Milosevic has used standoff to tighten reins Serbian strongman sees NATO airstrike threat as means to quell opposition

October 13, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Never underestimate the ability of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to turn an international crisis to his domestic advantage.

With his country on the brink of NATO airstrikes to end the standoff in the Serbian province of Kosovo, Milosevic and his supporters have moved to quash dissent in the past week even more so than normally.

They have closed independent radio stations, outlawed the rebroadcast of foreign news, ordered newspapers to withhold publishing "defeatist" articles and even threatened to ban some political parties in the event of airstrikes.

The new regulations and repressive tactics came on the heels of a purge of dissident faculty at the University of Belgrade, once the gathering place for a nascent democratic movement that paralyzed Belgrade during the winter of 1996-1997.

The moves are in keeping with Milosevic's long-term ability to survive and master the wilds of Balkan politics. Through a strategy of dividing and conquering his weak and inept political foes, Milosevic has kept firm control in Serbia even as his country split apart through the 1990s wars.

"Milosevic will survive, even in a nuclear explosion," says Pradrag Simic, director of the Center for Strategic Studies.

But apparently, Milosevic is taking few chances as he solidifies his grip domestically.

"It is the intention of the regime to settle accounts with all people who do not think like them," says Veran Matic, editor in chief of independent broadcaster B-92.

Matic's station hasn't been shut down. But several other prominent outlets have as the regime steps up pressure on a tiny band of stations that provide an independent viewpoint in a country with a vast, state-controlled media. Radio provides an important link for those who can least afford the price of daily newspapers.

Matic, who heads the country's Association of Independent Electronic Media, issued an open letter in which he said the ruling regime "looks to find an internal enemy to put all the blame on."

The media isn't Milosevic's only target.

Last Thursday, Vojislav Seselj, vice president of the Serbian Parliament and head of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, used a news conference to issue threats to the regime's opponents and to foreigners.

"After airstrikes, it's possible that political parties that work against the interest of our country will be banned," said Seselj, who was the ideological head of a paramilitary group that allegedly committed some of the worst atrocities of the Croatian and Bosnian wars.

He added: "If you are a citizen or a journalist from a country that takes part in the attack, the smart thing for you to do is be very far from Serbia. You should leave the country. Our aim is not to strangle the free press. But we are against media who are foreign spies."

Locally, Seselj's threats are taken very seriously.

Asked what would happen in the event of airstrikes, Matic says he and his colleagues would likely face reprisals.

"If Milosevic oversees it, we'll get arrested," he says. "If Seselj does, it will get us killed. Our choice will be to be hanged or shot."

There are many here who say that even the threat of NATO airstrikes strengthens Milosevic's regime.

On the one hand, he can show people here that he is tough enough to stand up to the West. But even if he backs down, analysts claim, Milosevic can still use it to his advantage, claiming to emerge as a peacemaker.

"He has to bring it to the brink," says Vesna Pesic, leader of the opposition party Civil Alliance.

"They have to show that he is fighting like a Serbian lion. Do you want NATO to bomb you? They say, 'Please, sign this.' And then, he saved us."

She says that once the crisis is resolved, the West should bring Yugoslavia back from the cold, and drop economic and political sanctions that have kept the country an outcast.

"Once we are normalized, then he has no chance," she says. "It will be conspicuous that he is crazy."

Even if NATO bombs Yugoslavia, the regime can still survive, according to Simic, the political analyst.

"There would be a tremendous shock among the population," he says. "A feeling of coming together in order to survive, a siege, fortress mentality. If everyone is against us, we'll have to stick together. Those who would have the strongest nationalist message would be the winners."

Already, it's becoming clear who has landed among the losers -- the country's intellectual elite.

Morale has hit rock bottom at the University of Belgrade, where scores of professors have been dismissed, suspended or forced to retire after refusing to sign loyalty declarations to government-appointed deans.

"It is an all-out attack on the civil society against any institutions that cannot be controlled by the government. And it is done in an explicit way," says Vojin Dimitrijevic, a 65-year-old law professor who was forced to retire.

Dimitrijevic added that the problems at the university will likely exacerbate the country's brain drain, as the brightest people take their talents elsewhere.

"This means intellectual suicide," he says.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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