SCMP Friday, October 6, 2000


Embattled leader

It looks as if 13 could be Slobodan Milosevic's unlucky number. The President of Yugoslavia has clung to power all those years, in spite of four disastrous wars and a shattered economy. At many times in the past it looked as if his regime was finished; but he has always proved unsinkable. However badly events go against him now, he will not loosen his grip without a fight. But this time he is being defeated by the very weapon that has kept him in power.
The man who beat him in the polls, Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia, can stoke the fires of Serbian nationalism even more effectively than Milosevic. He is a hardliner whose popularity grew through his vehement denouncement of Nato during the Kosovo war.
He has a reputation as a man of integrity, but he is no friend of the US and has already called the war crimes tribunal a violation of Serbian autonomy and declared he would not be prepared to hand over any of those indicted, Milosevic included. If he does win power, it could mean a different set of problems for the West. The latest ruling of the courts may also allow the president to stay in power beyond July, when his term expires.
Meanwhile, public protest yesterday gathered a momentum that could prove unstoppable. Clearly, large sections of the army and the police no longer support the president. The Serbian Orthodox Church, once supportive, has urged him to step down.
Even while the walls seem to be caving in, Milosevic continues to manipulate. He has succeeded in having last week's election annulled. It is too early to assume that he has no aces left. He still has friends in the army, police, and the mafia bosses who surround him.
Those who profited from the corrupt regime have cast their lot in with their leader.
Yesterday, police used tear gas against protesters who stormed the parliament building in Belgrade and then set it on fire. In other cities the authorities were either powerless against the strength of the crowds, or disinclined to act against them. At Kolubara mine, a major standoff ended with outnumbered security forces backing down and handing over control to the strikers.
If desperate, Milosevic may resort to violence. But for that he must retain the loyalty of the security forces, and now even they are starting to think that their interests lie on the other side of the political fence.