BELGRADE — Both sides in Serbia's long-running political standoff are bracing for renewed violence, even though President Slobodan Milosevic hinted at compromise by making his first significant concession to democratic opposition demands on Wednesday.
Weeks of stalemate - with tens of thousands of protesters in Belgrade facing off daily with riot police - have underscored the lack of a coherent strategy on either side and shown that rulers and ruled alike are devising tactics day-by-day.
With clues to the endgame still elusive, Serb analysts worry that peaceful options are dwindling as the crisis drags on. Violence could result, they warn, almost by default.
"We can expect an acceleration, a change of tactics, and more civil disobedience from the protesters," says Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the VIP news service. "They no longer have a choice."
Yesterday, however, in a hint of further compromise by the regime, Belgrade police appeared to back down as student protesters advanced.
Students planned to blockade riot policemen, a deliberate escalation from their usual good-natured confrontations. But police reportedly walked back to waiting buses as students advanced.
Protesters want reinstatement of opposition victories in Nov. 17 local elections, which were annulled by courts close to the ruling Socialist Party. Massive crowds have since marched daily in sub-zero temperatures, keeping up their enthusiasm to the surprise even of opposition leaders.
In its first significant climb-down, the regime on Wednesday acknowledged defeat in Serbia's second-largest city of Nis. But the status of election results in the capital, Belgrade - which is crucial to Mr. Milosevic's power base and media control nationwide - remains unresolved. Few expect the president to give it up without a fight.
Vuk Draskovic, a leader of the opposition Zajedno (Together) coalition, vowed to keep up the pressure. "Let me ask you: If Milosevic stole $10,000 from you and after 50 days gave back $6,000, would you be satisfied?" he asked a rally.
A powerful leftist coalition led by the president's wife, Mirjana Markovic, appeared to pave the way for a government crackdown. It accused Zajedno of "terrorism, violence, and anarchy," and called upon the authorities to put down the "enemies of the state." Still, there were reports of an imminent purge of Socialist Party hard-liners close to the first lady, and the government has ordered an investigation against those "responsible for irregularities" in the election results.
Protesters have been joined by the Serb Orthodox Church and have won pledges of noninterference from the Army, the one institution required for Milosevic to impose a state of emergency. Splits are also emerging in the more-loyal police force.
"Both sides are nervous now," says Mr. Grubacic. "Milosevic because he thought the protests would die down; and the opposition even more so because they are at the edge of their strength. The question is: Who will be the first to pull the trigger?"
Serb sources and Western diplomats say Milosevic could have ended the crisis weeks ago, but that he has let each chance at compromise go by. The apparent blunders have raised questions about who is advising him, and how out of touch he is:
*When local Socialists brazenly adjusted election results (in one typical case, turning a blue No. 3 into an 8 with red ink), the president did little to curb them.
*Milosevic's invitation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to confirm the results was seen as another mistake. Their scathing report - which included demands to respect opposition victories and could have served as a graceful way out - was "politely brushed off," says a senior diplomat.
*A further misjudgment came Dec. 24, when Milosevic loyalists were humiliated and outnumbered at a ruling party rally held in the same place as opposition protests. Socialist aparatchiks bused in 40,000 people, giving each $20, a packed lunch, and, in some cases, metal bars and clubs. Violence erupted and opposition supporters surrounded groups of loyalists and beat them. Police waded into the melee, and one man was killed.
Police protected those who remained to chant "We love you" to Milosevic. But the president only returned a dismissive and abrupt retort that has since become a joke in Belgrade: "I love you, too!" he growled.
"The usual Milosevic strategy has been one of attrition," says Milos Vasic of the opposition magazine Vreme. "He prays for snow and ice and rain to drive people off the streets. But if your regime depends on the weather, you are in trouble."
"Now Milosevic needs a provocation," says Mr. Vasic, who said violence carried out by the state security service could be blamed on the opposition.
But Radovoje Petrovic, a writer with the government Politika newspaper, says he "expects" the president to back down, though only at the last minute, to avert total isolation. "When he must, he plays," Mr. Petrovic says.
Still, standard bulwarks are under strain.
Montenegro - which with Serbia forms rump Yugoslavia - suspended links with the Serb government until a resolution is found. It accuses the president's wife of causing the crisis. She rules the wealthy, widely despised Yugoslav United Left party and is believed to be the hard-line force in the family.
No long-range planning
During the elections, the opposition's strategy was to win local seats, then take on Milosevic in federal elections due by the end of this year. Subsequent events, however - and unprecedented public support - caught it off guard.
And two of Zajedno's chief leaders, Mr. Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, are tarred with histories of support for nationalist Serb aspirations in Bosnia and Croatia, where Serbs engaged in "ethnic cleansing."
"Nobody expected it to go this far, this big, for this long," says a senior Western diplomat.
"It's obvious that nobody has any strategy, but go day-by-day. There is little discussion of long-term planning to present an electable alternative."
"Milosevic is hunkered down, but we don't know how many arrows are in his quiver," he says.
Both sides vow to escalate their tactics to break the deadlock. The opposition talks about a "radical approach," and Serb sources say "serious violence" could result.
Speculation on possible endgames is easy to find. But among the few facts are the opposition's tactical aims to create a no-win situation for Milosevic.
"I don't know how it will end," says Grubacic, "but it won't be nice."