Milosevic buys time for the endgame

Balkan stand-off: Street violence spreads as Socialist regimes hold out against allowing electoral defeat; SERBIA

With pro-democracy demonstrators in Belgrade scenting victory, and President Slobodan Milosevic apparently willing to admit defeat in last November's municipal elections, the political crisis in Serbia seems to be drawing to a close. But the endgame looks set to be drawn-out, and beset with murky power struggles.

This weekend, it looked as if it was all over bar the shouting. Serbia's two deputy prime ministers promised student protesters on Saturday that the opposition's victories in the country's main towns would be reinstated, and high-level leaks talked of inviting the opposition into some kind of power-sharing arrangement.

But Mr Milosevic has yet to follow up such verbal pledges with written commitments. A joint statement issued by the government and the students talked of no more than "respecting the will of the people" without giving specifics. After a meeting yesterday between Theodoros Pangalos, the Greek Foreign Minister, and Mr Milosevic, the official Tanjug news agency made clear that the Serbian government resented growing international pressure to resolve the crisis, suggesting Mr Pangalos's mission achieved little.

The key to the conundrum is Mr Milosevic himself. "He has to find a way of saving face," said Boran Karadzole, of the Forum for International Relations in Belgrade. For now, the state-controlled media are dropping only the tiniest of hints that big changes are on the way - Mr Milosevic clearly wants to buy time and prepare his people slowly.

Few people have a precise idea of what he is thinking. He is said to have isolated himself, and apart from his meeting with Mr Pangalos has refused to see foreign visitors. Some of his strategy, though, can be divined from the course of events. Mr Karadzole believes Milosevic's best chance is to distance himself from his own party, the SPS, and portray himself as a man of the people who is as outraged by the electoral abuses as the street protesters.

"There are still a lot of people in this country prepared to believe he is special and above the fray," Mr Karadzole said.

That would explain why he has acted through the government, not his party, and chosen to communicate with the students while ignoring the organised opposition. It explains why the government leaks have talked about punishing those responsible for the election fiasco and reshuffling the cabinet. And it explains why the JUL, the hardline Communist party run by Mr Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, has been shunted aside in the manoeuvres of the past few days.

Will all this be enough to keep Mr Milosevic at the helm? The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which issued a damning report into the rigged elections at the end of December, is insisting on a definitive answer by Thursday. The United States is threatening sanctions if there is any prevarication. The Serbian people have had many of their previous illusions about Mr Milosevic shattered by the last two months of protest, and the street demonstrators are vowing to keep up their pressure. So it will be a delicate operation.

If Mr Milosevic is successful, he will appease the international community, give his government a more open-minded profile, crack open the united front now being presented by the opposition and rebuild his personal popularity - less, this time, through propaganda in the state media and more through political savvy.

But he has a long way to go. The economy is in ruins and the prospects for a rapid injection of foreign credit look dim while he remains in power. The JUL, once intended as the means with which to build up a revitalised Serbian left, is a millstone around his neck which he cannot easily get rid of because of his wife.

There are questions, too, about Mr Milosevic's feel for political reality after so many years as the undisputed strongman of the region.

"Every day that passes without a resolution gives us more ammunition," said Miodrag Perisic, vice-president of the opposition Democratic Party, "and makes the international community more convinced that he has to go."

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