Back to the Future

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Don't believe everything you see on TV, especially if you are watching in Serbia. Take the picture of President Slobodan Milosevic that emerged last week from the Fourth Congress of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), a Belgrade get-together of party faithful reminiscent of the Soviet era with its gaudy banners and creative sloganeering. Not only, it turns out, has the damage caused by last year's NATO bombing miraculously been repaired, but the economy is growing stronger every day. Freedom is preserved, the international sanctions against the country will be lifted, and soon Belgrade will proudly reclaim the province of Kosovo. All this thanks to the "wise and inspiring leadership of President Milosevic," in the words of several delegates. Milosevic's popularity is obviously growing: tens of thousands greeted him as he made his way to the Congress, though it turns out they were paid to show up.

"The SPS has spent a decade fighting for Serbia's survival, freedom and independence," intoned Milosevic, wearing his trademark black suit and red tie. "We have won. Today, all over the world, Serbia is associated with fighting for freedom, and enjoys the support of all freedom-loving countries." Said one cynical viewer, a local librarian who caught the show at home: "Who are they trying to fool? It looks like file footage from the Brezhnev era."

There was, however, a purpose behind the pyrotechnics. With the Congress as pretext, Milosevic is launching a major reshuffle of his SPS party with a view to maneuvering his strongest candidates into position for local elections this spring. At last week's Congress a dozen party bigwigs were appointed to seemingly insignificant posts in towns like Nis, Belgrade and Novi Sad, where they will go head-to-head with popular opposition candidates. The municipal elections are critical to Milosevic. The last time they were held, in 1996, an opposition coalition swept to victory in almost every major Serbian town, prompting a shocked Milosevic to try to annul the results and eventually triggering three months of violent street protests.

Since then, those mayors have served as the main conduit for anti-Milosevic aid from the U.S. and other Western powers intent on ousting the strongman. This time around he is determined to avoid the same mistake. Asserted one senior SPS official: "This time we have to win." A veteran Western diplomat in Belgrade said the polls will be the first peacetime test of Milosevic's power since the 1996 riots: "The outcome will either herald change or cement Milosevic's power for years."

Milosevic has reason to worry. After years of fruitless quarreling and prodding from the West, Serbia's two main opposition parties last month finally agreed on a joint platform and single list of candidates for the elections. Opposition leader Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party told Time that the polls will be "a detonator for change." A recent independent survey by the Mark Plan polling agency seemed to confirm that view: 55% said they would vote for a united opposition in municipal elections versus just 35% for the coalition of Milosevic's SPS and its two partners from the extreme left and right. That is the lowest rating for Milosevic's team since he came to power in 1987.

Of course the opposition has to hold together in the run-up to the polls, which are expected in April. Earlier efforts to join forces have foundered, but this time the two sides can't afford to fail. Just 25% of those surveyed said they would back the opposition if the two main parties ran separately. Serbs, says Djindjic, "expect to see us unified against Milosevic. If we fail to do that, we lose." Some encouragement came from last month's elections in Croatia, where an opposition coalition ousted the SPS's counterpart, the nationalist ruling party of the late Franjo Tudjman.

Milosevic is trying other tactics as well. His government has stepped up verbal attacks on opposition figures, characterizing them as "traitors who receive money from NATO criminals" or, in another tirade from his powerful wife, "drug traffickers who prefer members of their own sex." Earlier this month, the country's hard-line Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj also lit into the opposition press. After Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic was assassinated by an unknown gunman, Seselj screamed at journalists: "You are the killers! You are receiving money from Americans and others who have bombed Yugoslavia!"

Djindjic, who refers to the political standoff in Serbia as a "cold civil war," believes such threats from the regime are more than just saber rattling. Opposition figures suspect Milosevic's inner circle is behind a string of unsolved murders in Serbia over the past year, as well as the alleged assassination attempt last October against Djindjic's opposition partner Vuk Draskovic: "It's dangerous to be near them," says Nebojsa Covic, a former Milosevic aide who joined the opposition, "and even more dangerous to be against them." The good news from last week's Congress is that Milosevic still intends to wage some battles at the ballot box. The bad news is that if he loses, the war may not be over.

Reported by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade