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Serbia: Opposition Unites To Call For Early Elections

Representatives of the various wings of Serbia's opposition movement met yesterday to hammer out a united plan against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. After six hours of discussion, opposition members signed a document calling for elections this spring. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos examines the outcome of this meeting and whether the new strategy will be able to bring down Milosevic.

Prague, 11 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Members of Serbia's traditionally fractured opposition movement say they've agreed on a joint strategy aimed at toppling the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Representatives of 16 political parties met yesterday in Belgrade and signed a document calling for nationwide elections by the end of April. The opposition call is for elections at all levels -- local, parliamentary, and presidential.

The meeting and subsequent document, which was signed by all but one representative, reflects a new sense of cohesion among the opposition. Many previous attempts in the past failed to unite Serbia's opposition, which splintered in 1997 over personal rivalries, allowing Milosevic to consolidate political control.

The meeting was called by Vuk Draskovic, leader of Serbia's largest opposition party, the Serbian Renewal Movement. In the past, Draskovic has refused to participate in anti-Milosevic protests held by other opposition parties. But at a press conference held after the six-hour meeting, Draskovic said he is committed to working together with the other parties to topple Milosevic.

"This meeting was the first step. We will take care of the country and the people of Serbia. We decided on a common strategy for fighting against Mr. Milosevic to save our country and our people from a darkening future. We want to fight with the power of arguments and, at the end, come to the best solution."

Draskovic's party offered two documents to the opposition representatives, both of which were accepted. The first calls for nationwide elections by the end of April and includes a united plan to generate public support through joint media presentations and meetings. The opposition says it will begin its public campaign with mass anti-Milosevic rallies scheduled for early March (March 9). The second document is directed toward the international community and appeals for sanctions to end as soon as Milosevic agrees to hold the elections. The documents also call for the return of Yugoslavia to membership in European organizations and the return of Yugoslav troops to Kosovo.

Vladan Batic of the Alliance for Change said the meeting was called because the Serbian opposition had to end the internal disputes that have stunted its effectiveness. He said it was important for the coalition to present itself as a united front, both to the international community and to the people of Serbia.

"I'm very satisfied with the meeting. We have come to an agreement. This is not ideological, this is not political or a fight between the parties. This is fighting for life. Maybe we ought to work longer on this agreement, but we don't have the time. We'd like to say to the international community and to the people of Serbia to see that we can have an agreement."

Although many see yesterday's opposition meeting as a positive first step in a united campaign against Milosevic, some are saying it's too soon to tell whether the union will retain its cohesion and build enough momentum to topple Milosevic.

Vladimir Goati, a professor of political science at Belgrade's Institute for Social Science, says it's unlikely that Milosevic will call early elections. In a phone interview with RFE/RL, Goati said Milosevic will probably fight the opposition at every step.

"It's possible, but not probable, to expect the free and fair elections very soon. And maybe what could be seen in the days to come [is that] the regime will tighten [its] grip, because the common front of opposition presents a very big danger for the regime. And I am afraid the regime will respond by tightening the grip over all of society. And maybe we will see something very undemocratic or a return to an authoritarian method of rule."

The opposition faces difficulty not just with Milosevic, but also with its own support base. The opposition has to overcome its reputation as a fractured movement with little power. Goati says the Serbian public doubts that the new show of unity will prevent more internal quarrels. He say that while the people conditionally support the opposition's plans, they are waiting to see some action behind the promises.

"I believe the big majority of people will be very surprised with the outcome of this meeting. And the apathy is so deeply rooted within citizens of Serbia, Belgrade particularly, that I believe that the majority will not believe [it] for three or five days. The majority of the people will try to see the common front of opposition in practice. Nobody nowadays in Belgrade will believe only in words. The majority of citizens are waiting nowadays for the deeds of opposition. And we will see what will happen in the days to come."

The opposition has a daunting task in the months to come. To topple Milosevic, the united parties will have to put aside personal disputes and turn their energies toward building support at home and abroad.