Serbs learn to live with brutal intimidation Voices of opposition to Milosevic regime are silenced by threats and beatings

February 13, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE -- It was a typical Balkan evening at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre restaurant. The music was lively. Excellent Serbian wines were flowing. But then a sudden chill fell over the place.

Two thugs burst through the doors. They quickly found their victim: Irfan Mensur, one of Belgrade's most popular actors. They dragged him out, kicked him, beat him, shouted insults and left him writhing in agony on the ground. Nobody tried to intervene.

Mr. Mensur's crime? He is a Muslim. He was lucky to escape with his life.

A campaign reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s has now reached the heart of Belgrade. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is in the process of eliminating or silencing voices of political opposition and non-Serbs. In a painful, ironic twist, he is turning what remains of the once-freest Communist country in eastern Europe into one of its final hard-line dictatorships.

Mr. Mensur is just one of the best-known victims of the campaign that began in the wake of December's presidential elections in Serbia. In those elections spunky, Serbian-born American industrialist Milan Panic -- prime minister for a while when Mr. Milosevic thought it useful -- made a good showing against Mr. Milosevic despite being denied access to most media and being put on the ballot only 10 days before the elections.

Mr. Panic's supporters have been among the first to suffer. Anonymous phoned death threats awaken his closest advisers at night.

"My wife is terrified even to take our children to school," said one, who was too afraid to be named. "She cries with relief when I come home at night."

The director of the Intercontinental Hotel, Zoran Kojic, was beaten senseless one recent night. He now hobbles to work, his arm in a sling. An anonymous telephone call informed him why: It was punishment for holding a Panic election reception and providing the room free of charge.

Mr. Panic himself, though still caretaker prime minister, is humiliated and harassed daily. As prime minister he is entitled to government transportation, but no government plane was sent to Budapest to pick him up recently for a trip to Belgrade.

When he made the journey by road instead, Yugoslav police held up his motorcade for five hours at the border.

Even Mr. Panic's government-supplied security guards withhold respect. A journalist who called at the prime minister's offices for a pre-arranged interview this week was confronted by a guard who put on a loud voice for the benefit of sniggering colleagues: 'Milan Panic? Milan Panic? Who is this man Milan Panic and where does he work?'

The most popular form of intimidation is the anonymous threat. Letters with death threats are dropping through the mailboxes of outspoken critics of the regime. Among the recipients are prominent writers, actors, union leaders, journalists, professors, musicians and politicians.

According to Natasa Kandic, director of the Human Rights Fund, more than 10,000 persons have reported receiving threatening letter and phone calls, including poet Matija Beckovic, writers Milovan Djilas, Predrag Palavestra, Slobodan Selenic, theater director Deana Leskovar, musician Asim Sarvan and others.

The letters are signed by purportedly underground terrorist groups with names such as Serbian Brotherhood, Black Hand, Serbian Liberation Front,and Serb Tigers. The letters are normally followed by telephone threats.

Rabidly nationalistic newspapers such as the Balkan Express sold by fanatics on street corners print hit-lists. The papers are published by right-wing nationalists inspired by Vojislav "Red Duke" Seselj, long been regarded as the right hand of Mr. Milosevic.

Mr. Seselj used to be considered a dangerous fanatic, but not a central political figure. That changed with the December elections. His party, the Serb Radical Party, gained 27 per cent of the vote, second only to Mr. Milosevic's Socialists, who won 40 per cent.

It is clear the "Red Duke" is still working with and for Mr. Milosevic. They have an informal alliance to form a majority government. Together they have already engineered the four main opposition politicians out of the upper house of parliament on a technicality.

Stojan Cerovic, a journalist for the independent magazine Vreme, voices the fears of a dwindling minority.

The present campaign of terror could not in the past have been carried out in Belgrade, he said. It had been a cosmopolitan city. But now, the best and the brightest have gone abroad, black marketeering is rampant, people are selling their family silver to get by and the parks are full of refugees. Law and order have broken down.

One event, however, signaled for him that "fascism has already moved far ahead."

Nobody in the Yugoslav Drama Theatre restaurant moved to help actor Irfan Mensur the night the thugs came to beat him up.

"In Germany," Mr. Cerovic said, "they reached that point of no return when people stopped asking 'When did my neighbor disappear?' "

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