Demonstrations against the rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic continue in Serbia. But RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports it is far too early to say whether they represent the beginning of a successful effort to force him from power.
Prague, 9 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Several thousand people gathered in the southern Serbian town of Prokuplje last night to demand Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's resignation, a transitional government and early elections at the republic and federal levels.
Opposition Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic told the protesters a referendum must be held this year on Milosevic's future.
"Nothing can justify to us what the NATO pact did. But what can we do or change? We cannot remove NATO, but today we can organize meetings and we can remove our president-usurper...." (cheers).
Djindjic told the rally the Alliance for Change (SZP), which has been organizing rallies across Serbia "will not leave the Socialists alone" and in his words, "must help them even against their will." He warned against the danger of civil war, saying "there are not enough Serbs to start fighting and killing each other".
Djindjic, who earlier in the day had been heckled by Serbs while on a visit to Gracanica monastery in Kosovo, noted that the Serbian Orthodox church has already demanded Milosevic's resignation and the formation of a responsible government.
The local office of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) in Prokuplje called off plans to hold a counter-rally simultaneous with the Anti-Milosevic rally. The head of the local SPS office, Ratko Zecevic, explained the cancellation to reporters, saying "we do not want a civil war." He later fired several pistol shots into the air from the balcony of his office, apparently to stop a scuffle in the street below between SPS hecklers and opposition supporters.
The local leader of the opposition Civil Alliance of Serbia (GSS), Goran Svilanovic, referring to the Belgrade neighborhood where Milosevic's residence is located, told the Prokuplje rally Milosevic has nowhere to hide.
"We will go all the way to Dedinje, where he is hiding in his bunker... We will win..."
Svilanovic added that the Serbian nation has unleashed four wars and lost them all, but added, there is one victory ahead -- Milosevic's departure.
This was the third big anti-Milosevic rally in Serbia organized by the Alliance for Change. Their first rally on June 29 in Cacak attracted some 10,000 people. The second rally in Uzice on Tuesday attracted some 5,000 protesters.
Other anti-government protests have also been held in smaller towns. For example, in Leskovac some 2,000 people, including local army reservists, rallied for the fourth evening in a row yesterday. That was considerably fewer than on the first evening of protest there on Monday, when 20,000 people demonstrated there.
The Leskovac protesters also demand that Milosevic resign. They are also demanding that a local TV station broadcast names of all reservists killed or missing from the war in Kosovo.
In addition to rallies, opposition activists are collecting signatures for a petition demanding Milosevic's removal.
In the eastern Serbian town of Zajecar, the chairman of the regional branch of the opposition Democratic Party, Vlastimir Badjevic, yesterday accused the local police of intimidating people who want to sign the petition by issuing a ban on collecting signatures in public. He says over 250 local citizens have already signed.
Similarly, in Milosevic's hometown, Pozarevac the head of the local opposition Democratic Party branch, Dragan Curdzija, says over 300 local citizens have signed the petition.
In Belgrade, an opposition move in the city council to pass a resolution demanding Milosevic's resignation was defeated in a stormy session last night marked by mutual denunciations and walkouts.
The town council in Uzice also rejected a motion to demand Milosevic's resignation. But two town councils this week did demand Milosevic leave office: in Serbia's second largest city, Novi Sad, and in Pirot, near the border with Bulgaria. The Pirot town council yesterday approved a declaration denouncing Milosevic for what it called a "catastrophic foreign and domestic policy over the last 10 years".
Zoran Zivkovic, the mayor of Serbia's third largest city Nis, was in Kosovo yesterday with Djindjic for talks with UN coordinator Sergio de Mello. Zivkovic is a leading activist in the Alliance for Change. He told RFE/RL what the Alliance is trying to achieve with the mass protests.
"The Alliance for Change is trying to unite all democratic forces in Serbia, that is the greatest number of opposition parties. We have to remove Milosevic as a matter of utmost urgency so that Serbia can survive.... We have organized the signing of a petition calling for Milosevic's resignation, and we expect that Milosevic's regime will fall by the beginning of autumn."
Zivkovic says he is convinced the majority of Serbs want Milosevic to leave office.
"The largest number of people in Serbia, 80 percent of them, is looking for a change. These first meetings have shown that people are coming to the streets in large numbers, tens of thousands have already signed the petition for Milosevic's resignation, and I think that opposition is as strong as the people want it to be, and I think they want to help us at this moment."
The opposition is not united in how to deal with Milosevic. As usual the odd man out is Vuk Draskovic and his Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO). Draskovic earlier this year served as a Deputy Prime Minister under Milosevic. Yesterday, a spokesman for the SPO branch in Novi Sad, Lazar Slepcev, said his party will not be organizing street protests against Milosevic and will not sign petitions demanding his resignation. Slepcev says forcing the issue in the streets could initiate a process that could get out of control. He says street protests are counterproductive and have always resulted in strengthening ultra nationalist Vojislav Seselj.
The official media have given scant attention to the street protests and petitions, beyond alleging that they are organized by the West. The spokesman of Milosevic's SPS, Ivica Dacic, told state-owned Radio Belgrade yesterday that the Alliance for Change, and its demands and actions, have surfaced in different forms over the years. And in his words, "one thing remains constant, these parties have been and will continue to be marginal."
Another party of the ruling coalition, the Yugoslav Left (JUL) headed by Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, yesterday called on all citizens of Yugoslavia to show "interpersonal solidarity and national unity". JUL says it has submitted what it terms "a project for the complete reform of society" to the Serbian and federal governments. The party offered no details.
With even Milosevic's wife and mentor, "Mila", on the defensive, it would appear the beginning of the end of the Milosevic era may finally be at hand. But no one appears too sure how long that may take or even if Milosevic can really be forced from power. Earlier this week, Djindjic said he was "sure" Milosevic would be gone by the end of the year -- otherwise, Djindjic added, he would leave politics.
The army, repeatedly purged by Milosevic of senior officers perceived as independent thinkers and thus as potentially unfaithful, is unlikely to move against Milosevic until it has no other choice left. The Serbian police appear to be on the defensive for now as the rallies continue with the participation of army reservists who served in Kosovo.
But the rallies are still few and far between and relatively small. No anti-Milosevic rally has been held in Belgrade since Milosevic capitulated more than a month ago to NATO's demands after 11 weeks of war. The Alliance for Change has not scheduled another rally until next Tuesday in Cacak.