canvassing. Help is being prepared discreetly in the knowledge that acceptance of Western assistance will be portrayed as evidence of a lack of patriotism.

As one Nato source put it: "The West cannot afford to be seen to be giving too much support. The answer is to do what you can quietly and accept that means you cannot do as much as you would like."

The EU has already gained a foothold by concentrating on local government. It is directing significant resources to Serbia's 39 democratically led municipalities, estimated to cover 65 per cent of the population. The European Commission last week launched a 4m-euro project to re-equip classrooms in these areas under its Schools for a Democratic Serbia scheme.

And the evidence suggests that even if Mr Milosevic's opponents are divided, they are not too scared to defy him. Last month Javier Solana, Europe's foreign policy high representative, hosted a dinner in Brussels attended by the mayor of Nis, Zoran Zivkovic, the mayor of Novi Sad, Stevan Vrbaski, and Srdjan Mikovic, the mayor of Pancevo, a town bombed repeatedly by Nato last year.

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