Serbia: The Milosevic Regime on the Eve of the September Elections
Serbia: The Milosevic Regime on the Eve of the September Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 99 / Europe & Central Asia

Serbia: The Milosevic Regime on the Eve of the September Elections

The regime in Serbia has recovered its footing after the 1999 war with NATO and remains as hard-line as ever. Learning and gaining experience over the years has enabled the regime to “improve” its performance and become more efficient.

Executive Summary

The regime in Serbia has recovered its footing after the 1999 war with NATO and remains as hard-line as ever.  Learning and gaining experience over the years has enabled the regime to “improve” its performance and become more efficient.  Most analysts in Serbia agree that Milosevic will be able to stay in power indefinitely.

The process of internal consolidation after a lost war and loss of Kosovo has been mostly successful.  The Serbian state security apparatus is pervasive.  Its only task remains to secure the rule of federal President Slobodan Milosevic; the enemy is whatever threatens that rule.  Information collected is used selectively to intimidate, blackmail or inflict political damage on opponents.  The police are estimated now to be 80-100,000 strong; their consolidation was completed in June.  New laws have given the police new power and the Law on Terrorism is expected to further enhance their authority and legal power.

Despite claims of victory over NATO forces last year, the whole affair was a sobering experience for the Yugoslav army.  The changes at the top that followed were successful in securing control over the top layer of the military, but not of the whole structure.  The regime cannot count any more on the army as a reserve in case of civil unrest and other Serbian internal problems.

Of the two ruling parties—the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) and Yugoslav United Left (JUL)—the SPS has more members (600,000) and seems to still enjoy considerable support in rural communities due to overwhelming propaganda and skilful use of tradition.  It has, however, lost urban support both to the opposition and in the past couple of years to JUL.  Some of the best SPS cadres are disappointed and looking for a way out.  JUL, now with 200,000 members, has been on the offensive and gaining new ground in the government, media, education and business sectors at the expense of the SPS.

The regime has strengthened the information sector, and manipulation of the media remains one of its highest priorities.  The government moulds all news about events in Serbia and the world for the use of the public.  Refined over the years, the system has become more sophisticated and very efficient.  The independent media still exist despite all odds, but they are able to reach only a small segment of the population.

The economic sector is organised in a way that allows total control.  The economy remains socialist and centrally controlled.  Official statistics claim that industrial production in the first four months of 2000 increased by 3.4 per cent compared to the same period in 1999, but last year it was 24.1 per cent lower than in 1998.  The budget is financed mostly by customs duties and taxes on illegal imports of oil.  Also a complex set of exchange rates is used to achieve a redistribution of profits and losses in the economy.  Prices are under government control, which may explain the relatively low inflation rate and the stability of exchange rates.  In the first four months of 2000, exports were $111.8 million per month and imports $275.4 million with a projected trade deficit for the year of nearly two billion dollars.  Foreign debt is estimated currently to be above $16 billion.  Despite these problems, government experts believe that they can keep the economy running at the current level.

Milosevic seems determined to keep his firm grip on power for years to come.  He steers the government apparatus and sets the rules, but does not commit himself directly on most policies, so does not suffer the consequences of continuous failures.  He discards people after they have served his purpose.  He has never had close associates and does not trust anyone except his wife, Mira Markovic, the leader of JUL.  Their relationship is based on emotional, ideological and political closeness and mutual trust.  Her participation in running the regime has been steadily increasing and she has become the driving force behind most activities.  She is more ideologically rigid and the ongoing process of “Titoisation” is believed to be her brainchild.

On the foreign policy front, the regime has continued its efforts to reach out to Russia, China, India, Belarus and members of the non-aligned movement.  As far as the U.S. is concerned, Belgrade is waiting for a change of administration.  Officials expect George W. Bush to win the Presidency and to modify the American position, creating an opportunity for contacts.  They feel encouraged by the problems the current administration has encountered with its Balkan policies in Congress and see signs of forthcoming changes.

Preparations for local and federal elections began in May with the take over or muzzling of most independent and opposition media, a crackdown on street protests and demonstrations, closing of the universities and the systematic intimidation of the student-led opposition movement Otpor’s members.  Independent analysts close to the government concluded in early June that the opposition, including Otpor, had been effectively neutralised in the short term.  Prior to announcement of the municipal and federal elections on 24 September, most local observers agreed that it was unlikely that any meaningful resistance and action against the regime could be organised before autumn.  By July, the regime had completed its preparations for the elections, with amendments to the federal Constitution enacted in a single day and allowing two more four-year terms for Milosevic.

In contrast to the internal consolidation of the regime, Milosevic’s popular support has eroded steadily.  This by itself will not lead to change because it has been matched by opposition losses.  The opposition lacks support because it does not offer a comprehensive and appealing program, is divided – as further confirmed by the recent announcement that there would be a second opposition candidate for the presidency – and believed to be as corrupt as the regime; the latter is especially true for Vuk Draskovic’s Serbian Renewal Party (SPO).  The opposition, especially in Belgrade, has also long been on the defensive, reacting only to actions of the authorities. 

A large number of voters remain passive because they don't see an alternative to the Milosevic regime.  With a large proportion of “undecided” voters, the situation in Serbia is very unstable and may easily become volatile.  The present balance, which in overall terms seems tipped in favour of the regime, may change literally overnight.  Brewing dissatisfaction provides a fertile ground for any anti-regime movement.  Unrest may be sparked easily and it could be precipitated by a shortage of food if drought continues or heating fails next winter.  While the opposition is poorly organised to take over in such a crisis, Vojislav Seselj’s Radical Party (SRS) and possibly the SPO may be the likely beneficiaries.  Both parties are capable of mobilising their members quickly and organising armed units.

In spite of claims by opposition leaders that Milosevic can be removed by popular will, it remains extremely unlikely that the opposition can win the elections.  Quite apart from Milosevic’s practiced efforts to foul the electoral pitch, serious doubts remain about the capacity of the opposition to mount a credible campaign.  Opposition leaders, whether united or not, are not held in great respect by the majority of Serbian people, nor is there a consensus behind any one figure as an agent of change and an alternative to Milosevic.  Moreover, almost every candidate and party seeks to compete with Milosevic in his own nationalist arena, thus complicating their relationships with the West and adding to the Serbian people’s confusion about how to reconcile national myths and policies with their desire to integrate into European political, economic and security structures.

Milosevic has regained ground in recent months by consolidating the regime’s internal structures and support, and cracking down on the Serbian opposition parties, independent media and leaders of the student movement.  The 24 September elections are the next step in the Yugoslav President’s bid to secure his continuation in power and acquire a new veneer of democratic legitimacy for himself, his regime and the recent constitutional changes to the country’s federal structure.  The Serbian opposition is committed to preventing this from happening, by fighting Milosevic at the polls.  The international community has so far supported the opposition’s decision to take part in the elections, and has gone so far as to pressure Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic to field candidates of his own, which he has refused to do.  However, the odds remain heavily stacked against the opposition and in Milosevic’s favour.  In the present circumstances, the participation of the opposition and of the Montenegrins in federal elections runs the very real risk of handing Milosevic a sham election victory.

The international community should not lend further support to these flawed and illegal federal elections.   The West’s willingness to endorse phoney elections is an act of desperation, which rests on the hope that if Milosevic blatantly steals the elections the Serbian people will somehow rise up against him.  Much as that would be good for Serbia, it is unlikely to happen.  While no-one can prevent the Serbian opposition from participating in these elections, the international community could and should back the Montenegrin government in its persistent refusal to participate in a poll that seriously endangers Montenegro’s emerging democracy.

Belgrade/Washington/Brussels, 17 August 2000

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