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Protests in Serbia Archive
Outside Serbia's Ruling Party Lies a Massive Power Vacuum

February 3, 1997


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- There is a void in the heart of Serbia that Zoran Djindjic understands better than most. After all, here is a telegenic young man, good on the stump, who some say could one day replace Serbia's hard-line president, Slobodan Milosevic.

So is he up to the job?

"I'll be honest," says Mr. Djindjic, president of the Democratic Party, as he taps a pencil on his desk. "That person does not yet exist."

This may seem a stunning concession for someone who has spearheaded the opposition assault on Mr. Milosevic's rule since mid-November. But neither the mass protests sweeping Serbia nor the daily speeches by Mr. Djindjic (pronounced GIN-gich) and his main partner in the opposition coalition, Vuk Draskovic, have done much to allay people's concerns for what a post-Milosevic Serbia might bring.

"We all know that we don't want Milosevic," says Stevan Jojic, a 36-year-old Belgrade cab driver, as another demonstration swirls around him in downtown Belgrade. "But go much beyond that and it's a blur."

The question of what might come next may seem premature, given that Mr. Milosevic has given no hint of seeking early retirement. Yet the consternation underscores a leadership gap that many here say is among Serbia's most perplexing problems. And it is a gap that could turn explosive were Serbia's delicate political scene to splinter into violence.

Those who hope to shuttle Mr. Milosevic from power know that they face an enormous task in dismantling a system where everything from bank loans to the evening news revolves around one man and his party. Moreover, for all his setbacks, Mr. Milosevic still retains the support of a solid quarter of the country's population.

The opposition is also learning just how fickle Serbia's disgruntled citizenry can be. From afar, there appears to be unity in the demonstrations that have clogged Serbia's main cities ever since the government nullified local elections won largely by the opposition. And there is unity, as far as the most basic demand goes that the opposition coalition, Zajedno, be granted its victory in 14 key towns and cities.

But beyond that, the consensus quickly dissolves into a Balkan stew of competing passions and obsessions involving everything from bringing back Serbia's exiled royal family to defending the rights of the Bosnian Serbs.

Swept up in the revolt, the main opposition leaders are now struggling to patch up their own compromised pasts while fighting to corral the popular anger into a movement durable enough to outlast the country's president. It is proving a daunting task.

"Serbia," says Dragomir Pantic, a prominent Belgrade sociologist, "could desperately use a Vaclav Havel."

The flamboyant Mr. Draskovic, head of the country's largest opposition group, the Serbian Renewal Movement, fancies himself as just that man. Fresh from another rally, his cheeks still flushed from the cold, he plops down in an armchair in his party's downtown headquarters and declares he is ready to stand as the opposition's presidential choice and to lead Serbia in the years ahead. He will even wear a tie, he jests, and trim his bushy beard.

But like so many of Serbia's leaders, Mr. Draskovic, 50, carries considerable baggage from the years when Yugoslavia disintegrated into war. He is, like this country afflicted by war and decades of Communist rule, crippled by the past.

Most Serbs know Mr. Draskovic by his first name, Vuk, which means wolf in Serbian. His favorite writer, he says, is Dostoevsky; his favorite leader, Jesus.

The former journalist rose to prominence in the 1980s with a series of novels meant to dramatize Croat savagery against the Serbs during World War II. In 1989 he stepped forward as a fiery nationalist who advocated bringing back the Serbian monarchy and ejecting Croats and Albanians from a Greater Serbia.

But his rhetoric notably softened as Yugoslavia tilted toward war. By 1991, Mr. Draskovic stood out as one of Serbia's few consistent voices against the carnage, a stance that got him imprisoned and tortured in 1993 and earned him wide international praise. Nonetheless, he still had his own nationalist relapses, declaring by the end of 1993, at the height of the Bosnian war, that Mr. Milosevic was selling out the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia.

But today, with people's minds set almost entirely on the country's ruined economy and their own misery at home, Mr. Draskovic gives impassioned speeches about casting Serbia in the European mold. Any talk of a Greater Serbia, he explains now, was just a writer's metaphor for the great country his could one day become: "A Serbia creating the best and cheapest things, the best writers and poets, the best football players."

Ever the dandy in a blue velvet jacket, his dark hair curling around his ears, Mr. Draskovic describes his vision for Serbia in a booming voice. He and his allies will turn Serbia into a democratic European state, he says. He will honor the Dayton accords that finally brought peace to Bosnia. He will privatize Serbia's devastated economy as the Czechs did theirs.

And, as ever, he waxes poetic. "We must re-establish that beautiful multiethnic, multicultural map we had in this region for centuries," he says. "The war is over. This is a new day."

Yet the war years, many here contend, also marked a political high-water mark that Mr. Draskovic won't likely reach again. His popularity during the war topped 15%, according to several independent polls. His support since then has slipped to below 5%.

"Vuk is an elegant speaker who can move large crowds in the street," says Tomislav Popovic, director of Belgrade's Institute of Economic Sciences. "But people know instinctively that he is not what's needed to lead Serbia in the new era."

Triumphant Returns

Yet just who that might be remains one of the country's many mysteries. There is a widespread, if rarely stated, belief here that anyone who remained in Serbia during the war is somehow tainted and unfit for office. Many Serbs, as a result, talk of unnamed leaders who will return, unstained, from exile in Germany or the U.S.; "the messiah complex," one Western diplomat calls it.

Mr. Djindjic takes it a step further, suggesting Mr. Milosevic might best be replaced by a kind of group presidency. "We are trying to make a virtue of necessity," he concedes, speaking above the din of street protests in his cramped office at the Democratic Party headquarters. "We know we don't have someone to directly replace Milosevic. So we are saying, 'Better a team of experts than a dictator.' "

Then he pauses. "But I also know that this idea, too, stands on glass feet."

Fiery enough on the stump, Mr. Djindjic, 44, is the opposition's voice of caution. He is also its chief enigma. With his boyish good looks and his taste for black turtlenecks and dark tweed jackets, he comes off as a smooth political climber intent on reaching the top. To get there, he has hopped about the political spectrum with disturbing ease in recent years.

'Moves With the Wind'

Known for his probing and liberal-minded essays in the late 1980s, the former philosophy professor abruptly swerved into the nationalist camp in 1993. He embraced the Bosnian Serb cause just as Mr. Milosevic dumped Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to recraft himself as a man of peace. The opposition leader later protested NATO bombings in Bosnia and even campaigned there last fall.

"He is a man who moves with the wind," says Dragoljub Micunovic, Mr. Djindjic's one-time mentor who quit the party he helped found when it veered to the right in 1993. The two no longer speak. "If the people want nationalism, he gives them that. And if they want European liberalism, he gives them that instead."

But Mr. Djindjic sees no need to apologize. It remains crucial, he says, to have whatever influence he can over the Bosnian Serbs, if only to push them in a more democratic direction. "And whatever losses I've suffered in the West because of this I'll accept."

Together under the Zajedno banner, the two opposition leaders almost nightly share the same stage, delivering speeches against the regime to massive crowds brought together by a shared animosity. Yet the two men have had their differences in the past and have them still.

Opposition Differences

Mr. Draskovic accuses his coalition partner of having advocated "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. In turn, Mr. Djindjic describes Mr. Draskovic as an impetuous man who puts himself above the interests of the opposition as a whole.

"Unfortunately," he says, "ours is the only opposition party with the organization needed to steer Serbia on a safe course."

That both have flirted with the nationalist cause, though, should come as little surprise. After all, Mr. Milosevic rose to power by using the same emotion to devastating effect. His message edged Yugoslavia into war and destroyed Serbia's economy, but it remains potent enough today that the president still ranks as Serbia's most popular politician.

Recent polls put his support at about 25%, down from 40% in November but still greater than all of his opponents combined. The greatest roadblock to him now is that nearly one-half of the electorate backs no party or leader at all.

Meantime, Mr. Milosevic's grip on power remains so tight that few of his foes have run a city council, much less a mayor's office or a ministry. Mr. Milosevic's Socialists control the electronic media, the courts, all levels of government, and nearly every nook of the economy from savings banks to shoe factories.

'Breaking Up the Monopoly'

It is little wonder that much of the talk in opposition circles is of "breaking up the monopoly" and of introducing a political free market that Serbia has never known. If that can be done peacefully, optimists say, it will mark an extraordinary achievement in Serbian history.

"Our greatest opportunity now is to go ahead without leaders," says Cedomir Antic, 22, an intense history student and protester, as he sips coffee from a spoon in a downtown cafe. "What we want is a parliament and a diffusion of power, not another dynamic individual who will ruin this country as the others have."

Mass crowds elsewhere in Eastern Europe ousted their Communist leaders with little doubt that the next day would be better. In Serbia, the desire is there, but so is the fear of violence, of a slide into anarchy, even of a return to war. "Of necessity," Mr. Antic says, "we are taking it slow."

Thanks to Bob Djurdjevic (TRUTH IN MEDIA Phoenix, Arizona, e-mail: bobdj@djurdjevic.com) for sending this article.

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