Milosevic puts his faith in media abuse

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The Independent Online
If Milan Panic and the opposition succeed in toppling the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, in elections this weekend, they will - they say - have triumphed over a campaign of foul play by the old regime.

Serbia's state-run television and radio have played the most controversial role in the two-week contest, broadcasting almost 24 hours a day against Mr Panic. The media have accused him of working for a murky worldwide anti- Serbian conspiracy funded by the CIA and the Vatican.

The main television news, Serbia's most-watched programme now expanded to one-and-a-half hours to take up most of the evening's viewing, appears exclusively interested in items which throw light on Mr Panic's alleged crimes or which celebrate the benefits of Mr Milosevic's five-year rule.

In a typical edition on Monday, 40 minutes were devoted to a speech by Mr Milosevic which asserted the Serbian economy was booming thanks to Western sanctions. The boss of one of Serbia's biggest firms endorsed this claim for the benefit of the cameras.

'The television is the regime's most formidable weapon - it is their atomic bomb,' lamented Strahinja Kastratovic, an opposition legal adviser. 'If they lost control over the television they would be totally defeated.' A US election observer, Robert Dohl, described the misuse of the state media as blatant. 'We were expecting it but the degree surpasses even our expectations,' he said.

Mr Milosevic's ruling Socialists have all the advantages of a ruling party: a disciplined organisation, the not-so-discreet support of the police and the administration, which includes most election commission officials, and unlimited funds. Foreign election observers say they are shocked to see how little money the opposition operates on. The observers will be allowed to monitor balloting in the polling stations, but have to leave when polling closes. They will not be present when the counting is done.

Meanwhile many Serbs who volunteered to monitor polling on behalf of the opposition complain they are threatened at the workplace with the loss of their jobs. Most company directors belong to the ruling Socialists.

The opposition accept they entered the contest under worse conditions than in 1990, when they boycotted the poll. They point to immense Western pressure to take part in any election which could rid Serbia of Mr Milosevic, seen in the West as most responsible for the carnage in Bosnia.

'The only difference between now and the last elections is that in the meantime we got three wars, total economic collapse, living standards similar to those in Albania and international isolation,' said Borislav Mihiz, a leader of the main opposition coalition, Depos.

Besides the blatant use of the media to affect the vote, the opposition claims the ruling party is using state funds to massage the electorate in key constituencies. The claim - supported by Western diplomats - is that peasants in seats which top Milosevic aides are contesting have been relieved of taxes and suddenly paid for their produce.

This is unusual in Serbia, where most peasants have waited in vain for months to be paid by the government for this summer's crops.

Unemployed workers in key industrial areas, such as Belgrade's Rakovica suburb, have suddenly come in for bumper pay-offs worth up to 300,000 dinars ( pounds 120) a month, six times the average wage for workers who are still employed.

It all may not be enough to win Mr Milosevic the required majority. Support for his doctrine of strident nationalism and confrontation with the world is slipping. 'Despite everything we are going to win,' Mr Kastratovic said. 'But then I am an opposition man. I have no option but to believe it.'

(Photograph omitted)