The murder over the weekend of the political leader of Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina is giving the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic a pretext for a crackdown on the opposition. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports opposition activists today are going ahead with plans for a massive street protest despite the strongest warnings yet from the authorities that street demonstrations will no longer be tolerated.
Prague, 15 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Organizers of today's opposition rally in Belgrade had hoped 100,000 people would come out to voice their anger at the Milosevic regime. But only some 10,000 showed up -- quite possibly as a result of official warnings and a very strong police presence.
The Belgrade regime has launched a crackdown against the opposition and deployed large numbers of police in a bid to hamper access to the capital in the wake of the murder Saturday of the head of the provincial government of Vojvodina, Bosko Perosevic.
Perosevic had been visiting the agricultural fair in Novi Sad when his mobile telephone rang and his entourage left him unguarded. Milan Gutovic, a long-time security guard at the fair grounds and a native of the same village as Perosevic, is alleged to have shot the 43-year-old politician at close range in the head. Perosevic died in a hospital less than four hours later. Gutovic fled but was soon caught.
Perosevic was the 10th prominent Serb to be killed in political violence this year. Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, was killed January 15. Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic was killed February 8, and the head of Yugoslav Airlines (JAT), Zika Petrovic, was shot April 25.
Yugoslav Information Minister Goran Matic, speaking at a news conference in Belgrade yesterday, accused the alleged murderer, Gutovic, of being an opposition activist. Matic threatened arrest for anyone joining today's opposition protest. Matic said "All who perform activities against the state will be treated in accordance with the law and prevented -- the time of their street actions is over."
Matic said Gutovic "sympathizes with the Serbian Renewal Movement and is an activist with the Otpor movement." Matic implied that Otpor (Resistance), a student opposition movement, has fascist and terrorist connections.
"Otpor is not a registered organization in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and they have not been registered as a political party or a citizens' group. We checked all the registers we have, and at this moment, nobody is entitled to call themselves a political party or a citizens organization if they have a fascist policy, fascist symbols, terrorism, and violence in the streets."
But an Otpor activist in Novi Sad, Vladimir Jesic, was quick to dissociate the movement from any connection with the murder of Perosevic.
"These are gruesome and senseless lies, because they are calling for a lynching of their political opponents. Mr. Gutovic was never an Otpor activist -- we don't have his membership card in our office in Novi Sad, nor in any other place in Vojvodina."
The Belgrade tabloid daily "Blic" reports today that Serbian authorities in Vojvodina have launched a crackdown on Otpor and other opposition groups after the murder, arresting numerous activists. Otpor has temporarily closed its office in Novi Sad.
Otpor, which has only been publicly known since April of last year, says that since then 400 of its activists have spent a total of some 11,000 hours in police custody.
Similarly, the mayor of Novi Sad and local leader of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, Stevan Vrbaski, denies that Gutovic is a member of his party and said "someone" -- he did not say who -- is trying to politicize the murder. Serbian Renewal Movement chairman Vuk Draskovic is more direct. He alleges that the Milosevic regime hired Gutovic to murder Perosevic. "The people who lead this country are like Stalin -- Stalin ordered [fellow politburo member Sergei] Kirov's murder and then he went to the funeral and cried," Draskovic said.
Draskovic described Perosevic as "tolerant" and a "mildly spoken functionary" of Milosevic's party. But Draskovic accused the regime of "terror" against its opponents. He said it is the opposition's "sacred duty" to chase away the occupier -- Milosevic -- and "free Serbia."