SERBIAN President Slobodan Milosevic is facing mounting demands for his ouster by Serbs shaken by a year of war and economic chaos and the stigma of international isolation.
The anti-Milosevic wave is being fueled by a breakdown in law and order and the economic turmoil that began with the disintegration of the former Yugoslav federation and worsened after the May 31 imposition of sweeping United Nations sanctions. Yesterday, 10,000 people marched through Belgrade in a church-led demonstration. Opposition parties are joining in a call for a transition government, and unease is evident even within Mr. Milosevic's own party.
But the Serbian leader remains defiant before the strongest challenge yet to his five-year grip on power, dispatching loyalists to whip up support at meetings across his bedrock base in the republic's undereducated rural hinterlands.
The political maelstrom has been further complicated by the rise of ultra-nationalist paramilitary groups nurtured by the Communists, attacks and harassment of journalists considered "anti-Serb," and propaganda-inspired fears of outside military attack.
"Milosevic's opponents should be assured that if they try to overthrow him, we will shoot them," declared Vojislav Seselj, the head of the right-wing Serbian Radical Party, which ran second to the Communists in controversial May 31 polls for the Parliament of the new Yugoslavia of Serbia and Montenegro.
"Generally, there is a radicalization of attitudes," said Rade Radovanovic, a Belgrade television reporter ostracized by his superiors for helping to form an independent trade union.
Many opposition leaders, political analysts, and citizens say Milosevic, his allies, and their pervasive security apparatus are digging in for a showdown, and they expressed deep concerns of a violent upheaval in coming days.
"I'm afraid there are seeds of civil war in Serbia," says Serb student Suzanna Krstic.
The potential for serious unrest prompted the United States State Department on Saturday to recommend that US citizens leave Serbia and Montenegro. The embassy in Belgrade announced a cutback to less than half its staff, in part because of a US decision to protest Serbia's support for the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also over concerns about security. Other Western embassies have already taken such steps.
The silent march through Belgrade Sunday was the latest sign of the frustration sweeping what was the largest republic of Yugoslavia. It was the first antigovernment protest sponsored by the Serbian Orthodox Church after almost 50 years of submission to Communist rule.
"Some people are saying that the church is dabbling in politics. They do not want to see the dangers facing the Serbian people," said Patriarch Pavle, head of the church.
A second rally, called for later in the day by a new alliance of liberal parties and Mr. Radovanovic's union, drew 5,000 demonstrators. Other protests are scheduled this week, culminating with a massive opposition-called rally on June 21 that organizers said would remain in the streets until Milosevic stepped down.
Though diverse in ideological orientation, opposition parties have broadly agreed on a political program aimed at averting further instability, including halting the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in a bid to end UN economic sanctions that have gravely aggravated Serbia's economic crisis.
They want the Communists replaced by a transition government of all major parties and leading intellectuals that would guide the republic pending elections for a special assembly that would draft a new constitution.
Political analysts and opposition leaders agreed that the real key to averting violence would be a turnout June 21 so large that Milosevic would have little choice but to concede to the demands for his departure.
"Without hundreds of thousands of people, new extremist forces will be encouraged and they will begin with violence," said Ratomir Tonic, the leader of the liberal Republican Club.
ARGE numbers of workers are being laid off from state-run factories and companies idled by the sanctions.
The tumble in living standards, once the highest of any socialist state, and international censure have shaken many Serbs from the nationalist fever that Milosevic fomented to ensure his grip on power as he pursued wars to carve territory from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"We had a feeling that all these things in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were happening to other people," says Miss Krstic. "But, now it is happening to us. The whole world is against us."
The crisis has even begun to produce cracks in Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, as the leaders of official unions join in denunciations of the regime and a group of its republican assembly delegates move to form a social democracy party.
"People are starting to realize that they are not independent citizens," Mr. Radovanovic says. They realize they have been servants of the regime." He conceded, however, that the odds are long against peaceful change. "Every small supporter of Mr. Milosevic has a small part of power. He knows that he will lose his small piece of power if Mr. Milosevic is overthrown."