Report / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Serbia’s Embattled Opposition

The recent crackdown by the Belgrade regime on Serbia’s independent media and political activists suggests that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is more vulnerable than it would appear.

Executive Summary

The recent crackdown by the Belgrade regime on Serbia’s independent media and political activists suggests that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is more vulnerable than it would appear.  Since the Kosovo war ended, Milosevic has proven unable to expand his support base and must struggle with diminishing resources to keep restive constituencies intact.  Despite its recognised weakness, the Serbian opposition is capable under certain conditions of removing Milosevic from power and offering better governance.  The message of numerous public opinion polls over the past eight months is that there is an anti-Milosevic majority in Serbia, but that the opposition must work together in coalitions to exploit it.

At present the information provided by different polls conducted in the fall of 1999 and supported by polling taken this year, and the consensus among experts inside Serbia, is that the regime has lost a great deal of its most active supporters.  According to these polls, more than 70 per cent of the population favours political change, despite the fact that a majority of the people can neither define the parameters of the change they desire nor agree on who should be the agent of change.  More than 60 per cent of the population cites the improvement of relations with the West among the most important policy priorities facing Serbia, while Kosovo does not even appear in the list of the six most important areas of public concern.  These polling results suggest that the opposition would benefit from turning elections into a referendum on Milosevic.

The international community, however, has yet to exploit this ripeness for change by adopting a coherent, unified approach toward strengthening Serbia’s opposition forces.  Indeed, these forces continue to be viewed — and are too often dismissed — as weak, disunited, and indecisive, while the regime is perceived to be securely in power.  This assessment of the opposition may have some weight in relation to the Belgrade opposition party leaders, but not for most other large towns throughout Serbia, where courageous leaders have often kept the democratic forces together in local coalitions.

If these local leaders manage to harness and channel the frustration occasioned by Belgrade’s latest crackdown on the independent media and the student-led resistance group Otpor, a groundswell of momentum for change could spread even to the more conservative Belgrade political elites.  But to sustain such momentum beyond the current angry, localised responses to increased repression, opposition leaders must shape policies that build up and play to public attitudes, opposition strengths, and regime vulnerabilities.

The window of opportunity for formulating and publicising such policies is extremely narrow.  The holding of federal parliamentary and municipal elections in Yugoslavia —due by the end of the year, according to the federal and Serbian constitutions and laws, but not yet scheduled on the calendar — may be more to Milosevic’s advantage than is often assumed in Western commentary, especially as independent media willing to give attention to the opposition are being shut down or taken over.  Local elections would enable him to try to oust democratically elected mayors from key Serbian municipalities.  Federal parliamentary elections would give him the opportunity to exploit strains within national opposition forces and, in particular, to sow discord between Serbian democrats and reformist Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic over whether or not to boycott such a ballot.

To avert such possible eventualities, the international community must quickly become more effective in assisting Serbia’s democratic forces.  Serbia, after all, is the last great democratisation campaign of eastern Europe.  Successes in Poland and the other communist bloc countries in 1989, and subsequently in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Croatia, provide useful lessons for those who wish to assist those promoting democratic change in Serbia.  Support for the independent media should remain the first track for effective international support.

But the international community must go further.  Scepticism about Belgrade-centred opposition leaders should not deter Western nations from channelling significant financial assistance to opposition leaders outside Belgrade.  By providing recognition and support to local leaders who exhibit coalition-building skills, the international community will encourage them to overcome personality and other differences that divide them.  This approach can be reinforced by tapping the potential of independent non-government organisations (NGOs) and other civil society actors to complement the work of the political parties.

Milosevic remains the single greatest cause of instability and conflict in southeastern Europe.  Belgrade’s desperate and oppressive measures of recent weeks reflect his apparent weakness in the face of the manifest popular desire for change.  Western governments and publics should learn from past mistakes in dealing with the opposition, apply more effective measures and, above all, commit to staying the course with the opposition until democratic governance is established in Serbia.

Washington DC/Brussels, 30 May 2000

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