The accidental heroes of Serbia

Can the leaders of the opposition be trusted? Andrew Gumbel in Belgrade examines their democratic credentials
ONE of them was once considered more extreme and dangerous than Slobodan Milosevic. Another was a regular wartime guest of Radovan Karadzic, erstwhile Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal, at his ski resort- cum-capital in the mountains above Sarajevo. As for the third, well, she's always seemed nice enough, but the standing joke is that she never had more supporters than she could whisper to across a cosy living-room.

Serbia's triumvirate of opposition leaders - Vuk Draskovic, Zoran Djindjic and Vesna Pesic - might be the heroes of the moment as people power sweeps through the streets of Belgrade, but to look at their record they scarcely fit the part that has suddenly been thrust upon them. To be sure, they do a very nice job of preaching democracy, human rights, liberalism and openness as they stand on their spot-lit platform in the middle of Republic Square, but what would happen if Mr Milosevic were to slide into the ether one day and the country was suddenly in their hands?

The truth is, nobody knows, least of all the tens of thousands of demonstrators who came to acclaim them every afternoon and march behind them in their showdowns with Mr Milosevic's half-hearted riot police. In the smoke-and- mirrors world of Balkan politics, it is not even possible to judge whether they are being more sincere now as they enthusiastically embrace Western values than they were when they peddled a more distasteful brand of aggressive, nationalist politics a few years ago.

The best one can say is that of the many surprises to have emerged from the two-month uprising against Mr Milosevic's authority, one of the biggest has been the spirited performance and cohesive democratic campaign of three politicians previously thought of as eccentric but ultimately irrelevant dwarves on the world stage. But are they true leadership material?

"Right now, we have nobody better," admitted Ilija Djukic, foreign policy spokesman for Mr Djindjic's Democratic Party and a former Yugoslav foreign minister. "If you are looking for a Serbian Vaclav Havel, we don't have one. But our politicians are growing up very quickly."

Ironically, the sudden rise of the opposition owes more to Mr Milosevic's mistakes than to any great leap forward in its own thinking. First, the president pushed the disparate opposition parties into a coalition because the electoral law he had drafted for last November's municipal polls penalised small groups standing alone. This was the key to their unexpected victory - standing as a united front that voters may not have had much faith in, but could choose as a vehicle for their general discontent.

Mr Milosevic's next mistake was to annul the elections he had lost, since he provided a straggly, unfocused opposition with a common platform on which it could agree and thrive - basic democratic rights, freedom of speech, openness to the outside world, and so on. Before the election, only Vesna Pesic, with her tiny following among the anti-war wing of the Belgrade intelligentsia, had seemed a true believer in such principles.

As the crisis wore on, the opposition proved its tremendous inventiveness in running rings around the government and the riot police on the streets of Belgrade. It occupied valuable column inches in foreign newspapers and put itself squarely on the map of world diplomacy. It even found space on Serbia's tightly-controlled state media which has shown the street demonstrations, albeit sneeringly, on television night after night.

The godfather of this Belgrade Winter has undoubtedly been Vuk Draskovic, a messianic figure with his straggly black hair and thick beard who has proved the most charismatic speaker and the mastermind behind many of the most effective civil disobedience tactics. Vuk, as the crowds all refer to him, is a veteran at this sort of thing, having faced down government tanks during the last big opposition demonstrations in March 1991.

At his best, Vuk has proved an admirable fighter for civil rights - at least when his own civil rights have been at stake. But he is not as cuddly as he looks, having come to prominence in the mid-Eighties as an uncompromising advocate of Serb nationalism and scourge of every minority in Yugoslavia.

The programme of his Serbian Renewal Movement, now theoretically pushed to one side, still has as its primary aim the union of all Serb peoples in one country; many of his supporters are unapologetic nationalists whose differences with the ruling party seem to be more about power than ideology. Vuk cheered from the sidelines as the Balkan wars began five years ago and criticised the Dayton peace agreement that ended them as a shameful climbdown.

Vuk often seems wild and out of control, advocating violence against the police one day, only to take his words back hurriedly the next. For the most part, he is not taken seriously as a politician - opinion polls put his approval rating no higher than five or six per cent, and many former supporters have deserted him for other parties. But he has the charisma and, perhaps more importantly, the semblance of a party structure that the opposition movement badly needs.

A more serious contender for power and the rising star of the protest movement is Zoran Djindjic, a man whose political career began in the 1980s with passionate attacks on the nationalist movement and whose present goals - free trade, free markets, openness to the West - are better in tune with the interests of the outside world. His Democratic Party contains a high proportion of intellectual heavyweights, such as Mr Djukic and the respected economist Miroljub Labus, and has most impressed Belgrade's foreign embassies.

But Mr Djindjic too is an enigma. As a student he was a follower of the Marxist-inspired Frankfurt School, but now he has forged links with right- wing parties, including Forza Italia and the British Conservatives. Having battled the nationalists in the Eighties, he spent the latter part of the war cosying up to the Bosnian Serbs, advocated a referendum on a return to the monarchy in Serbia and refused to countenance autonomy for the suppressed Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo.

Most readings of Mr Djindjic see him as a prime opportunist. "He despises nationalism, but he will use it if necessary to get ahead," says Dragan Veselinov, a political leader from the northern province of Vojvodina and an outspoken critic of Serbian politics. "He is ready to use any ideology, as Milosevic was. He is a dangerous man."

For now, opportunism dictates a careful accommodation of Western liberal values to haul Serbia out of its international isolation and open up the foreign credit lines vital to its bruised and abused economy. Nationalism may be a key to political popularity in Serbia, but now is not the time to brandish it.

Should the opposition parties reach power, either now or later, they will remain under close scrutiny. The student movement which initiated the anti-government protests has refused to align itself politically, and considers itself the purest advocate of grassroots democracy.

"If the opposition wins power and decides that it too is going to mess about with elections, we'll be right back out there demanding our rights," said the student spokesman, Bojan Bogdanovic.