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Balkan Report: February 8, 2000

8 February 2000, Volume 4, Number 11

Yugoslav Defense Minister Gunned Down. Serbia has once again been stunned by the gangland-style death of a prominent political figure. And once again, the events raise more questions than they answer.

An unknown gunman fatally shot Pavle Bulatovic and wounded restaurant owner Mirko Knezevic and banker Vuk Obradovic as they were having dinner in the "Rad" club restaurant of a Belgrade stadium on 7 February. The minister died of his wounds shortly afterward in a military hospital.

The government then went into an emergency session. The cabinet issued a statement in which it praised Bulatovic and his work as defense minister, which he has been since 1993. The government condemned the assassination as a "terrorist act" and pledged "full support to the relevant state organs in their uncompromising struggle against terrorism."

Bulatovic was a member of Montenegro's Socialist People's Party (SNP), which supports Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The minister was a close ally of federal Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic, who is also of the SNP. The two men were not related.

The assassination of Bulatovic came just three weeks after the gangland-style slaying of another Milosevic supporter, warlord Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 January 2000). Bulatovic, however, was not a prominent leader and did not even appear on the list of 600 important persons banned from receiving EU visas. He was rather "an apparatchnik," the BBC's Serbian Service commented. His death therefore has at best a "symbolic significance" from a political perspective.

Some speculation nonetheless centers on possible links between his death and growing tensions between Milosevic and the reformist leaders in Montenegro. The role of the military in those tensions has long been something of a question mark. It has also been noted that there has been speculation in recent weeks that the only way that Serbia will be rid of Milosevic will be through a military coup (see below). What role--if any-- Bulatovic may have played in any of this will keep the cafes buzzing for a long time to come.

Other observers note that Bulatovic's dinner partners were businessmen and suggest that his death may have been linked to Belgrade's murky demimonde, in which business, politics, and the underworld meet. He was a relative of underworld figure Darko Asanin, who was gunned down in Belgrade in 1998. Asanin was also linked to the secret services, AP reported. In another twist, the daily "Blic" suggested that some 70 percent of last year's defense budget went through Obradovic's Yu-Garant Bank. All in all, a possible "conflict of interests," as one Montenegrin commentator put it.

In any event, that same journalist told London's "The Guardian" that a "country in which the defense minister was killed like that in a restaurant is a real banana republic." Opposition leader Vladan Batic of the Alliance for Change added: "There is anarchy and chaos. After the killing of Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, lots of people said that killings would continue. It will be like that because the regime does not want to deal with the roots of crime," Reuters reported.

Perhaps the most that can be expected from the authorities is that they will again "catch" some small fry. The regime may also again present to the media an elaborate and imprecise conspiracy theory involving shadowy and unsavory individuals and groups with weird names. Meanwhile, the speculation about what really happened will continue. (Patrick Moore)

Mesic's Charisma And Voters' Mistrust Decided Croatian Presidential Elections. On 7 February, Croats elected Stipe Mesic of the governing small four-party coalition to succeed the late President Franjo Tudjman. Mesic defeated Drazen Budisa, who was the candidate of the two-party coalition of the Social Democrats and Social Liberals, which is the larger partner in the new government. Mesic's victory is one of the biggest surprises in a campaign cycle that has utterly transformed the Croatian political landscape and seen the country's electorate turn their back on the Tudjman legacy (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 January 2000).

When the presidential campaign began, Mesic was an outsider whom many Croats considered a man from the past. He played a key role in the events leading up to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1990-1991, but in subsequent years he became a minor political figure. He now belongs to the tiny Croatian People's Party. Most popularity polls in early or mid-December only gave him 10 percent of the vote.

How was Mesic able to pull off this spectacular victory with over 56 percent of the vote? The two candidates differed little in their platforms. Both candidates promised a clean break from Tudjman's authoritarian and nationalistic legacy. Both vowed to reduce the powers of the presidency in favor of the parliament and the government, and both men centered their campaign on promoting the country's entrance into the EU and NATO.

But the two differed considerably in personality and style, and this was one of the keys to Mesic's victory. Budisa has excellent opposition credentials. He was a political opponent of Tudjman's throughout his political career, while Mesic spent three years in Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) before breaking with his former boss. Budisa's seriousness and his tendency to lecture voters, however, reminded many of Tudjman. Some commentators even went as far as to call Budisa a "Tudjman with a smile." Mesic's easygoing attitude and his penchant for telling jokes and stories appealed to voters because they were such a stark contrast to Tudjman's dour manner and stiffness.

The last two weeks of the election campaign since the first round on 24 January were particularly nasty. Most of the mudslinging came from the Budisa camp. Media close to him questioned the origins of Mesic's campaign financing and alleged that he worked with the communist secret police (UDBA) in the past. None of these accusations has really held up to scrutiny. Nevertheless, Budisa seized on this chance to attack his opponent. He continually harped on these issues--even though the voters did not seem particularly interested. In the end, this negative campaigning backfired on Budisa because it reminded many of the tactics that Tudjman employed against his political opponents.

Mesic's victory may also be a plus from the perspective of the international community. Both candidates have similar position on the three issues that most concern Croatia's Western partners. Both men promised to abandon support for Croat separatists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, and to support the return of the ethnic Serbian refugees who fled Croatia during the 1991-1995 war.

Nevertheless, Budisa has been more reserved on these issues. To some extent, he has reiterated the former HDZ government's position by saying that he will not send to The Hague those documents relating to the 1995 Croat offensives against rebel Serbs that he deems "vital to national security." He has also stopped short of making a clean break with Herzegovinian Croats, as Mesic has done. Instead, Budisa promised to continue to finance the Herzegovinians' military. These differences failed to attract much attention during the campaign--except among the Herzegovinians, who voted for Budisa en masse. Yet Budisa's stands on Herzegovina and The Hague could easily have presented serious problems in Croatia�s relations with the international community in the not too distant future.

One of the major issues now facing Croatia will be the relations between the president and the new government. The country faces serious economic and social problems, as both governing coalitions pointed out in the campaign. Croatia simply cannot afford a constitutional crisis or for the government's reform efforts to be delayed just because the president and government cannot work well together. Many Croatian opinion-makers chose to endorse Budisa precisely because he is from the larger coalition and would presumably cooperate with a cabinet dominated by that alliance.

Many voters, however, chose to support Mesic precisely because he is not affiliated with the large coalition. They are still skeptical that the new government may become corrupted by power. They thus voted for Mesic from the smaller coalition because they did not want to recreate the monopoly of power that they previously gave Tudjman and the HDZ.

In the end, voters chose Mesic because of his charisma and his promises to keep the new government honest. Whether or not this turns out to be a wise choice will depend on Mesic's willingness to accept the reductions in the powers of the presidency--a move that all parties support--and his ability to cooperate with the government in dealing with the serious social and economic problems the country faces. (Andrej Krickovic. The author is a Zagreb-based writer

Bleak Times In Srpska. Bosko Persinovic, who heads the Republika Srpska's Fund for Social Insurance, said in Banja Luka on 5 February that some 300,000 inhabitants of the Bosnian Serb entity are in need of government assistance. He added, however, that the authorities are in no position to aid such a large number of citizens, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The average monthly salary in Srpska is DM 210, but government estimates suggest that a family of four needs a minimum of DM 375 to make ends meet. (Patrick Moore)

The Night Of The Dinosaurs? Retired General Stevan Mirkovic, who is a former chief of the Yugoslav Army General Staff, said that "a military coup is the only way out of the current crisis between Serbia and Montenegro," "Vesti" reported on 6 February. He added that it is "possible" that Yugoslavia will face a civil war unless the military takes action "as it did in Pakistan." Mirkovic declined to say precisely who he thinks might lead a coup.

The former general was one of the founders of the small League of Communists-Movement for Yugoslavia, which is widely regarded as a collection of political dinosaurs. It is headed by Mira Markovic, the wife of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. (Patrick Moore)

Who's Paranoid? Outspoken Information Minister Aleksandar Vucic said in Belgrade on 5 February that the U.S. and other Western countries are waging a "media campaign" against the Serbian authorities. He charged that virtually all independent media in Serbo-Croatian and in Albanian are "funded and controlled" by Washington, "Danas" reported. These include "Danas," "Vreme," "Koha," "Zeri," ANEM, Beta, and many others.

Vucic added that the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade is the Western powers' main direct contact with the independent media. He did not provide any evidence to support his claims. (Patrick Moore)

Kukes Nominated For Nobel Prize. Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta wrote the Nobel Peace Prize awards committee on 5 February that the northern city of Kukes should receive the prize because of the hospitality it provided to Kosovar refugees during the 1999 conflict. Some 150,000 Kosovars passed at one time or another through the town of 15,000 people, AP reported. (Patrick Moore)

Quotations Of The Week. "In a sign of further deteriorating relations between Serbs and Albanians..." -- AP report from Kosovska Mitrovica on 6 February.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic "himself of course will have to make up his own mind about whether he proceeds with the referendum on independence. But we have told him as we have told others that we don't believe that independence for Montenegro is the appropriate answer to the set of issues that confront Montenegro or indeed confront Yugoslavia as a whole.... We believe in effect that the absence of Mr. Milosevic from Serbia and the promotion and the prospering of a democratic opposition in charge of the government in Belgrade is the appropriate answer to the series of problems, neither Kosovo independence nor Montenegrin independence....

We hope and we believe that President Djukanovic and others in the region have no interest in provoking armed conflict [and] have no interest in believing [that] armed conflict can settle the problem." -- U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, in Prague on 7 February.