Summer of discontent in Serbia

Demonstrations sprout up across Yugoslavia as Serb leader finds himself increasingly isolated

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As summer reaches its zenith, the climate for political change in Yugoslavia is getting hotter. A surge of demonstrations and political maneuvering is increasing pressure on the Milosevic regime to step down or embrace reform.

But Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has proved an agile survivor. He withstood the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, which US negotiators and NATO bombers stepped in to stop in 1995. He shrugged off demonstrations in Belgrade two years ago, when tens of thousands of people poured into the streets for nearly three months. And he has stayed in power so far this year despite 11 weeks of NATO airstrikes, a call for his resignation from the Serbian Orthodox Church, and a war crimes indictment by an international tribunal.

Yet one significant difference is emerging as Serbs begin to raise their voices in the wake of the war in Kosovo: Some of the demonstrations are occurring in southern Serbia - traditionally a stronghold for Mr. Milosevic.

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The southern Serbian city of Leskovac was the scene of the most dramatic civilian demonstration in the past few days. But it was only one of a crop of citizen and Army protests that have sprouted across Yugoslavia - while political opposition groups, meanwhile, are increasingly isolating Milosevic.

"There are no illusions left and the government has lost the ability to create more illusions," says Ratko Bozovic, a Belgrade professor and author of more than 10 books on political and cultural theory. "I don't believe there will be any more peace in Serbia until we start over."

Army demands

Since last weekend, Yugoslav Army reservists have been continually blocking roads in the Kraljevo area, demanding back pay and at times calling for the resignation of Milosevic.

The most recent demonstrations began in Raska on Friday evening, when 500 reservists blocked the road from Raska to Kraljevo for two days.

In the western Serbian town of Uzice on Tuesday, the Alliance for Change, a coalition of opposition groups, held its second demonstration, "Now or Never," calling on Milosevic to step down and for the formation of a transitional government. Just before the demonstration was scheduled to begin, local police told Alliance organizers that the gathering was prohibited. Electricity to the public address system was cut off by authorities, but local citizens quickly found a generator and the rally took place without incident.

Although federal martial law has been lifted, Serbia still has a decree banning public gatherings imposed by Serbian President Milan Milutinovic at the beginning of the war.

The keynote speaker in Uzice, Democratic Party President Zoran Djindjic, told an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand to prepare for massive civil disobedience in the coming months.

"People will take to the streets, free towns [controlled by the opposition], will stop obeying the government, all of Serbia will turn to civil disobedience and a general strike, and Milosevic will go," Mr. Djindjic said.

The Alliance's next demonstration is scheduled for today in Prokuplje, but Milosevic's Socialist Party scheduled a rally at the same time in the same city.

The protest in Leskovac began after Ivan Novkovic, an editor at TV Leskovac, aired a prerecorded speech on July 1 during halftime of the Yugoslavia-Germany basketball game. Mr. Novkovic urged citizens to attend a rally to demand the resignation of Jablanica district chief Zivojin Stevanovic, a member of the United Yugoslav Left.

The rally on Monday evening drew 10,000 to 20,000 angry demonstrators who called for the resignations of the country's leaders and local district chief.

This week in the southern Serbian town of Nis, police prohibited a citizens group from circulating a petition calling for Milosevic's removal. City leaders in Novi Sad, capital of the Vojvodina province in northern Yugoslavia, also called on Milosevic to step down.

Milosevic's political position

On the political front, Milosevic is increasingly isolated, although the police are still loyal to him, and he still has a tight grip on the media.

Last week, Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic called a meeting of party leaders in federal government to discuss reconstructing the government. Serbia's largest opposition party, the Serbian Renewal Movement, announced Tuesday it would not collaborate with the Milosevic regime so long as Montenegro's ruling party is not represented in federal government, as is required by the Yugoslav Constitution.

Still, many Western figures don't see an imminent end. Milosevic "has his hand on the sinews of power in Serbia," said NATO commander Wesley Clark last week. "He controls the police, including a very effective and brutal secret police network. He controls the media, and he controls the economy and the finances."

But rumblings are increasing from Montenegro. Its ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists, is meeting this week with Milosevic's Socialist Party to discuss "redefining the relationship between Montenegro and the federal government." Ivica Dacic, spokesman for the Socialist Party, said Monday the talks would not include changes in federal government.

"Montenegro initiating these talks is politically responsible behavior to resolve an impasse," says Ljiljana Lucic, vice president of the Djindjic's Democratic Party. "Yet it's also another form of political pressure on Milosevic. No one can say that Montenegro hasn't tried to solve these differences, and if the talks lead nowhere, it will be obvious that Milosevic is not interested in a properly functioning federal government."

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