Milosevic power base starts to fall apart

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The Independent Online

The lights are going out all over Belgrade. President Slobodan Milosevic does not know if he will see them lit again in his time. Last night, the National Theatre in Belgrade was dark, as were hundreds of theatres and cinemas all across Serbia, in advance of the five-day general strike which is due to bring the country to a standstill from tomorrow.

The lights are going out all over Belgrade. President Slobodan Milosevic does not know if he will see them lit again in his time. Last night, the National Theatre in Belgrade was dark, as were hundreds of theatres and cinemas all across Serbia, in advance of the five-day general strike which is due to bring the country to a standstill from tomorrow.

This week's shutdown is the first weapon at the opposition's disposal after what it claims was Vojislav Kostunica's decisive victory over Mr Milosevic in the presidential poll last week. The Electoral Commission has ruled that Milosevic and Mr Kostunica should face each other in a run-off vote next Sunday because, it said, Kostunica fell just short of a 50 per cent majority. The opposition has rejected the idea of a second round, saying Mr Kostunica won outright.

Milosevic can probably live with the fact that his compatriots cannot see plays or movies for a few days. Given the fact that the economy is, in any case, in such dire straits, even the strikes in the factories can hardly make things much worse. There are, however, other small but deadly signs that the regime may be in the final stages of decay.

Emerging from his bunker to speak at a ceremony at Belgrade's Banjica military academy yesterday, Milosevic struck a deeply ambiguous note. He promised 3,000 relatives of newly-promoted young officers that their children's military skills would never be used to endanger anybody's freedom and independence, but only to protect the freedom and independence of their country.

Flanked by his Defence Minister, Dragoljub Ojdanic, and army chief-of-staff Nebojsa Pavkovic, the president told the officers that their commitment "in the time of great challenges for our people and the state is an honourable and brave decision worthy of respect". He knew as he spoke that the opposition was offering olive branches to the army and the police, and suggesting, in effect, that the commanders should jump ship. He also knew that the army was carefully weighing its options.

In another small fracture in the edifice built by Milosevic, a group of journalists at the official Tanjug news agency demanded on Friday that their agency should provide more balanced coverage of the opposition coalition.

The disaffection of a few dozen journalists can sound like a small Balkan detail by comparison with a quarter of a million on the streets and a general strike in prospect. But Tanjug, a once respected agency, which included many of Yugoslavia's best journalists, has for years played a key role in pouring out propaganda on Milosevic's behalf.

Serb state television has also suffered from ructions, with journalists working in the Novi Sad regional studios demanding greater access for the opposition.

This week will be decisive for Milosevic. The opposition hopes that the momentum will now become unstoppable. Even in Pozarevac, Milosevic's birthplace and stronghold, crowds are on the march. Certainly, if the defections and small rebellions within the regime continue, including restlessness within the police and the military, then his possibilities of survival are few.

Over 13 years, Milosevic has made grandiose promises to his compatriots. Now they live in a dismembered country; areas which Serbs had lived in for hundreds of years are an almost Serb-free zone, and the economy is so dire that the economic "crisis" that supposedly blighted the country when Milosevic first came to power now seems like a distant Shangri-La.

Milosevic's power has repeatedly been threatened -- and always he has survived, often by launching another war. Now, however, Serbia is swirling with a belief that something is changing.

There may yet be a hideous endgame. It would be foolish to exclude the possibility of a final shoot-out. But once the icebergs start to crack, the whole process is likely to prove irreversible.

At my local grocery store, when I asked the owner whether he was convinced that Milosevic was now finished, he looked at me as though I was insane even to ask the question. "Yes! Of course!" The other customers nodded in happy agreement and their faces lit up with the kind of smiles that have been rare in Serbia in recent years.

Part of the new self-confidence is down to unity. The mass rallies in central Belgrade and other Serb cities have been awash with banners from the different Serb opposition parties - the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, the Social Democratic Union, the Christian Democrats, the Civic Alliance and many more - a long list which can confuse even the most dedicated Balkan anorak. All of them, however, are loyal to one man, Vojislav Kostunica.

Kostunica has, for many years, been the leader of the small DSS, the Democratic Party of Serbia. But he has proved to be unusual among Serb leaders in that he is not perceived as someone of great personal vanity but rather as a man simply doing a job that needs to be done. He has even said that he does not wish to be elected president for more than a short period.

Kostunica is now widely referred to as "President Kostunica of Yugoslavia"; he gained an absolute majority of 52.5 per cent, according to the opposition's figures which were originally agreed with and countersigned by the representatives of the regime. The government's attempts to suggest differently, and to call for a run-off, are thus seen as a last-ditch stand.

Inside Kostunica's modest offices in central Belgrade, you can watch Western ambassadors come and go.

The body language is noteworthy. An opposition leader often receives junior diplomats; if he meets the ambassador of an important Western country, he is honoured to be received at the embassy or the residence.

Here, however, the ambassador comes to pay his respects to the elected leader; and it is the ambassador, with his limousine waiting outside, who must wait patiently until the leader is free.

That little piece of diplomatic etiquette speaks volumes about the way that perceptions have changed in the past few days.

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