Scores of Serbian human rights activists and politicians met with representatives of the international community in Bratislava over the weekend at the invitation of Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan. The aim of the gathering was to discuss how to respond to attempts by the Belgrade regime to hold on to power at all costs. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele attended the conference and reports that participants discussed strategies for winning the elections expected in the autumn.
Bratislava, 11 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The timing of the Bratislava conference on the future of Yugoslavia was propitious. Participants met the day after the Yugoslav federal parliament amended the constitution to enable President Slobodan Milosevic to serve two more four-year terms.
The changes, which also affect the way the federal parliament's upper house is elected, pave the way for early local, parliamentary, and presidential elections -- possibly as soon as September.
Montenegrin invitees, including Justice Minister Dragan Soc, canceled their participation in the Bratislava conference at the last moment as the republic's parliament met in emergency session to respond to Belgrade's latest moves.
Conference chairperson and Belgrade human rights activist Sonja Licht told participants that the constitutional changes represent the declaration of "an open dictatorship" in Belgrade.
Licht called for unity among the opposition, a refrain heard throughout the two-day conference."We are convinced in Serbia that everybody who is seriously thinking change, everybody who seriously believes that Serbia has a future must at this moment work together. If we do not have a united front to work for change, there is no hope, there is no future for the country," he said.
Licht said it has become clear that there can be no change without a strong partnership between the Serbian opposition and the international community. Ognjen Pribicevic, an adviser to Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic, warned that "conditions do not exist in Serbia for any elections, let alone free and democratic ones."
Nevertheless, Pribicevic says the Serbian Renewal Movement, or SPO, will not boycott the elections. As he put it, "the SPO will keep the door open to negotiations."
Pribicevic's comments did not go down well with some other participants, who suggested that the SPO has learned little from its past mistakes of dallying with Milosevic and hindering a truly united opposition.
In contrast, the head of the Yugoslav Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, called for direct action. "Unless we take matters into our own hands, not in the sense of a revolt but rather in the sense of changing the situation, no legal protection and no formal legalisms will ever help any of us in Serbia," Kovacevic-Vuco said.
She said last week's constitutional changes are merely a continuation of Milosevic's policies of the past ten years, which she said constitute a permanent test of the opposition's ability to resist.
Milan Samardzic is a leading representative of the opposition youth movement Otpor (Resistance). He accuses the Milosevic regime of staging a strong offensive by setting the stage for snap elections following the constitutional changes. In Samardzic's words, "We still don't know what the rules will be for the next elections and whether to take part in them at all and whether the elections will even take place."
The youth leader said that to achieve the movement's goal of forcing the Milosevic regime out of power, Otpor is supporting the united democratic opposition while maintaining intensive cooperation with all non-governmental organizations.
"We cannot be the opposition, nor do we want to be. That is the mission of the opposition political parties. But we can do plenty that political parties with their institutional and other limitations cannot do," he said.
Samardzic said Otpor's main activity in the coming months will be a "get out the vote campaign" with the goal of crushing apathy and fear and persuading some 500,000 young people, most of whom have never voted before, to cast their ballots for opposition candidates. He said Otpor intends to accomplish this goal through educational and publicity campaigns. Samardzic says that since the beginning of the year, Otpor has pasted up more than 2 million posters and has distributed more than 4 million flyers and pamphlets.
The Serbian activists heard plenty of advice about the prerequisites for winning, such as conviction, self-confidence, and willpower.
The Council of Europe's director-general for political affairs, Hans-Peter Furrer, advised the participants that winning the elections does not depend on procedural niceties of the electoral law. "What you need is willpower to win -- great power in your mind to win, that you want to win the elections. And then you must have a big effort of persuasion and finally work, work, work to bring over your message to the people," he said.
Furrer said the opposition should not blame the media for their problems since, as he put it, in a working democracy, electoral campaigns are "door-to-door work." He noted that the reason democratic forces in Slovakia regained power in general elections was grassroots campaign work.
But participants warned that even if they win the elections, that will be only the first step. As one speaker noted, the elections are a life-and-death issue for Milosevic. And another said Milosevic will try to stay in power at all costs, even if it means civil war.