Kosovo Polje, Yugoslavia — Slobodan Milosevic was huddling with Communist Party activists inside the local town hall. Thousands of Serbs surged forward to listen. Police held them back with truncheons. Shouts rang out, ``They are beating us.'' Mr. Milosevic grabbed a microphone, stepped to a second-floor window, and stilled the crowd.
``Nobody has a right to beat you,'' he said. ``You never again will be beaten.''
In a country not used to seeing communist officials defend the public against the police, the incident on April 24, 1987, soon became a legend. The crowd cheered. Milosevic had shed his image as a faceless apparatchik, beginning his headlong rush toward reshaping this volatile Balkan country.
``We saw that he was our only real politician,'' says Miroslav Jeremic, a 19-year-old student present that day in Kosovo Polje. ``He is the only one who fights for us.''
The Serbian Communist Party chief now stands at the center of Yugoslavia's deepest political crisis since the death eight years ago of longtime strong man Josip Broz Tito.
After orchestrating months of anti-Albanian demonstrations, he is pushing for a massive purge of Yugoslavia's aging leaders, along with far-reaching constitutional changes to expand Serbian power, at a crucial two-day Communist Party plenum scheduled to end this evening.
To his detractors, Milosevic is a dangerous demagogue, a power-hungry authoritarian populist who wants to restore Serbian tyranny over the country. To his supporters, he is a hardheaded, energetic politician who wants to end the dithering ways of post-Tito leaders and restore order to a floundering economy.
Reformers like the way he promotes the virtues of free enterprise. Hard-liners love the way he quotes Lenin.
``Milosevic is too simplistically portrayed as a fascist,'' says one Western diplomat. ``He's really a complicated guy, someone who uses undesirable political behavior to promote reformist ideas.''
Son of an Orthodox theology professor, Milosevic started his career as a businessman, first working for the state gas company, Tehnogas, and later directing the Belgrade United Bank.
This background helps explain his radical economic reform plans for increasing private enterprise and foreign investment while closing loss-making firms. He speaks fluent English and wins over sophisticated intellectuals with his charming, educated manner.
``When I met Milosevic in New York, where I was correspondent, he was most impressive,'' recalls Goran Milic of Belgrade Television. ``Compared to other Yugoslav officials, he seemed much more forthright and on top of things.''
At Tehnogas, Milosevic came under the wing of Ivan Stambolic, leader of the Serbian Communist Party. Mr. Stambolic later named him party chief for the capital, Belgrade. Milosevic showed no gratitude. He kicked out Stambolic last autumn, saying ``Serbia has had enough of these leaders.''
His authoritarian, demagogic side soon emerged by manipulating the emotionally charged issue of Albanian harassment of Serbs here in Kosovo Province. His supporters organized mass demonstrations demanding that the ruling Albanians give up their local autonomy to Serbia.
The Belgrade press was purged, and the respected daily Polityka became a Milosevic mouthpiece. It now plays up reports of Albanians slashing car tires of Serbs, throwing stones, desecrating graves, and raping women - even though official records since 1981 report only 14 rape cases involving Albanians and Serbian victims.
``Milosevic showed us he was a man of the people,'' says Nebosa Vlanovic, a journalist at the Serb Jedinstvo daily here in Kosovo. ``He thinks like the people, and he acts like the people.''
A modest life style adds to this favorable impression. While other Yugoslav politicians are known to flaunt their power, cavorting around town with mistresses, Milosevic is close to his wife, Marjin, a sociology professor at the University of Belgrade.
``He's got no villa, no mistress, no shady dealing with dummy jobs,'' says television anchorman Milic. ``He stands in line himself to buy tickets for movies.''
His image, his tactics, and his popularity have already broken the lethargy hanging over Yugoslav politics - and raise the question, What does Milosevic want?
At the present plenum, he will probably not take a position in the federal government. Real power still lies in the republics, and he now leads Serbia, the largest republic. But in the longer run, he may be making a bid to become nothing less than a second Tito - a strong leader whose populist appeal outweighs the rivalries between the country's different nationalities.
``He's not a democrat, but he's right to fight for change,'' says the famous dissident Milovan Djilas, himself a former Tito prot'eg'e who holds a sneaking admiration for the Serbian leader. ``Our inefficient system has needed to be overhauled for a long time.''
Milosevic's problem is that, unlike Tito, he is neither a war hero nor the founder of modern Yugoslavia.
Outside of Serbia, he has a strong following in Macedonia and Montenegro, where his anti-Albanian views strike a chord. He also has the largely Serbian-officered Yugoslav Army on his side.
Elsewhere in Yugoslavia, however, he is mistrusted. The mere fact that he is a Serb worries the country's non-Serb majority, forever fearful of a return to Serbian domination.
Liberals in the party object to the way he used demonstrations to push his point, and they dismiss his liberal economic reform plans as a gimmick designed to impress Western creditors.
``On the one hand, he is a leader who advocates a strong central party and at the same time wants to free the market,'' a Western diplomat says. ``You have to wonder if he can manage the inherent contradictions.'' From the party plenum
Milosevic lived up to his reputation on the first day of the crucial two-day Yugoslav Communist Party plenum Monday. For 15 tense minutes, the Serbian leader stunned the audience with a determined demeanor and tough words.
Defending his demonstrations against Albanians, who allegedly harassed Serbs in the autonomous province of Kosovo, he charged that ``some people send their children abroad, while others must walk with them to school to prevent them from being raped.'' The only solution, he said, would be to sack ``all those who are blocking change.'' That meant ``widespread leadership changes.''
Milosevic had said such things before, but his strident tone and direct manner still shocked the audience.
Speaking after him, Albanian leader Azem Vlasi warned of ``the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia.''