Peacemaker to protester in a Balkan day's drama

Mercurial politician invites in U.N. force, fumes over TV censor

April 27, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- It's hard to believe that Yugoslavia's voice of reason is a journalist-turned-politician known for dramatic phrases, extravagant entrances and breathtaking political U-turns.

Yet even by the standards of Balkan intrigue, Yugoslav Deputy Premier Vuk Draskovic may have outdone himself yesterday as he veered from peacemaker to potential street demonstrator in a matter of hours.

In the early evening, Draskovic indicated that the country was ready to accept armed United Nations peacekeepers, including NATO troops, to police a potential settlement and enable ethnic Albanian refugees to return to Kosovo.

"U.N. flag is not foreign flag," he said. "That's our own flag. U.N. Charter is not enemy charter. That's our own charter."

Could this be taken seriously?

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said: "To the extent that Mr. Draskovic's comments reflect a recognition of reality that has been sadly missing in Belgrade, that's fine."

But he added: "To what extent he reflects the leadership in Belgrade has always been an open question, and I don't intend to speculate on it."

Later in the day, Draskovic was in another mode.

He zipped up to the executive level of a luxury hotel to tell astonished international journalists that if the Yugoslav army did not quickly relinquish editorial control over the television station he oversees -- Studio B -- he just might lead street demonstrations.

"The military editor must be eliminated from Studio B or we will fight," Draskovic said during a rambling news conference. "Not by guns or bombs. But using democratic way to protect freedom of press and expression."

It was hard to discern Draskovic's motives or whether anyone would follow him into the streets. It was even harder to determine whether he was speaking on behalf of Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic, the country's ultimate power broker.

Yet there appear to be rumblings beneath the surface of Yugoslavia's united political front as the country enters its second month of NATO bombing.

For Draskovic, who leads the Serbian Renewal Party, the controversy over Studio B may emerge as a defining moment in his career. With Serbian state television knocked off the air by NATO strikes, Draskovic filled a media vacuum with a stunning interview Sunday.

He criticized state media propaganda, knocked political hard-liners, faced up to the devastation Yugoslavia has absorbed in the bombing campaign and declared: "Our destiny is in our hands to the extent to which those who lead the country have brains in their heads."

The reaction was swift.

Like all other stations here, Studio B carried newscasts yesterday produced by Serbian state television. Draskovic said that about 6 p.m. yesterday, a Yugoslav army major entered Studio B and took over as the new editor.

"I hope Mr. Milosevic is not supporting this," Draskovic said. "In case he is supporting this, then I am ready to stand up to Mr. Milosevic."

Although he said he anticipated the army editor would be removed quickly, Draskovic said that if swift action wasn't taken he was prepared to lead street demonstrations -- a dangerous act in wartime Belgrade.

Draskovic added that the man behind the army's edict may be his principal political rival, arch nationalist Vojislav Seselj, Serbia's deputy premier.

Serbia is the dominant of the two republics left in the Yugoslav federation. Milosevic, once president of Serbia, is now president of Yugoslavia.

"There are many idiots in Serbia doing many wrong things in the name of Mr. Milosevic," Draskovic said.

Draskovic has been playing an unusual role during the war, urging moderation while other elements of government appeared to be in a state of denial. With his command of English and apparent love of the limelight, Draskovic has emerged as a powerful presence in the Western media.

When foreign journalists were expelled from the country in the opening days of the war, it was Draskovic who told them to return.

When three captured U.S. servicemen faced the potential of a trial here, it was Draskovic who guaranteed their safety.

When radical elements appeared poised to fight against the "New World Order," it was Draskovic who pointed out that the war aims were changing while a form of communism was threatening to return.

Draskovic has long filled the role of Serbia's political maverick in a roller-coaster career that has seen him move from charismatic opposition leader to government supporter.

A former journalist, Draskovic first challenged authorities during 1991 peace demonstrators. But it was in the winter of 1996-1997 that he rocketed to fame, helping lead pro-democracy demonstrations against the Milosevic regime.

The pro-democracy coalition eventually broke apart in squabbling over political spoils. Draskovic cast his lot with Milosevic and moved into government.

Draskovic said yesterday that he had recently met with Milosevic and added, "President Milosevic is doing and thinking the same way I'm thinking."

Draskovic also re-emphasized his credentials as an outsider, claiming he had joined the government "not with the aim to protect the present system of Serbia but to change that system, to push things into very urgent reform."

Yet he remained a nationalist, fiercely opposed to NATO's bombing campaign:

"If you continue to bomb Serbia and intensify the killing of my state and nation, you are going to support anti-democratic forces."

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