Revolution fails as Serbs' winter storm blows over

Milosevic climbs back to power as infighting wrecks the move towards a democratic future
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The Independent Online
Whatever happened to the Serbian revolution?

Back in February the country's strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, looked to be on the way out, stung by a winter of street demonstrations that began as outrage over his attempt to steal a string of municipal elections, and grew into a wholesale rejection of his corrupt, authoritarian style of government.

The Serbs, showing none of the fear that had made them cow before Mr Milosevic over the previous eight years, shook off their international reputation as a nation of resentful nationalists and looked determined to create a better, democratic future.

No more. All of a sudden, Mr Milosevic is very much back in the driving seat. He has just had himself elected to the Yugoslav presidency - the only place he had left to go under constitutional rules - for the next four years, and stands every chance of having his chosen candidate elevated to his old job as head of state in Serbia.

The opposition has sunk back into the oblivion from which it emerged last November. Only the students - the real heroes of the Belgrade winter - have maintained any kind of democratic resolve, but even they are sliding into despondency.

"From November to February, a chance was given to the opposition parties and their leaders, but we failed to take it," said Miodrag Perisic, the deputy leader of the Democratic Party.

"We had public opinion on our side, and the international community, and the media, but we made the same old silly mistake. We fragmented."

To be precise, the opposition coalition Zajedno (literally, "Together") failed to capitalise on its triumph and push for an all-party interim administration pending free and fair parliamentary elections. Instead, two of the three coalition leaders, Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party and Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement, argued about how to divide the power they had just gained and, soon, stopped talking to each other altogether.

Mr Draskovic, who belongs to much the same authoritarian school of politics as Mr Milosevic and who is a fiery nationalist to boot, rejected the notion of freedom of information in its usual sense and started using his airtime on the Belgrade television station B92 to broadcast propaganda for his party.

Mr Djindjic, meanwhile, played the Western liberal card for all it was worth but lost sight of the main objective, which was to push out Mr Milosevic. In Belgrade, where Mr Djindjic is mayor, the stand-off with Mr Draskovic has brought business to a near-standstill and has prompted a throng of protesters recently to hurl eggs outside the city hall - the sort of thing Zajedno was organising against Mr Milosevic a short while ago.

It did not take long for a newly emboldened parliament to pass a law redrawing constituency boundaries to suit the ruling SPS party's taste, and setting a voting threshold so high, at 10 per cent, that a fragmented opposition stood little chance of returning to parliament at all.

The opposition's present situation is a mess. Mr Draskovic has begun flirting with Mr Milosevic in the hope of some personal reward, as well as with the notorious ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, with whom he has close family ties. Meanwhile, Mr Djindjic and his remaining coalition partner Vesna Pesic are threatening to boycott the presidential and parliamentary elections set for September - a hollow gesture as the two politicians command only a sliver of the vote on their own.

Mr Milosevic has manipulated the situation masterfully. Far from freeing the media as the protesters demanded, he has shut down 55 independent television and radio stations. Exploiting a leadership split in Serbia's sister republic, Montenegro, he rushed through his election as Yugoslav president two weeks ago before deputies in the Montenegrin parliament could be instructed to do anything except vote for him as usual.

Although his new post is largely honorific, there is no risk of him being upstaged. His party's candidate for the Serbian leadership is Zoran Lilic, the outgoing Yugoslav president and a man so bland that it is said he never presumes to poke his nose into his own business. The status quo - what one Belgrade newspaper this week called Sloboslavia - seems assured.

It is astonishing and depressing to witness how little was changed by last winter's revolution. The students kicked out their unpopular dean, Dragutin Velickovic, but their favourite professors have had their pay cheques held up for so long that they can barely afford to teach. The minister for education was fired, but his successor is generally deemed to be worse.

The Serbian interior minister who co-ordinated police repression against the demonstrators, Zoran Sokolovic, has merely been shunted into the Yugoslav interior ministry. His successor is one of Mr Milosevic's oldest friends. The one progressive appointment was the US-educated Radmila Milentijevic as Media Minister, but her radical press Bill has yet to be given parliamentary floor time.

There have been one or two expulsions of SPS moderates and one mysterious murder, of the chief of police. But otherwise it has been business as usual. Or worse than usual.

Aren't people still mad about all of this? Yes they are. Students greeted Mr Milosevic's inauguration as Yugoslav president last week by tossing shoes at him, and workers are planning a slew of strikes. But if disillusionment with Mr Milosevic has become an admitted reality, so too has the bitter realisation that there is no visible alternative.

"We are all doomed to react individually, or in pockets. There is no common counter-ideology to integrate people," said Dragan Veselinov, a political leader in the northern province of Vojvodina.

"We don't have politicians capable of fighting the regime. They prefer to fight each other."