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Serbia: Protesters Detest Milosevic, And Lukewarm About Opposition

Belgrade, 18 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- 50 year old Nada Sredojevic, who describes herself simply as a Serbian woman and a Christian, comes to the daily opposition protests in the Serbian capital to atone for her countries war against Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina.

"I am ashamed," she says directly. "I walk on behalf of those who can't be here because the regime has deprived them of their lives, their families, their houses and their traditions. I come for the inhabitants of Vukovar, Sarajevo, Derveta and countless villages," she adds, naming places devastated by war which tore apart old Yugoslavia.

At 74, Bozidar Avramovic says he's too old to walk, but he stands in the center of town every afternoon to see the protesters walk, and wait for them to snake through the downtown streets, and return to their starting point, where he listens to the speeches of the Zajedno ("Together") opposition coalition.

He is here to protest against decades of communism and communist leaders, starting with Lenin, Stalin and Yugoslavia's own Marshall Tito, and ending with current Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who calls himself a socialist and has been twice democratically elected.

Avramovic explains: "I don't stand here for my own benefit. I stand here for the benefits of my sons and grandchildren, who are 8, 6 and 3. I hope they will never have to live through the bad times we are experience right now."

Officially, the crowds that sometimes number 200,000 or more in Belgrade are here to demand that Milosevic reinstate opposition victories in the Nov. 17 municipal elections that he annulled. In fact most of them simply come out to show their disgust with Milosevic, rather than their support for Zajedno.

Taja Cvjeticanin, a 33 year old curator at the national museum who marches every day, acknowledges that "people are mostly against Milosevic. The common thing is that they are against Milosevic. The opinions of what we see for the future are different."

The diversity of the protesters, combined with the opposition parties' history of infighting, have raised the question of how unified Zajedno really is and whether it can capitalize on the publics discontent. The answer appears to be yes.

Milan Bozic, political advisor to main opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, admits the people in the streets are "not our fans, but no doubt 90 percent of them voted for us."

Slobodan Vuksanovic, spokesman for the democratic party within Zajedno party, goes even further. Hatred of Milosevic is so strong, he says, that the people in the streets would vote for the devil just to get rid of Milosevic.

Igor Bogdanovic, a 33 year old archeologist is a hard-core supporter of the protests, but a lukewarm supporter of Zajedno. But he says supporting Zajedno is not the question; the important thing is to establish truly democratic system where elections mean something and power can be transferred peacefully.

He says: "we don't have to think that everything will be splendid when they (Zajedno) come in power. In a few years we could change the party again. It is a starting point for the evolution of the country."

Indeed, many say the true opposition in Serbia is just being born. During the long years of war since 1991, Serbs rallied so strongly behind Milosevic that there was no fertile ground for cultivating the opposition movement.

Zoran Djindjic, leader of the Democratic party whose election as Belgrade mayor which was overturned by Milosevic, said in an interview with RFE/RL that the question is not whether the demonstrators are supporting Zajedno, but whether Zajedno can prove to be capable of leading the people and channeling their dissatisfaction.

In his words: "if we do not succeed in the next years to focus our program of reform, then someone else will come who is capable of doing it." He says that if the opposition backs down now, it will be clear that power cannot be changed through the ballot box in Serbia. That, he says, would open the door to more radical groups who want to take power by force.

Opposition leaders say the protests have had already one major accomplishment: they have destroyed Milosevic's creditability in the West. After fomenting the war in Bosnia, Milosevic worked hard to cultivate the image of a peacemaker. Now, opposition leaders say, the Serbian president has been unmasked as an unreconstructive communist, flouting the will of the people and intent on keeping power at any price.

For now, Djindjic is determined to continue the protests as long as it takes to compel Milosevic to back down. Djindjic says he not afraid that Milosevic will use force to break up the demonstrations -- he says the time for that has long since passed -- and he says the only weapon Milosevic has is to wait.

"I do not know if Milosevic is feeling better today than the day he decided to steal the votes," Djindjic said as protests entered their fifth week. "But I do know that we can last for a very long time."

Interviews with protesters in Belgrade, Serbia1s second city Nis and Kragujevac reviled high moral and determination. Everyday the crowds grow larger, and protests have been held in 30 cities - 20 of them on a daily basis.

After a few rainy and snowy days last month, even the weather has been on the side of the opposition. Warm, sunny days have encouraged more people to come out and enjoy the peaceful, almost carnival atmosphere.

The Democratic party spokesman, Vuksanovic is speaking metaphorically and literally when he says "after six cloudy years, we have a bright new year."