Milosevic readies new crackdown to extend rule

BELGRADE, Jun 29, 2000 -- (Reuters) Opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is a pale shadow of what it was a year ago.

So why is he paving the way for a new crackdown with an anti-terrorism law that could land the mildest critic in jail?

The reason, say analysts, is that Milosevic wants a weapon up his sleeve to allow him to stay in power beyond the end of his mandate next year. Known as a great tactician but no strategist, this time Milosevic has a plan.

The law, expected to be passed on Friday but not necessarily implemented straight away, is an important part, allowing him to avoid measures like a state of emergency that could backfire.

"He has a plan because he is dealing with his political and physical survival. He will find a way to extend his mandate. That's his only insurance, life insurance," said a Western diplomat with long experience in the Balkans.

Milosevic's term as Yugoslav president runs out in July next year and the constitution bars him from a second one.

A man who thrives on power, he was never likely just to step down. But since he was indicted by a United Nations tribunal for alleged war crimes committed by his forces in Kosovo last year, he has an added incentive to cling on.

Along with the threat of prison, there is the awareness that many people are predicting that he will end up being killed in a palace coup like Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

The West - which wants to see him out before it finds itself embroiled in another Balkan war - is highlighting this possible outcome while focusing its practical efforts on strengthening the lobby in Serbia for peaceful change.


At the same time Washington is hinting - through an article in the New York times earlier this month and other deniable leaks, that if he leaves Yugoslavia quietly, he may be allowed to live at a safe distance from the tribunal.

Knowing Milosevic would have big problems trusting any amnesty pledge, the West is also targeting his allies, hoping they will lured by pledges of an end to their isolation into persuading him to leave.

To secure his position against such moves, Milosevic, who normally acts by instinct, has converted to long-term planning.

He could use any one of a series of constitutional maneuvers to stay in power.

But analysts say he sees the local and federal elections due in November as the best way of showing Serbs both in and outside the ruling elite that he is the only man able to lead them.

"He wants to have elections and is afraid of losing them so is doing everything possible to make sure that doesn't happen," said another experienced diplomatic source.

In 1996 Milosevic tried to win local elections by manipulating the vote count. His opponents found out and forced him, through three months of street protests, to back down.

This time he is seeking to avoid that mistake by making sure his victory is assured before the vote. For that he needs to cripple any campaign by his opponents without resorting to drastic measures that could provoke a popular backlash.

The anti-terrorism law due to go before the Yugoslav parliament on Friday envisages at least five years in jail for acts that threaten "constitutional order" - a term applied this week to an attempt to spray graffiti on a police station wall.

The same penalty applies to such actions conducted "with help from abroad" - a warning to opposition parties, non-government organizations and media funded by the West.

Since "constitutional order" clearly means Milosevic's rule, it also contains a less obvious, but equally powerful message to those within the ruling elite who might seek a change.


Lawyers say the law is open to such wide interpretation that it is impossible to know in advance how it will be applied. Suspects can be held for 30 days without charge, but few expect mass arrests on Monday, when the law is expected to take effect.

"He wants to have this law on standby and activate it whenever he needs to," said Ognjen Pribicevic, adviser to Serbia's most prominent opposition leader Vuk Draskovic.

Right now there does not appear to be much need.

Draskovic has already dropped out of the election campaign, saying there is no point in running because it will be unfair.

That has dashed hopes of a united opposition rallying voters disillusioned with years of bickering within its ranks.

Opposition optimism that street protests launched on the back of a wave of popular discontent at 78 days of NATO air strikes last year over Milosevic's policy in Kosovo might force him to go also foundered as the demonstrations fizzled out.

But the increasingly extreme statements coming from government officials since February, when Milosevic signaled the start of a crackdown in a speech to his Socialist Party congress, indicate they do not feel confident either.

"The opposition is weak, but the authorities feel weak too so they have to act preventatively," said Slobodan Samardzic, an analyst from the Institute of European Studies and an adviser to the opposition Democratic Party.

"They don't have any other resources at the moment, the economy is in very bad shape, and their rating is also pretty bad so they want to have a legal backup for future repressive actions," he said.

"They are trying to help themselves through elections with this law and their fear campaign."

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