Serbia subtly stifles democracy: The West has allowed Milosevic to do things his way, writes Marcus Tanner in Belgrade

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THREE weeks after the jailing of the Serbian opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, and his wife, two British MPs have returned from a fact-finding mission in the former Yugoslavia with good news.

Mr Draskovic, they said, was not suffering fron brain damage following his arrest and beating by the police. They were not allowed to see him, but a doctor in charge of the Draskovics assured them of this.

Several hundred French mayors signed a petition calling on the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, to release his jailed opponent. Letters arrived from John Major, Francois Mitterand and the Greek Prime Minister. Mr Milosevic ignored them all. He knows how far he can go now, with Bosnia prostrate beneath his boots and the West hurrying to partition the country on Belgrade's terms.

With legal moves afoot to ban Mr Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement, and opposition deputies threatened with their lives in parliament by the neo-fascists of Vojislav Seselj's Radical Party, Serbia's brief experiment in parliamentary democracy may be over. The fate of Mihajlo Markovic, a deputy in Mr Draskovic's party, is a sign of the times. When a Radical Party deputy beat him savagely inside the parliament, the smirking Speaker did not even tick off the assailant.

Vesna Pesic, a leading human rights campaigner and Serbian opposition activist, claims there is a direct link between the West's capitulation to Serbian demands to split up Bosnia and the collapse of democratic hopes inside Serbia itself.

'Now the US, Britain and Russia have decided to cut up Bosnia, the opposition in Serbia has no chance and everything we said in favour of human rights and against 'ethnic cleansing' looks ridiculous,' she said. 'The West has recognised the use of force to change borders, betraying their own values. Lord Owen is the real war criminal in all this. After he endorsed genocide in Bosnia against Muslims you may as well forget democracy inside Serbia.'

The 83-year-old former dissident, Milovan Djilas, said he felt he was back in the era of appeasement. 'We are in the age of Chamberlain and Daladier, of believing if you signed a treaty you averted trouble, never mind that a whole nation has been sold out,' he said, referring to Bosnian Muslims.

Mr Markovic says Serbia is already a dictatorship in all but name. 'All the institutions of state, starting with the courts and the police, are in the hands of Mr Milosevic. And if that is not enough, he has paramilitaries waiting in the wings and then the army,' he said.

'Europe and the US have given Milosevic the green light in Bosnia, and that will have a big impact on us inside Serbia,' he added. 'Lord Owen has pronounced him a peace- maker and a factor of stability in the Balkans. He navely thinks Milosevic will calm down the war for him. He never understood the man who set Yugoslavia on fire will never put the fires out, that the lifeblood of the Serbian government is war.'

Opposition accusations that Mr Milosevic is running a dictatorship are hard to prove. The streets of Belgrade swarm with police, many of them recruited from Serb districts in Croatia and Bosnia. But Ms Pesic and Mr Markovic still go about their business. Opposition rallies are banned in squares and streets. But gatherings without loudspeakers take place without problems in out-of-the-way places.

The Serbian regime is a subtle animal. Everything is permitted on paper and everything is dangerous - as Mr and Mrs Draskovic found out. Opposition supporters are vilified in the media, harassed at work, often sacked for their political beliefs. There is shocking political indoctrination of children at school.

The institutions, Belgrade university, the prestigious Academy of Sciences, the once-powerful Yugoslav army, the big state firms, even the hospitals, are all run by Milosevic lackeys. The army is a shadow of its former self. Aspiring toughs now enter Serbia's huge police force with its state-of-the-art electronic coshes and other riot-quelling gadgets.

Serbs are traditionally meek in the face of authority. They have no history of taking part in social, as opposed to nationalist, protests. Their past is studded with uprisings against the Turks, Austrians and Germans. It is hard to see them rioting against their plunging salaries.

With this is mind, there is no reason why Mr Milosevic should not carry on as he has done for years, running a virtual dictatorship, window dressed as a Western democracy. It has worked for the last seven years. Why not seven more?

The Cassandras' answer is that economic catastrophe caused by two years of war will shortly drive even forelock-tugging Serbs towards an explosion. Riots will then force Mr Milosevic to scrap the facade of a democracy and use police terror against all real or imagined opponents. Mr Markovic predicted: 'Riots in Belgrade will dwarf what was seen in Bucharest when Ceausescu fell.'

(Photograph omitted)