BELGRADE — Serbia's feared riot police deploy silently like dark storm troopers, linking their shields together, streetlights glinting off rain-swept helmets, truncheons ready.
A mob of whistling and dancing pro-democracy protesters advances, with a counter assault driven by blaring rock music. Marchers file within inches of the wall of shields as they are turned back. But smiles flicker across the faces of some cops as they are called to join the protest.
In a brave display that dissipates more of the policemen's menace, some women go further: They brandish lipstick, painting riot shields with hearts and arrows like Valentines. One kisses the clear plastic shields, leaving the red imprints of her lips for the fidgeting troops to ponder.
"We will win, because they are with us," she says. Peering over the edge of one shield, she asks a charmed policeman who tries to hold back a smile: "You are, aren't you?"
Demonstrations against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic are creating a new dynamic between protesters and would-be head-cracking police.
Combined with assurances by the Yugoslav armed forces chief Jan. 6 that his soldiers would not intervene to prop up the regime, the growing familiarity with the police - one of Mr. Milosevic's last remaining power bases - raises fresh questions about the president's ability to crush demonstrators by force.
For 50 days running, tens of thousands of Serbs have rallied in the streets, calling for Milosevic's socialist government to recognize opposition victories in local elections in November. The largest demonstration so far took place Jan. 6, on the Serb Orthodox Church Christmas Eve, when tens of thousands defied a ban on street marches and clogged the mile-long stretch from Belgrade's Republic Square to the church where Patriarch Pavle gave midnight mass.
Swarming the church, they carried candles, the wind blowing drops of hot wax onto their hands. Many said they were praying for freedom.
A synod of bishops last week declared the church's support for protesters, so the number of chinks in Milosevic's political armor seems to be multiplying.
Gen. Momcilo Perisic, chief of the Army general staff, gave his "firm assurance," student protesters said after meeting him face to face Jan. 6, that there would be "no repeat of 1991," when Milosevic ordered tanks onto the streets to squash rebellion.
Slow erosion of support
In a further blow to the president, the statement from the usually secretive Army confirmed that it wants the crisis solved "legally," and "in a manner deployed in democratic countries."
The longer the crisis drags on, Serbs and Western analysts say, the fewer options Milosevic has. Already, the growing rapport on the streets undermines his iron-fisted rule and brings democratic concessions closer in East Europe's last "revolution."
"Milosevic is not going to press a button if it's not going to work," says a senior Western diplomat. "What will happen when that order [to crack down] comes down and it is ignored?"
Still, few expect that smiles along the front lines will persuade the professional and powerful police to openly side with demonstrators. A not-too-distant past example is China's Tiananmen Square, where growing optimism among Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators that they were on the verge of victory - just as many activists feel in Belgrade today - was stamped out overnight by the Army in 1989.
Belgrade's riot police and plainclothes agents took on the crowds Dec. 24 and 26, beating protesters. Though people who monitored radio traffic then reported that police commanders ordered the use of "minimal force," there are signs that there may yet be more violence.
The police force has more than 80,000 well-armed, well-paid, and well-trained professionals - among the largest in Europe for a population of just 10 million.
Student leaders also met Jan. 6 with Serbia's Interior Minister Zoran Sokolovic, who controls the police. That meeting was "pointless" and without assurances of police neutrality, says student leader Dusan Vasiljevic. He called for a new tactic in which student protesters - who stage daily protests separate from the main opposition rallies - would face down the police lines.
"Serbia will explode after Thursday [Jan. 9]," he warned.
Milosevic's ability to react with force, however, is eroding. Cracks began to appear in the Army a few years ago, when the president sought to marginalize the conscript force - after defeats in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia - in favor of the police. Once Europe's fourth-largest army, the officer corps was purged and neglected, and has become a source of mistrust for the regime.
"It's clear the Army is fed-up with Milosevic. They blame him for pushing them to war, and for causing them to lose," says Aleksandar Vasovic, foreign editor of the opposition Radio B-92.
"They are angry because Milosevic is the one waving the wallet, and because he is reinforcing the police to counter them," he says.
The other problem with the Army also affects the police: "It's very difficult to order troops to fire on their own parents and sisters," he says.
Zoran Djindjic, an opposition leader, has played on that point at rallies. Milosevic's authority has diminished so much, he says, that "he can't provoke a civil war because there are not enough people who would want to, or have an interest to wage war for him."
Serb sources who requested anonymity say the police would work for an opposition government if one took power. Anger is growing, they say, "because they see that Milosevic is only trying to save his own power."
"They are drilled, but they are ordinary people," said one. "At one point they will certainly ask 'Who am I serving?' "
When you can't beat 'em...
A letter from opposition leaders Jan. 5 appealed to the police to join them: "We have no conflict with you," it read. "You and we have no secret bank accounts in Cyprus and no spare homeland. We'll have to look each other in the eye tomorrow." Many believe the appeal will be heeded by police - some of whom are from Belgrade and have lipstick hearts on their shields.
"The police have a sense of solidarity and professional compassion, as long as they are not attacked," says Milos Vasic, of the independent weekly magazine Vreme. "That is why the biggest fear is of a violent provocation, which would electrify them."