Serbian Opposition Tripped by Early Elections Milosevic Tries to Marginalize Radical and Moderate Opponents as Economic Conditions Worsen

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AT secret talks held Oct. 23-24, Serbia's mainstream opposition leaders tried to agree on a common set of conditions for participating in snap elections called for Dec. 19 by authoritarian President Slobodan Milosevic.

The only major demand, say several of those present, was to have access to the main independent TV station, whose signal is restricted to greater Belgrade, and to state-run television's second channel. That would have broken the republic-wide broadcasting monopoly Mr. Milosevic and his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) have used to foment the nationalist fervor that has kept him in power since political pluralism was introduced in 1990.

But the opposition's first attempt to organize for the upcoming polls collapsed, its leaders remaining deeply riven by policy squabbles, petty feuds, and personal ambitions.

Their failure to unite on securing the most-basic conditions for fair polls has all but doomed their more-ambitious idea of forming a coalition to confront Milosevic's party for 250 Serbian Assembly seats.

Without such unity and equal access to the air waves, it seems unlikely that the mainstream opposition can vanquish the SPS in Serbia's third multiparty legislative polls in as many years.

"The opposition is going to be split, and TV will be in Milosevic's hands," Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, the main opposition party, told the Monitor.

United Nations economic sanctions, intended to punish Milosevic for instigating the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, have instead helped boost the Socialists' ballot prospects, Mr. Draskovic says.

"The sanctions firstly affected ordinary people and the democratic opposition," he explains. "We have no money, we have no cars, we have no petrol. We have no possibility to travel around Serbia to have election rallies to explain our programs."

"The only way to campaign is TV. But the door to TV is closed to us," says Draskovic, who has yet to decide if his party will contest the polls. "Under such conditions, we have no chance."

Nor do ultra-right leader Vojislav Seselj and his Serbian Radical Party, several analysts say. The SRP precipitated the early polls by calling for an assembly no-confidence vote in the minority SPS regime of Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic.

Unwilling to see his prime minister humiliated despite failure to stem Serbia's economic calamity, Milosevic dissolved the assembly Oct. 20 and called elections. Mr. Seselj in turn called a no-confidence vote in the federal Parliament against the SPS regime of the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro, which has ruled only with the radicals' backing.

How that situation will play out is unclear, as the federal Constitution prohibits dissolution of the Yugoslav Parliament after a no-confidence motion has been proposed. …