For the first time since the introduction of a multi-party political system a decade ago, representatives of the opposition in Serbia have reached agreement on the minimum conditions for accepting elections. But only Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic knows when and what kind of elections may be called.
The agreement on elections was signed by all of the main opposition parties and coalitions October 14. This includes the Alliance for Changes, led by the Democratic Party's Zoran Djindjic, and the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) of Vuk Draskovic.
"The democratic opposition in Serbia wishes to resolve huge problems in the country in a peaceful and constructive way and open up a possibility for its genuine reconstruction," said Dragoljub Micunovic, president of the opposition Democratic Centre, at the conclusion of the negotiations. "Big crises are solved by elections, and whoever refuses to talk will take upon
himself the responsibility for a different denoucement."
Under the agreement, the opposition seeks early parliamentary elections, by the end of the year. It also proposes a roundtable between the authorities and the opposition to determine the conditions for elections.
The ruling Socialist Party is called upon to respond by the end of October.
But the decision on elections, as so much in Serbia, depends upon Milosevic. The opposition agreement on elections is based on a revised version of electoral rules spelled out by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). For both republican and federal elections, the proposal seeks a proportional electoral system with a small number of
electoral units, a maximum of eight instead of the current 29.
To prevent a repeat of earlier electoral frauds, electoral roles should be reviewed and revised, control of printing and counting the ballots taken completely out of the hands of the government, and the presence of domestic and foreign observers guaranteed.
Crucially, the agreement demands that the current, highly repressive Law on Informing, through which the government has been able to impose draconian financial penalties on media airing independent views, be revoked and a new media law adopted.
The agreement may mark an important breakthrough for the opposition. Since September 21, the Alliance for Changes has organised protests in two dozen towns throughout Serbia, demanding Milosevic's resignation. Draskovic and the SPO refused to join the protests, arguing that the best way to political change is through elections, not demonstrations.
The SPO has made clear that it will not partake in any street protests until the Serbian Parliament has responded to the request for early elections. The presidency of the SPO also called on leaders in 17 towns in Serbia where the opposition is in power to demand elections at all levels by the end of the year.
The opposition's electoral agreement may thus contribute to healing the strategic and personal rift between the two main opposition figures, Djindjic and Draskovic, which has hindered the growth of an effective movement.
Yet Alliance coordinator Vladan Batic suspects that the Socialist-controlled Parliament, which meets next on October 26, will only call local elections. This, he fears, would merely be a strategic effort to split the opposition again, while seeming to offer some opening--however
The opposition suspects that Milosevic will manipulate elections merely to confirm his control, while seeking to provide the impression of a legal and democratic administration.
Milosevic is in campaign mode already. At a recent "national celebration" in Leskovac--a regime stronghold where opposition is nevertheless growing--the Yugoslav president personally opened the new railway station. Although two and a half years late, the completion of the facility was marked as a huge success for the regime and the reconstruction process.
Serbia "is being reconstructed at the speed of the missiles that destroyed her," Milosevic declared.
Workers from nearby towns were bussed in for the occasion, reportedly under threat of dismissal if they refused to attend and welcome the president. Local students were also compelled to attend. Politika, the pro-regime daily, quoted an unnamed farmer who "came straight from the fields" to shake hands with Milosevic, declaring afterwards, "I can die now."
Significantly, for the first time Milosevic publicly acknowledged that life for people in Serbia is hard. But of course, he said that he and his party bear no responsibilities for all the misfortunes facing the country.
Meantime, intimidation of political opponents is increasing, with the regime doing nothing to deny its involvement in a string of suspicious attacks and other events. Unknown youths have assaulted protesters in Belgrade with baseball bats. An explosive device blew up in front of the house of Nebojsa Andric, president of the Valjevo municipal board of the
Democratic Party. Fortunately, no one was injured.
The police have detained several figures associated with opposition parties in Belgrade, under vague charges. SPO leader Draskovic stands by his charge that the auto accident two weeks ago, in which relatives and associates of his were killed, was an assassination attempt against him. No official statement on the case has been made and an unobstructed independent enquiry seems unlikely.
The opposition is thus calling for elections, but still fearing the worst. As Democratic Party Vice-President Slobodan Vuksanovic warns, "It is now clear who wants civil war in Serbia."
Milenko Vasovic, a journalist, is a regular correspondent for IWPR.