Sunday sees Serbia go to the polls to elect a president. But although Slobodan Milosevic's main rival, Vojislav Kostunica, is expected to get the most votes, he would do well to remember one thing - in Serbia nobody wins elections except Milosevic. Maggie O'Kane reports from BelgradeTyrant at the ballot box
Friday September 22, 2000
The night in Belgrade belongs to the dogs - 60,000 of them now run wild because people can no longer afford to feed them. The city authorities are so broke that they frequently run out of drugs to put them down. So the dogs are clubbed to death instead. In the early morning the smell of freshly rotting rubbish hangs in the streets.
Yugoslavia's presidential elections take place on Sunday and the polls predict that Vojislav Kostunica, a previously unknown lawyer, will beat Slobodan Milosevic - despite the election rigging that Milosevic is famous for, and despite the fact that in Serbia nobody ever wins elections except Milosevic. But if Kostunica wins, it's likely that Milosevic will simply use the media he controls to declare victory anyway. He could do that as early as 10 o'clock on Sunday night, just two hours after the polls close and even before the polling boxes make it to the central sorting office. Welcome to Serbia 2000, where Serbs again will be left with no option but to go out on the streets. But the question is how many still have the energy left to go out and protest again.
In the winter of 1996, 50,000 people came out to protest against the rigged local elections, and the police special forces crushed them. They were crushed again in March this year when they came out against him on the anniversary of the war in Kosovo. And on Sunday, Milosevic fights not just for his political future, but to avoid spending the rest of his life in the Dutch seaside prison where the international court in the Hague sends its guilty men. "If we win, it will be great," said one of his long-time party workers. "If we lose, they will lynch us."
There are 120,000 police at Milosevic's disposal, and all holiday leave has been cancelled. They will do the job they have done in previous protests.
On Planet Serbia, closed off from the world, hundreds of thousands of people have turned the frustration and anger of Milosevic's last 12 years of rule into hatred for both him and his wife. He has been the force behind the three bloody wars - in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo - as he tried to use nationalism to secure his own political future. Milosevic, the puppetmaster of the Balkans, has led his people into the wilderness, turning Serbs into international outcasts. A million of them were driven from their homes in those wars, and before their eyes, Yugoslavia, once the wealthiest, healthiest and most beautiful country in eastern Europe, has shrunk from 250,000 square kilometres of sea and mountains to a violent ghetto a quarter that size.
Milosevic will be 60 next birthday. His only vices - apart from an obsession with remaining in power - are whisky and Cuban cigars. Both he and his wife have tragic personal histories. His father, a teacher, shot himself when Milosevic was 21. His mother, also a teacher, killed herself 10 years later. But a former Yugoslav ambassador once said that "in his presence you can feel his strength of personality. You just feel yourself shrinking down in the armchair when he begins to talk. He is a powerful man". Richard Holbrooke, who chaired the Dayton peace talks in 1995, said he had a great sense of humour; even the waitresses in the Dayton airbase canteen were charmed by him.
He met his wife, Mira Markovic, at school in Pozarevac. Her mother was tortured and executed by the Gestapo in 1944 as one of Tito's partisans. They have two children: Marija, a 34-year-old former journalist; and Marko, a 26-year-old former racing driver who runs his own Milosevic mafia in their home town.
In the foyer of a Belgrade police station a nurse is trying to sort out her papers and wants to know if there are any jobs in England so she can get out of "this madhouse" before the elections. Behind the desk a fat, almost friendly policeman is frowning into his big yellowing ledger. He sits behind chocolate-coloured tinted glass; a full ashtray and grubby overflowing trays of carbon-copied identity papers. It's like being in eastern Europe in 1989.
Kostunica, who presents the first real political challenge to Milosevic, is a former communist but a man with clean hands and no past. The only dirt the regime has managed to get on him is to accuse him of keeping 17 cats - which, according to an editorial in Milosevic's paper Politika, shows that, like the average cat, he is untrustworthy and selfish. The editorial also said that he is supported by "Gays, lesbians and feminists".
On each of the 10 floors of my apartment block "Gotov Je" - he's finished - is plastered above the door of the lift. The opposition movement now claims to have 100,000 activists campaigning against Milosevic, but he is far from finished. Until election day he is fighting for his political life, primarily through the TV station he took over 13 years ago when he first came to power.
We are watching the news in a top-floor flat. Outside, across the city's skyline, most of the damage done in Nato's 74 days of bombing has disappeared. The news begins with an eight-minute item about the reopening of the chemical plant outside Belgrade. We see a crowd of slightly distracted looking workers shouting "Slobo, Slobo". The next 12 minutes are election speeches from around the country with "Slobo, Slobo" being chanted constantly in the background. The captain of the national volleyball team calls on people to vote for Milosevic. One hour into the news and they move on to the 100,000 houses that Milosevic will build in the next 10 years.
Sylvia, the mother of the house, stands up. "I can't watch it. I hate him. I could kill him with my bare hands." She is 40 years old and has a masters degree in engineering. "He stole the best years of my life. We have no money, my car is 13 years old. I survive by smuggling sanitary towels and chocolate from Romania. If he wins again there is no future for us."
Sylvia escapes to the kitchen. The news goes on about another new electricity plant being opened; then finally there's a mention of the opposition. They are all "fifth columnists" and "traitors". The hour and 48 minutes of Milosevic propaganda mentions his name more than 40 times and ends with the news that he is leading the "global battle against the agents of fascism".
Milosevic controls all the media, allowing only a few independents to preach to the converted in Belgrade. The rest of the country receive only his message, and it has worked. The latest polls say that Milosevic could legitimately poll more than 1.5m votes and Kostunica is expected to win by as few as 700,000. But Milosevic is free to fix the ballot in Serb regions of Kosovo and the sister state of Montenegro.
His biggest supporters are among the old former communists who hark back to Tito, like 64-year-old Dorde Erdeljan and his 61-year-old wife Stava. They say they watch the news every night - never miss it. "If it wasn't for Milosevic being so strong we would have had Nato troops on the streets of Belgrade," says Dorde. "Kostunica's coalition are traitors who would betray our country." Instead of blaming Milosevic for the hardships of the past 10 years, they point to sanctions and a western conspiracy. "Look at what happened in Britain over the petrol prices - your country would have collapsed in six months if you had to put up with what Serbia has been forced to suffer."
The only dissenter on the street is Dobrivoic Radanovic, a 50-year-old former boxer and mechanic. "Of course I'm voting for the opposition. The only people who won't are the old, the army and police."
"What will happen then?"
"Nothing. People will protest and that will be it. The police will crush them and that will be it. We are a special people, the Serbs. The Turks ruled us and we got used to being oppressed."
Jovan Dulovic works for the small independent magazine Vreme. He specialises in police affairs. "The special intervention force can be in Belgrade in a few hours. They are the cream of the force, usually athletes and young guys who do weights. In any normal country of our size the police force should be about 30,000; here we've got 120,000. If the people keep going on the streets, the police will beat them. I don't expect them to do anything immediately - he will wait to see how the protests go. Then if they continue it will be very brutal."
Milosevic is on the campaign trail, appearing at organised mass rallies. On Monday night, the TV broadcasts a ceremony showing 10,089 people gathering to join his party. Each was presented with a red rose and given 100 German marks for turning up. "We are living through some sort of tragic comic opera which might look funny but it is very, very dangerous," says Lubodrag Stojadivovic, a former spokesman for the Yugoslav army who was sacked for writing an open letter protesting about political interference, especially by Milosevic's wife in the army.
I think it is possible that the police will be used in a massive and brutal way. If that doesn't work his last card will be the army, but that is a very dangerous card to play - no matter what the generals say, the soldiers will not go against the people."
The town where Milosevic and his wife began their lives looks like a pleasant place in the early autumn. All along the main street there are white banners in red letters that read "Choose people not Nato" and "For Yugoslavia". There's not a single poster or banner for the opposition in sight. The chestnut trees in the square were turning red when Markovic went there last week to address a public rally calling on her town and her nation to support her husband.
"Only about 2,000 people turned up," says Mile Yeljkovic, a journalist with Beta, the independent newsagency. "Even those people were bused in. I heard afterwards that she was in tears, she couldn't believe there were so few people."
On Sunday, and in the days that follow, Serbia will find out what they already know - that Milosevic will play God to the end. He has no choice. Perhaps that's why this city of Belgrade on this warm September day is full mostly of exhaustion and despair. "Pandora's box has been opened and the only thing left inside for us now is hope," said a beautiful student, plastering opposition posters on a baker's wall. She is 19, and not so tired.
Life and times of Milosevic
August 29 1941, in Pozarevac, Serbia. Following the suicide of his father in 1962, Milosevic was raised by his mother, who also killed herself in 1973.
Graduated in law from Belgrade University in 1964 and pursued a business career. He was chief of the state-owned gas company Technogas 1968-78, and member of the board of directors of Beobank (United Bank of Belgrade) 1978-82.
Joined the communist party of Yugoslavia when he was 18. Entered politics in 1984. In 1987 he became leader of the Serbian communists. Elected president of the Serbian Republic in 1989. The following year he turned the League of Communists of Serbia into the Socialist party of Serbia and was returned to power in the election of December 1990.
Serb forces bombard cities including Dubrovnik and Vukovar as the conflict escalates in 1991. Croatian independence recognised by the EC the following year.
International recognition of the area as an independent state in April 1992 leads to civil war. Thousands of Muslims massacred by Serbs at Srebrenica in the summer of 1995. Milosevic agrees to peace in the Dayton accord in November of that year.
The 1998 offensive by Serb forces against the Kosovo Liberation Army leads to the 78-day bombing of Serbia by Nato forces, March to June 1999, which ends when Milosevic agrees to withdraw his troops.