BELGRADE — AS chants of "traitor, traitor, traitor," "Slobo leave," and "Slobo, you wimp - you traded the Krajina" echoed through the crowd of 10,000 people, a few raindrops began to cascade gently onto the protesters' heads.
"Slobodan Milosevic is the greatest [Croatian fascist] now," thundered Nikola Milosevic, president of the opposition Liberal Party, referring to the Serbian president. "Four years ago he encouraged people to fight for freedom in Serb territories, and now, everybody, even the whole world, is shocked by his silence."
But the words of Nikola Milosevic, who is not related to the president, ignited little passion in the crowd. It seemed a pale imitation of the 1989 rallies where President Milosevic electrified hundreds of thousands with nationalist vitriol. As the rain intensified, the crowd slowly dispersed.
As Serbs across the former Yugoslavia reel from their greatest single defeat since World War II, the divisions that Serb folklore warns will be the downfall of the "Serb nation" are intensifying. A high-stakes blame game between Serbian President Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has erupted that could sharply increase - or decrease - the success of new American and Russian peace initiatives in the region.
"I think in the long term, this is going to polarize Serbian politics between those who believe Milosevic is king of the Serbs," says a Belgrade-based Western diplomat, "and those who believe he's betraying the Serbs."
But Milosevic, so far, appears to be easily weathering criticism from nationalists and Mr. Karadzic for his failure to send the Yugoslav Army to defend the Krajina - the region of Croatia that rebel Serbs had held since 1991 until the Croatian government retook it last weekend. The loser of the high-stakes propaganda war will likely be Karadzic, according to analysts and diplomats here.
"By Belgrade standards, a 10,000-person rally is not doing that well," says a senior Belgrade-based Western diplomat. "It's a pretty good indication that we're not seeing a welling-up of opposition to Milosevic."
With a US delegation in London and Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposing a summit of world leaders following meetings with Milosevic yesterday, diplomats say the chances for Karadzic's ouster and a peace deal in Bosnia have risen significantly.
But the intentions of the reclusive Milosevic, who critics say still clings to a dream of a "Greater Serbia," are unknown.
"My sense is that Milosevic would like to get this over with," says the diplomat. "I don't think he wants to go through another winter of [UN economic] sanctions."
Karadzic is in his weakest position ever, according to Western and Serbian advisers. Milosevic, who sees Karadzic as a potential future political rival, could move to oust him and get more moderate Bosnian Serb leaders to agree to a peace deal.
With no serious political or military rivals in Serbia, Milosevic still appears to have free political reign even after the devastating collapse of the Krajina.
"The Serbian political landscape is a wasteland right now," says the Western diplomat. "I only see desperate neo-Communists, greedy businessmen in the Socialist Party [of Serbia], and lunatic nationalists."
But ousting Karadzic may not be easy. When Karadzic defied Milosevic a year ago and refused to sign the Western nations' peace plan, which would divide Bosnia in half, observers predicted Milosevic would quickly engineer the ouster of the Bosnian Serb leader.
Milos Vasic, a defense writer with the Belgrade magazine Vreme, says Karadzic has learned from Milosevic. Like the Serbian president, Karadzic has complete control of state-run media and a new police force.
"He has developed his own special police force that is loyal only to him," Mr. Vasic says. "They are very well-paid and very well-equipped, so anyone who tries anything is going to face a very delicate operation."
On Wednesday, Karadzic backed away from an attempt he launched last Friday to oust popular Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic. The general, who is backed by Milosevic and could be Karadzic's successor, refused to step down, and at least 19 top Bosnian Serb generals backed him.
At a press conference on Wednesday with fallen Croatian Serb leader Milan Martic, another Milosevic opponent, Karadzic said cooperation with the military was increasing. Western diplomats say Karadzic's bold move must indicate he is in serious jeopardy.
"On the day of the Croatian attack, you dismiss your top general?" asks the senior Western diplomat. "He wouldn't do that unless he feared what was about to happen."
On the surface, the retreat of much of the 50,000-man Krajina Serb army into Bosnia would appear to help the manpower-short Bosnian Serb army, but military analyst Vasic says it may hurt the Bosnian Serbs.
The troops that the Bosnian Serb army may inherit are expected to be poorly motivated, and most Krajina Serbs appear to have little interest in fighting for Bosnia.
The Croat taking of the Krajina has also given the Bosnian Serbs 500 more miles of front line to defend against the Croatian Army.
Diplomats say the key is Milosevic. The Serb leader cannot be seen as selling out the Serbs in Bosnia and must be willing to defend Eastern Slavonia, the one remaining Serb-held enclave in Croatia.