Prague, 28 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - The largest and most sustained demonstrations to date against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic present a challenge that may just spell the beginning of the end of his career.
Serbia's opposition, under the umbrella of the Zajedno (Together) coalition of three political parties and independent trade unions, has been holding mass demonstrations of tens of thousands of protesters every day for the last eight days in Belgrade, Nis, Kragujevac and elsewhere.
The protest began after the Milosevic regime covered up and then annulled the results of November 17 local run-off elections in which Zajedno won a majority of town council seats in 15 of Serbia's 18 biggest towns, including Belgrade.
Milosevic aides quote the Serbian president as having said after the opposition victory that he would not live in a city controlled by the opposition.
The head of the Serbian Renewal Movement, which is part of Zajedno, Vuk Draskovic, told yesterday's protest demonstration of nearly 100,000 protesters in Belgrade that "our goal is Slobodan Milosevic's resignation."
"We must force him to resign to establish a new Serbia," said Draskovic."As long as Slobodan Milosevic is in charge, we will not have stability in Serbia."
Other Zajedno leaders were equally outspoken in their denunciations. Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic, told the crowd: "Every day we are pulling a brick from Milosevic's Great Wall of China." And Civic Union chief Vesna Pesic branded the Serbian president a tyrant, declaring, "Milosevic is no longer president".
In a further act of defiance, 15,000 students marched toward Milosevic's residence in the Dedinje district overlooking Belgrade. But a cordon of riot police blocked their way.
Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia faces accusations of ballot stuffing, vote rigging, intimidation and beatings of election monitors. A court-ordered third round of voting was held in Belgrade yesterday in those districts where Zajedno had won. Zajedno boycotted the third round. Turnout was between 20 and 30 percent and shortly after the polls closed Milosevic's Socialists claimed victory.
While some key Zajedno activists say their model is Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution of November 1989 that ended more than four decades of Communist rule, they worry that a drive to topple the unbending Milosevic could make some people think about the Romanian model. Romanian president and Communist party chief Nicolae Ceasescu and his wife Elena tried to flee the country but were hunted down, tried and executed on Christmas Day 1989 as panic-stricken Securitate snipers gunned down hundreds of innocent Romanians in Bucharest, Timisoara, Sibiu and elsewhere.
The parallels with Czechoslovakia do not stand up to close scrutiny. Not a single pane of glass was broken in the Velvet Revolution. The opposition, the Civic Forum -- an assembly of dissidents, independent activists and establishment economists -- and its Slovak counterpart, Public Against Violence, quickly succeeded in uniting the nation and forcing the Communists out of office.
In contrast, countless windows have already been shattered in the Belgrade protests as demonstrators hurled rock, eggs and tomatoes at City Hall, the editorial offices of the pro-Milosevic daily "Politika" and Belgrade television. The Serbian protest leaders have yet to demonstrate the star qualities of a Dubcek or a Havel inspiring the protesters and ensuring their presence in ever greater numbers. The demonstrations, though daily attracting tens of thousands, have not reached a magnitude that would topple a dictatorship as happened in the Philippines in 1986, or East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria in 1989 and Albania in 1990-91.
Authorities in Belgrade have begun cracking down on the independent news media, restricting or jamming broadcasts of Belgrade's only independent radio station, Radio B-92, and severely reducing the number of copies of the daily "Blic" and repeatedly cutting off power to its editorial offices.
Milosevic appears to have boxed himself into a corner by annulling Zajedno's election victory and forcing a third round. There is little he can do but to try to weather out the storm by maintaining a low profile. He would be behaving true to form if he were to instigate trouble of some sort in an ethnically mixed area -- Kosovo, Sandzak or Vojvodina -- in a bid to unite Serbs behind the flag as Ceausescu tried and failed to do in multi-ethnic Timisoara. But having been repeatedly duped for nearly a decade, it is questionable whether even the "nationalist card" would succeed in saving Milosevic.
Milosevic's fate and that of the ruling post-Communist coalition appears to be in the hands of the military and the police as was the case with Ceausescu. Following six years of Milosevic's successive purges, early retirements and transfers to the Bosnian Serb Army, the military leadership appears loyal but unwilling to let itself be dragged into domestic politics.
One week ago, in an apparent bid to forestall any thought of an insurrection, Milosevic called a meeting of the Yugoslav Supreme Defense Council. The council, which the news media say met in a tense session, ordered Yugoslav Army units into combat readiness in towns experiencing anti-government protests.
The Belgrade weekly, "Nedeljni Telegraf," says Chief of Staff General Momcilo Perisic proposed troops be confined to bases to avoid any involvement in civil unrest or a repetition of the events of March 1991, when Milosevic sent tanks into Belgrade's streets to crush pro-democracy demonstrations.
This would appear to indicate that this time around the military intends to act defensively, protecting its bases and responding only if directly provoked. However, the council ordered the army to form special units to be trained and led by military and interior ministry officers who are experts in combatting what it termed "large and destructive urban unrest".
In a new twist, the protesters have been also angry at the United States and its allies, accusing them of supporting Milosevic in exchange for his ensuring that the Bosnian Serb leadership respects the Dayton Peace accords.
Opposition leader Draskovic says Milosevic is a war-maker, not a peacemaker and the United States and its allies should waste no time depending on him as a guarantor of peace in the Balkans.