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Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 19:13 GMT
Serbia's potential for violence
Anti-Milosevic demonstration
Attempts to rekindle last year's protest movement fizzled out
The demonstrations by Yugoslav army reservists in Kraljevo coincide with a fresh clamp-down by the Serbian authorities against their opponents in the run-up to municipal elections - most recently an attempt to shut down Belgrade's opposition-run Studio B television station.

The BBC's south-east Europe analyst Gabriel Partos examines the current conflicts in Serbia, which could lead to a dangerous confrontation.

Serbia's formerly fractious opposition parties united in calling for street protests in Belgrade if the government carried out its threat to close down Studio B.

The mayor of Belgrade, Vojislav Mihailovic, of the opposition Serbian Renewal Party, appealed to television viewers on Monday to defend the station, which he described as "your property, your eyes and ears".

The row over Studio B followed a controversial government demand for the payment of the equivalent of over $1m - at the official exchange rate - for the use of their frequencies.

Although Studio B said it didn't owe any money, it has now settled the bill.

But the row over Studio B has been part of a broader campaign the government has been waging.

Regaining lost ground

This month has already seen the closure of several independent local radio and TV stations, as well as the nationalisation of the mass circulation paper, Vecernje Novosti, which recently provided some coverage of the opposition.

The latest round of closures is spearheading the government's drive in the run-up to municipal elections later this year, in which the Milosevic administration is hoping to recapture Belgrade and some of the other 20-odd towns it lost to the opposition four years ago.

Magazines showing Studio B logo
The opposition-run Studio B has escaped closure

On that occasion, the government's attempt to nullify the opposition's victories led to an unprecedented 11-week series of daily mass demonstrations which were crowned with success in early 1997 when the results were reinstated.

But the opposition's unity evaporated within months, paving the way for Mr Milosevic's Socialists to regain power with the help of neo-communists and ultra-nationalists.

That in turn created the conditions for Belgrade's crack-down in Kosovo and the disastrous confrontation with Nato which left Serbia devastated.

The result of Mr Milosevic's policy has been the loss of Serbia's control over Kosovo, a parting of the way with pro-Western Montenegro and poverty and unemployment at home.

Rekindling the opposition

All this should provide ideal conditions for an opposition in the pre-election period.

But in Serbia, lack of co-ordination and disunity have weakened the opposition as much as pressure and intimidation on the part of the authorities.

The daily life and mood of the Serbs today is quite similar to the one Romanians had in the last years of Ceausescu

Romanian Foreign Minister
Attempts to rekindle last year's protest movement - which fizzled out due to lack of unity - failed last week when the important 9 March anniversary of protests in 1991 went almost unnoticed.

The government's current campaign against the media may yet provide the rallying point for the opposition to revive its challenge.

But if Mr Milosevic makes a brief tactical retreat on this issue, or if the opposition can't mobilise their currently largely apathetic supporters, the already slim prospects for a change through the ballot box will become even more distant.

That would strengthen Mr Milosevic's position in the short term.

On the other hand, the lack of a meaningful opposition - or one that is allowed to operate freely - could create even more problems.

Fear of upheaval

The situation could be compared to Romania in the late 1980s, says Romanian Foreign Minister Petre Roman.

"My personal perception is that the daily life and daily mood of the Serbs today is quite similar to the one Romanians had in the last years of Ceausescu," he said.

President Milosevic
Milosevic is wanted by the War Crimes Tribunal
In the absence of political channels to bring about change, Serbia's increasingly desperate population might resort to other means.

During and since the Kosovo conflict, army reservists have repeatedly staged anti-government protests.

In future, such incidents might spill over into less localised and more violent confrontations, aggravated by a society that has become highly militarised and criminalised.

The potential for conflict and violence in Serbia remains strong.

Only the existence of a viable opposition, as well as a regime that is prepared to tolerate a freely-functioning opposition and a thriving independent media would provide a guarantee against an upheaval.

The problem is that Mr Milosevic cannot afford to have free and fair elections for fear of being defeated at the ballot box.

As an indicted war criminal, he would have nowhere to hide once he's out of office.

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14 Mar 00 | Europe
Serbian border tension growing
14 Mar 00 | Europe
Fears of new Balkan flashpoint
14 Mar 00 | Europe
Yugoslav reservists protest
06 Mar 00 | Europe
Tension grows on Kosovo border
03 Mar 00 | Europe
Mitrovica Albanians return home
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