On Thursday, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic set presidential and parliamentary elections for 24 September. The same day, in Washington, four of his opponents were testifying about the political climate in the federation of Serbia and Montenegro. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.
Washington, 28 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Four political opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic say that country's ruling coalition no longer has the support of the majority of the Yugoslav people.
But they add that opposition parties in Yugoslavia are so fractured that they probably will not be able to oust Milosevic in the 24 September elections.
The three Serbs and one Montenegrin gave their assessment during testimony in Washington before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- also known as the Helsinki Commission.
Their testimony came Thursday -- the same day that Milosevic, in Belgrade, announced that the Yugoslav Republic -- made up of Serbia and Montenegro -- will hold presidential and parliamentary election on 24 September.
Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia meets today to plan its strategy. It is expected to nominate the president for an unprecedented second term. Until now, the Yugoslav Constitution forbade a president to serve more than one term. But earlier this month, the parliament changed the constitution, allowing Milosevic to run for two more four-year terms as president.
The four Yugoslav dissidents testifying before the Helsinki Commission said they would not be surprised if the federation faced eight more years of Milosevic's control. One was Stojan Cerovic, a journalist with the United States Institute for Peace, an independent think-tank in Washington funded by the U.S. Congress. Cerovic alluded to the sudden change in the Yugoslav Constitution as just one step that Milosevic is taking to ensure the longevity of his political control.
"Milosevic's problem is real and he would like to survive, he would like to win the elections, and he's basically doing his best now to create an atmosphere in which he will be able to win."
Another witness was Bogdan Invanisevic, a Yugoslav researcher for Human Rights Watch, who also noted the change in the constitution that favors Milosevic. He and others said Milosevic does not enjoy the support of the majority of eligible voters in either Serbia or Montenegro.
"For the first time, the threat for the authorities to be removed from power as a result of elections is a real one."
Cerovic agreed, but he said a united opposition is essential to defeat the Socialists in September.
"According to the polls, support for...Milosevic and his...ruling coalition is going down, and the opposition parties, if united, they can count on a clear majority at the moment."
But Cerovic added that so far, the opposition parties show no sign of working together. The other witnesses agreed.
Also testifying was Branislav Canak, president of the independent Serbian trade union Nezavisnost. He said a united opposition is essential to show the people of the Yugoslav Federation that votes against Milosevic would not be wasted.
"We need one very basic precondition: It's united opposition. If they still remain divided on the eve of the elections, we will never motivate the people because they don't see the reason -- realistic reason -- why they should go out and vote."
The witness with perhaps the gloomiest outlook was David Dasic, the head of Montenegro's trade mission to the United States. The political leadership in Podgorica has expressed fears that the constitutional change allowing Milosevic to seek a second and a third term will further marginalize Montenegro.
Even before the constitutional change, the republic was seen as the lesser half of the Yugoslav Federation. Now, Dasic said, Montenegro can never hope to see its proper position restored.
"The consequences of the recent changes are destructive for Montenegro. Montenegro is no more an equal constituent of the federal state. Practically, the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will never be from Montenegro."
The witnesses also told the Helsinki Commission about what they described as rampant human rights violations committed by Milosevic's government. They ranged from harassment and beatings of pro-democracy demonstrators to making it difficult for independent newspapers to get newsprint. Ivanisevic said the U.S. could help improve Yugoslavia's human rights record by asking Russia to use its influence on Milosevic.