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Serbia's 'Egg Revolt' Scrambles to Crack Regime

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

By Paul WoodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 1996



BELGRADE

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.

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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.

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.