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Serbia: Socialists Hit The Campaign Trail--An Analysis

By Dusan Radulovic

Belgrade, 14 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- With presidential and parliamentary elections looming later this year, Serbia's ruling Socialists are trying to establish a strategy for dealing with what promises to be a difficult situation.

Polling is not required by the constitution until December, and no date has so far been announced. But an RFE/RL correspondent in Belgrade reports the campaign promises to be the fiercest in the short span of Serbia's re-established multi-party system.

The Socialist Party is like a wounded giant in the boxing ring, looking for punches to throw against a smaller but more agile opponent and seeking a way back into the centre of the ring.

But it won't be easy. The past few months have shown the extent of public disenchantment over the authorities' clumsy attempt to manipulate the result of the November 17 municipal elections. They were caught with their hands in the ballot box, and as a result have certainly managed to animate the electorate -- but against them, not for them.

The crisis and the government's eventual backdown in the face of the opposition's massive and sustained protests have sent shock waves through the party's basis of support.

One tactic the Socialists appear to be trying to use is muzzling media criticism again. Last month the private BK television channel, one of the few to have covered the opposition demonstrations, was blacked out across most of the country, ostensibly for technical reasons. BK was able to resume after a Belgrade court issued an order to the authorities, but it has reportedly still not been able to reach its entire previous area.

Another key media outlet, Radio B92, which became internationally prominent during the demonstrations and had repeated trouble with the authorities, still cannot obtain a permit to broadcast officially beyond Belgrade.

But although the independent media have had to put up with difficulties, their performance shows that the Socialists cannot rely on having a tame media any more, as they once used to do.

Another card being played by the Socialists is Kosovo. That troubled province, now mostly populated by ethnic Albanians, is an emotional subject because of its association with the history of the Serbs. The Socialists have branded members of the Zajedno opposition coalition and others as traitors for participating in this week's round table on Kosovo in New York with ethnic Albanian parties.

The attempt here is to revive -- once again -- the long-standing fear of Albanian separatism to bring about voter cohesion. That card first came into play when the opposition performed so well in the November elections.

A third front being opened by the government and by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic himself is the Montenegro issue. Milosevic, weakend in Serbia and constitutionally barred from another term as president, appears to be positioning himself to take over as president of the Yugoslav federation, which includes Montenegro. That post has been largely ceremonial in the past.

But last month a political row broke out in Montenegro which pitted pro-Milosevic elements against reformist prime minister Milo Djukanovic and his government. Djukanovic and some of his cabinet have been openly critical of Milosevic and have called for a more independent line for their small republic. The premier and his men however managed to survive the attempt to force them out.

Changes that could occur in Montenegro after the Serbian elections are obviously worrying the Serbian president, who as yet does not have a definite grasp on the position of the federation's head of state.

Another battlefront of the election, one which will also be tough for the Socialists, is the general social-economic malaise in Serbia. In the absence of democratization and meaningful economic reforms, international financing organizations have kept their doors closed to Serbia and Yugoslavia.

Left without fresh money, the government can hardly work to control rising social discontent caused by people's decreasing purchasing power and earning possibilities. There is also the fact that the Socialists' loss of office to the opposition in the big cities has meant that more and more damning information has come to light on the local officials' conduct in power, and on where the money used to go.

The fifth front in the election is the attitude of the government toward the international community. Many Serbians see Milosevic as a declining factor in helping hold together the Dayton peace accords for Bosnia. Likewise, many are disillusioned by his refusal to carry out the recommendations of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe on the creation of fair electoral conditions and freedom of the media. Milosevic has further complicated this picture by declining to send Socialist representatives to meet the ethnic Albanians at the New York round table.

Our correspondent says in view of the situation, it's interesting to note that American and Russian diplomatic sources in Belgrade are saying that Slobodan Milosevic could decide to postpone the election due to the fact that his own and his party's popularity keeps declining.

Dusan Radulovic is RFE/RL Bureau chief in Belgrade.