Who are the Serbian opposition?

Issue 

Little is known, outside of Serbia, about the oppositional movements challenging the Slobodan Milosevic government from within. On July 1 Green Left Weekly correspondents FRANK NOAKES and PETER ANNEAR spoke with MLADEN LAZIC, professor of sociology at the faculty of philosophy, Belgrade University. Lazic lived and worked for 14 years in Croatia, returning to Belgrade 12 months ago to take up his current position.

"There are two different types of anti-government protests in Belgrade. First there is a student strike at Belgrade University and later on a strike at all Serbian universities. In this strike several thousand students occupied several faculties in Belgrade.

"The other protest is organised by a group called DEPOS, Democratic Opposition. This was a street demonstration in which 150,000 people participated."

Lazic explains that there is a big difference between these two protests, even though their demands are the same. "DEPOS is composed of several parties and a group of intellectuals. Probably the strongest group inside DEPOS is the SPO, the Serbian Movement of Renewal — this is the party of Vuk Draskovic. He is the real leader of DEPOS."

The problem with DEPOS, says Lazic, is that it is composed of people who share the same political program as Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. DEPOS is itself a nationalistic movement. Its point of difference with the ruling Socialist Party is the way in which the latter has handled events in the former Yugoslavia.

Says Lazic, "They're against the means by which the goals are to be achieved, and generally they think Milosevic lost the war, so they tried to replace him as a not very successful leader of the nation."

The demands raised by both protests were that Milosevic resign, that parliamentary elections be held to enable

the government to be changed and that a new coalition government be formed.

"But what is behind these demands is completely different. Students really don't suggest any kind of specific solution. They just want the regime to be changed — the whole regime, not just Milosevic as a representative of the regime, but the structure of the power and nationalist orientation of the Serbian government. The specific demand of the students is some kind of civil society to be established in Serbia.

"There is a practical difference too. The students' protest has lasted more than two weeks. The DEPOS demonstration protest movement collected, on the first day, more than 150,000 people, but on the next day it was approximately 10-15,000 people. This kind of organisation could not attract too many people for longer periods of time."

Peace organisations

Six weeks previously in Belgrade, "there were really huge demonstrations, 100,000 people at least. Support for Sarajevo, was the official name of these demonstrations. But this movement has been limited to Belgrade."

The peace movement is formed of several loosely connected groups. The Helsinki Citizens Assembly is relatively small. Another group, called Anti-War, is stronger, and there is a relatively important group of intellectuals, the Belgrade Circle, which has 400-500 members. These groups are nationally mixed, so there are Croats and Jews as well as Serbs in them.

But the groups' memberships are not very large. "They can organise a street rally like the Support for Sarajevo, but they have no organisational strength to keep this movement operating on a daily basis."

Where does the trade union movement line up?

Lazic explains: "There are two big union

organisations, one dominated by the old Socialist Party. Even though this organisation has seen some changes to the leadership, it is still heavily influenced by the state. The other is called Nezavisnost — Independence. It is really independent and now has up to 300,000 members.

"It has been involved in DEPOS protests to the extent that some of its leaders spoke at the central meeting, but generally they are closer to the student strike. They also were involved in the student strike by giving support, their people going to the university, speaking there and so on.

"The students are trying to make closer connections with this union movement."

The students were very careful not to compromise their independence, Lazic reports. They didn't, for instance, allow speakers at their protests from the opposition or ruling parties.

Lack of alternative

Lazic believes that DEPOS is not likely to pose a real threat to the Milosevic regime, because it isn't a real alternative.

"They are too closely connected with the attempt to achieve some sort of Great Serbia. This is the main obstacle to their changing the government, because people could not differentiate them easily from the ruling party. People also know that many of these people from DEPOS originally started the national movement — the intellectuals from the Academy of Sciences, people who originally belonged to the ruling party and so on."

The DEPOS organisation has already caused the Democratic Party to split says Lazic. The leader of the party, Dragoljub Micunovic, did not want to play second fiddle to anyone, which he calculated would be the case inside DEPOS. However, a large minority left the party and joined DEPOS.

Lazic calculates that the DEPOS demonstration has probably weakened the whole opposition movement, because it became clear that it was not going to bring about a change in the government.

Politically, he says, there are two Serbias, one based in Belgrade and the other in the provinces. The democratic opposition has a bigger base in the former.

One reason for this, Lazic suggests, lies in the control and distribution of the media. The official press and television are heavily controlled by the ruling party. The independent press consists of one daily and one weekly paper, plus two independent television stations; the problem here is that the independent TV can be seen only in Belgrade.

Milosevic has not been unduly troubled by the internal opposition thus far. "I think he is quite aware that the opposition is too weak to force him out", states Lazic.

"Western countries have chosen a very bad tactic with the sanctions, because what they do is weaken the opposition and not Milosevic. Now it is very easy to call opposition groups traitors because the country is in danger, [to say that] the people have to unite and oppose the foreign pressure.

"Opposition groups have now lost any connection with outside forces. So, for example, independent media, which need financial help, have no way of receiving it because all connections have been cut."

Lazic sees only one possibility for change. "If in the late autumn or early winter, the sanctions produce such a social movement from below, and the independent media and the independent unions attract attention and are able to direct this movement against the government, this would be the only chance for Milosevic to be removed. But I am sceptical."

He mentions a 1989 sociological survey conducted in Serbia and Croatia that found 80% of respondents

favoured the organisation of society through a strong leader, a figure of authority. Many people are trying to find a new leader to oppose the existing one.

"Again it is the students who are advocating a system of democratic government in order to demonstrate that society can be organised other than through an authoritarian leader", Lazic says.

Western aims

The policies of the EC countries have been changing, Lazic says. Originally, they were for maintaining some kind of united Yugoslavia, but Germany and Austria took the lead in supporting Croatia.

"Milosevic from the beginning wanted to control Yugoslavia, without Slovenia. It is equally clear that no Western country wanted such a state, with a relatively strong army and an authoritarian regime. And when they saw there was no possibility for rational agreement between Serbs and Croats, they preferred a split of the country and not a relatively strong country dominated by Milosevic."

The US knew that Germany would support Croatia and calculated that other European powers would be less eager for Croatian secession. Washington was happy to see a divided Europe.

"Then they saw the Germans succeed in implementing their own policy and forcing the European community to act in solidarity. So the US have chosen another tact in taking the leading role, so when they missed their first goal they chose another one."

Lazic believes it would be relatively easy for Western countries to stop the war, "by putting strong pressure on all three sides in the conflict at the same time ...

"I think at the moment the Western countries don't want the war to stop immediately. Maybe they expect that the war will bring a quicker end to Milosevic than some

kind of peace."

If, at the end of the day, there is no new form of economic community created, with or without Slovenia, Lazic says, all these countries will remain unstable and " some form of clashes will persist".

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