Serbia's 'Egg Revolt' Scrambles to Crack Regime

Police vow tough action if protests go on; opposition seeks blue-collar backing

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It was the first time Zoran had been arrested. The police came early in the morning to take him and his girlfriend for interrogation. He says they slapped him repeatedly and called him a traitor for joining the huge anti-government demonstrations that have brought the Serbian capital, Belgrade, to a standstill every day for two weeks.

Zoran's was one of the first arrests following the biggest and most sustained protest against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic since he came to power nine years ago. Mr. Milosevic has become a necessary agent of the West in preventing renewed war in Bosnia - a conflict he helped start.

Only a handful of people were detained, but it is the first sign the authorities may no longer remain aloof from the protest, which began after opposition victories in a local elections in a number of key towns were canceled.

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While remaining silent so far, the Milosevic regime has just changed gears in its attitude toward the protest. State television, which has ignored the demonstrations for the past two weeks, showed the first pictures of the demonstrations - highly selective shots showing people hurling objects at state buildings - along with a vitriolic commentary.

The Speaker of the Serbian Parliament, Dragon Tomic - the first high-level official to comment - compared the opposition leaders to Hitler and the Nazis.

In a strongly worded statement, the interior ministry warned it would "no longer tolerate any element of violence" from the protesters.

The huge demonstrations have so far been largely peaceful and disciplined, although some protesters are pelting symbols of the regime - Milosevic's office, the Serbian Parliament, and the state television building - with eggs, red paint, and other projectiles.

The eggs symbolize the petty thievery of which they accuse Milosevic; the red paint is symbolic of their charges that Milosevic is nothing more than a Communist who conveniently changed his ideology to stay in power.

The opposition said yesterday that the police statement and the new official line conveyed by state television were nothing more than an attempt to scare people off the streets. Having already brought more than 150,000 people out to protest, they promise even bigger demonstrations.

One of the leaders of the opposition coalition Zajedno (Together), Zoran Djindjic, said: "More and more people come to the protests every day and that is a big problem for Milosevic.... I think it will have the opposite effect, that even more people will come."

The demonstrations have gripped provincial towns and cities as well as in Belgrade. But most of the protesters have been people already in the opposition camp, the young and the middle classes.

Opposition leaders are trying to get trade unionists to back their cause. Protests by this core of Serbian society would cause panic among the governing socialists, but large numbers of workers have yet to join the protest.

But the opposition has history on its side. Twice in this century, Serbian kings have been killed by their people. Only one man has kept a long and peaceful rule: Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader who held Yugoslavia together until his death in 1980.

Two-part world response

After an initially limp response, the international community has begun to back the opposition efforts.

The United States has made clear, in toughly worded statements, that Serbia's international rehabilitation is on hold, with no chance of Milosevic gaining access to loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The European Union has suspended a deal on trade preferences, infuriating Serbian officials.

Over the past two weeks, on public platforms, the opposition had widened its demand from the recognition of local election results to the resignation of Milosevic.

Western diplomats who have talked to both sides say that is just rhetoric and the opposition would be satisfied with their council seats. "Both sides are now desperate to end this crisis without losing face," says a senior Western envoy who has been trying to mediate.

But there is no international support for an attempt to topple Milosevic. "We Serbs have bad timing," says one of the protesters on the street. "When the West wanted us to get rid of Milosevic when the war started, we did nothing. Now we make our move when they really need him."

Milosevic's international support is partly based on his value to the Bosnian peace process. It was Milosevic who represented the Bosnian Serbs at the 1995 Dayton peace talks, which ended the three-year Bosnian war.

Diplomats remind opposition leaders that Milosevic was directly elected in 1992, and that whatever the concerns about the democratic process in Serbia, he is no Erich Honecker of East Germany or Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania - the dictatorial dinosaurs swept away by revolts in 1989.

Furthermore, there are questions about the opposition's true commitment to democracy - and whether it really rejects nationalism. During his longtime opposition to Milosevic, Mr. Djindjic has proved himself more of an adroit critic than a principled ideologue. As Milosevic alternately espoused and disavowed nationalism, Djindjic criticized both stances.

Djindjic also campaigned for the ultranationalist Bosnian Serb party of Radovan Karadzic, who has been indicted for war crimes. But throughout his long political career, Djindjic has retained great popularity.

Beside the police statement, there are other signs that Milosevic is rattled by this challenge to his rule. The tiny independent Belgrade radio station B92 - the only domestic source of broadcast news on the protest for most of the two weeks of demonstrations - has had its signal jammed. The Belgrade mass-circulations newspaper Blic came under heavy official pressure to drop its support for the opposition. When it did, journalists walked out in protest, starting their own, rebel publication to report on the protest.

Compromise coming?

But there are signs of a compromise in the offing. The opposition is calling for the Serbian Parliament, which meets today, to appoint a special commission to examine the whole question of election results and then reinstate the opposition victories.

The Belgrade press reported yesterday that Milosevic was preparing to sack a number of senior socialist officials in an attempt to open dialogue with the opposition. However, there has so far been no indication that the government is prepared to go further than this limited step.

But change could also come during next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

Zoran, the student demonstrator arrested by police, exemplifies Serbia's recent troubled past. When the war with Croatia began five years ago, he returned to his home to volunteer for the army. But he became disillusioned as he saw the tough battle for the town of Vukovar in eastern Croatia.

Like many of Serbia's young and bright, he plans to emigrate, but not before taking to the streets again to join what the opposition now calls "Serbia's Democratic Revolution."

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