Serbian parties lurch to the right

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The Independent Online
SCREAMING 'Victory, Victory, Victory]' to an adoring crowd of tens of thousands of followers massed in front of the parliament in Belgrade, the opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, wound up a Serbian election campaign dominated by ultra-nationalism.

'Refugees, I will return to you your hearths wherever they are,' he roared. 'Sarajevo, Mostar and Pakrac will all be part of Serbia]'

'I beg you to vote for Vuk. He is our saviour', an old peasant in a headscarf introduced as Granny Mica shouted into the microphone. 'He is the one to get us out of this hell.'

The writer-turned-politician said he would tear up all agreements the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, has made with Croats and Muslims in Geneva to end the war in Bosnia. He also accused Mr Milosevic of betraying the Serb-held Krajina region in Croatia to Zagreb.

Vuk Draskovic was once the hope of Serbia's now shrivelled band of pro-Western liberals, so his decision to campaign on a frenzied nationalist platform is a sign of how far Serbia has travelled down the road to nationalist extremism.

The other opposition parties have lurched the same way, dropping faint-hearted talk about Serbia's economic woes for rabble-rousing stuff about blood and soil that sounds as if it has been culled from the pages of Mein Kampf. Several have sent messages of congratulation to the nationalist leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The opposition seems to think this wild talk will win it the extra votes that it conspicuously failed to scoop in last year's elections. Maybe its leaders are right. Unable to accuse them of being wet on the national question, Mr Milosevic's Socialists have lacked an issue to get their teeth into.

After stirring up bloody conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia they can scarcely start fishing for the anti-war vote. But with Mr Draskovic declaring even Sarajevo will one day be in Serbia, they cannot claim a monopoly on patriotism either.

The latest polls suggest the Socialist vote may dip below 25 per cent in Sunday's election. This would leave them with fewer than the 101 seats in the 250-seat chamber they won last time and make it tricky for them to form a coalition government with one of the minor parties.

Mr Milosevic's strategy went awry in September when the Bosnian Muslims refused to sign the peace treaty drawn up by the Geneva peace mediators, allotting them only 30 per cent of Bosnia's territory. Few doubt that Mr Milosevic was bargaining on going to the polls with the borders of Greater Serbia ratified by the world and sanctions lifted. Instead the Muslims have carried on fighting, leaving Serbia with an unsolved guerrilla war and sanctions firmly in place.

The Serbian economy has spiralled downwards remorselessly in the meantime. In a few hours on Wednesday, the value of the dinar plunged from two to five billion to the German mark.

Some veteran observers such as the former dissident Milovan Djilas are convinced that Mr Milosevic is firmly in charge of the Serbian agenda. But there are signs he is losing his grip. In the Serb-held Krajina region of Croatia, an extreme right-wing nationalist, Milan Babic, was elected President this week after voters rejected Mr Milosevic's candidate. The result was a fillip to the opposition leaders in Serbia, who hailed this show of defiance as proof that Mr Milosevic's authority is crumbling.

But Serbia's secretive President still has cards up his sleeve. When the opposition are not ranting about Greater Serbia they snipe at each other. The Democratic Party has split into two, and neither faction wants to share the limelight with the egocentric Mr Draskovic. The fascist Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj would not fit easily into an opposition coalition; many party members could end up at a future war crimes tribunal on atrocities committed in Bosnia and Croatia.

If the Socialists flop at the polls Mr Milosevic may ditch them and try cohabiting with a non-socialist government. He has done little to promote his own party in this election. But it is hard to imagine this authoritarian ex-Communist working with right-wing poets and dreamers, let alone offering them access to the crucial ministries of the interior and defence. Whatever happens, Serbs will wake up on Monday morning to a prolongation of the nightmare and possibly years of instability ahead of them.

(Photograph omitted)