Push for break point in Belgrade

Today's protests are billed as an all-out bid to force Slobodan Milosevic from office.

On the frontline in the spiraling political standoff in Yugoslavia sits a young man named Bane. He is one of several thousand students blocking the main north-south highway on the edge of Belgrade.

"Of course I'm a bit scared," says the veterinary student, warily eyeing some 100 helmeted riot police nearby. "This has to be the end of the regime, or else I have no hope," says Bane, unwilling to give his last name.

The students' determination evoke images of a similar pro-democracy standoff in China's Tiananmen Square a decade ago. But Belgrade is not Beijing. The students here are not alone. The resolve of anti-Milosevic protesters is deepening, and their numbers are growing across Serbia.

Opposition leaders - in what they're billing as a final push to drive President Slobodan Milosevic from power after nearly a week of general strikes - have called on all of Yugoslavia for a make-or-break march on Belgrade tonight.

The standoff between democracy and dictatorship could lead to violence, analysts say, in the wake of the contested Sept. 24 election, which opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica claims he won.

"Strictly speaking, you can't remove Milosevic without some trouble," says Srdan Darmanovic, head of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Serbia's sister republic of Montenegro. "I don't like violence, but the Serbian people feel they must test the armed forces and police - not to fight them, but to test them. Otherwise, Milosevic will not step down."

A nationwide strike that began Monday has brought parts of Serbia to a standstill. But Milosevic - who admits that Mr. Kostunica won more votes than he did in the earlier election, just not enough to avoid a runoff - has shown no signs of moving aside. Yesterday, his government began carrying through on Tuesday's promises of arresting strike leaders and using "special measures" against "organizers of criminal activities."

Police in full riot gear and flak jackets yesterday arrested several miners at Kolubara coal mine - the largest of hundreds of work stoppages nationwide. And about 30 miles southeast of Belgrade, in Pozarevac, Milosevic's hometown, police arrested several truckers who were blocking a main road. But elsewhere in the country, roadblocks remained in place for a third day.

Tonight's march, timed to coincide with a strike by the Council of Trade Unions, (the nation's largest labor organization and in the past a firmly pro-Milosevic group) is a bid to send a definitive message that a second-round runoff vote, scheduled by Milosevic for Sunday, is unacceptable.

Regime opponents have been here several times in the past decade, only to be beaten back by riot police with plastic shields, body armor, blue helmets, and truncheons.

"This time, this will be resolved only in a direct clash between the Serbian people and the regime," Mr. Darmonovic says. "Milosevic always puts his opponents in a situation of 'double regret.' if you move one way, you regret it. If you move the other, you regret that, too."

But evidence is mounting that the strike action is beginning to bite. Work stopped at coal mines has meant power outages across Serbia, and in the capital Belgrade, mountains of trash have been growing as garbage collectors refuse to work.

Many private shops have closed their doors. Signs on a number of them read: "Closed due to robbery" - a reference to alleged vote rigging by the regime.

Opposition defiant

"The government is branding us saboteurs and enemies, so why don't they put us on trial?" Kostunica asked some 40,000 supporters at a rally in Kragulevac. "Let them dare. Milosevic is the biggest creator of chaos in Serbia." That defiance came as the government warned that it would not tolerate "violent behavior" that might "threaten citizens' lives." Tough measures, it added, would also "apply to media that are financed from abroad and are breeding lies, untruths, and inciting bloodshed."

Police in Novi Sad, Serbia's second-largest city, have succeeded in blocking demonstrators from marching onto one of the three bridges that have been rebuilt since their destruction by US-led NATO airstrikes last year. Opposition leader Nenad Canak made a special dig at the regime by cutting a ribbon there - mocking a ceremony that Milosevic himself is meant to carry out.

"We are all afraid of Milosevic's next move, because he still controls the police, and a certain number of generals are loyal to him," says Miodrag Vukovic, an adviser to Montenegro's pro-Western president, Milo Djukanovic. "Now he is acting like a wounded lion, and he can opt for conflict."

One element of the equation that may affect a political solution - even as Washington pushes Russia, a traditional ally of Milosevic, to convince the Serb leader to move aside - is Milosevic's indictment by the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

Pushed through during the NATO campaign to push federal forces from Kosovo last year, the indictment appears now to be a two-edged sword.

War-crimes charges

A UN human rights official in the former Yugoslavia has asked that Milosevic be guaranteed freedom from prosecution if he steps down peacefully. But a spokesman for UN Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte responded that far from dropping the indictment, she is working to expand charges against the Yugoslav leader. And the Clinton administration has made clear that it would expect Russia to hand over Milosevic if he visits Moscow.

A foreign policy adviser traveling with President Vladimir Putin on a trip to India told reporters yesterday, "Russia continues consultations with all parties who are not indifferent to the fate of Yugoslavia." Mr. Putin has invited both Milosevic and Kostunica to the Kremlin for talks. He is due back in Moscow today.

Kostunica has vowed that if he takes office, he will not hand over Milosevic. "That indictment brings us a lot of headache," because it means that "for him these elections are a question of life or death."

There is another reason Serbs in general don't trust the tribunal, says one Balkans analyst, who asked not to be named. "It would be better for Serbia's future development if Milosevic were tried in Serbia rather than The Hague," the analyst says. "If he is tried in The Hague, many Serbs feel that it is Serbia itself that would be tried. On the basis of a healthy society, it would be better if they did it themselves."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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