Why Thousands Take To the Streets in Serbia


For four weeks, thousands of people have marched daily through Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia in the biggest protests ever against President Slobodan Milosevic, the autocratic ruler of what remains of the former Yugoslavia.

The peaceful protests were set off by Mr. Milosevic's annulment of the Nov. 17 elections in which Zajedno, or Together, the main opposition bloc, won control of city councils in most of Serbia's big cities, including its capital, Belgrade.

The United States, the leader of international peace efforts in the region, was initially silent. But after being accused of abiding Milosevic's despotism, the Clinton administration has demanded he respect the vote results. The US is also threatening to reimpose economic sanctions, which were lifted after Milosevic accepted the 1995 Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia.

Milosevic has shown few signs of bending. On Friday, however, he invited international elections monitors to verify the vote, a move seen as the beginning of a compromise.

Hard Times Underlie Protest

The protests are the most serious challenge to Milosevic since he rose to power in 1987 by reawakening Serbian nationalism, which had been kept in check by communist rule.

Underlying the protests are grievances that have been building since Milosevic instigated Serb revolts that ignited war in Croatia and Bosnia.

Unemployment is about 50 percent. Many workers haven't been paid in months. The reasons for Serbia's destitute economy include: the virtual emptying of the state treasury by the Milosevic regime to bankroll Serb fighters in Bosnia and Croatia and the Yugoslav Army; government raids on citizen savings accounts; massive corruption; economic sanctions, imposed by the United Nations in 1992 to punish Milosevic for supporting Bosnian Serb purges of Muslims and Croats from large swaths of Bosnia; the burden of some 450,000 Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia now in Serbia; and Milosevic's refusal to reform the communist-style economy.

Many people eke out a living from a "gray" economy controlled by gangsters said to be in league with Milosevic's police and his Socialist Party of Serbia.

While fighting raged in Croatia and Bosnia, and sanctions were in place, Milosevic relied on nationalistic appeals to Serbian unity to check public discontent. But he can no longer fully rely on such rhetoric: In order to become a main guarantor of the Dayton peace deal, he had to nominally give up his support of nationalistic Serb rebels in Bosnia and Croatia.

Why Milosevic May Hold On

Diplomats and political analysts see a number of reasons why Milosevic's rule does not yet appear to be threatened, though he has suffered a serious erosion of power.

To begin with, Milosevic controls all Serbia-wide radio and TV outlets - the main sources of information for Serbia's 9 million people.

State media first ignored the protests and then portrayed them as attacks by "fascists" and "terrorists." The only independent radio stations and newspapers are in Belgrade, long a bedrock of antiregime sentiments.

Milosevic also retains the loyalty of the 80,000-strong police force, the Yugoslav Army, and reported ties to powerful organized-crime gangs.

His grip on the bureaucracy, state enterprises, and legislatures has been strengthened by a coalition between his ruling Socialist Party of Serbia and a party led by his wife, Mirjana Markovic, an unrepentant Marxist.

Also working in Milosevic's favor is that most of Serbia's industrial workers have refused to join the protests. Their support is indispensable to any mass political movement.

Despite economic hardships, many workers are too fearful of losing their jobs - or of police repression - to answer calls by independent unions to stage a general strike. Their concerns have been reinforced by the arrests and alleged beatings of some 40 antiregime protesters in Belgrade. Milosevic's recent payment of some back wages has also mollified many.

The Opposition: They're Divided, but Are They Conquerable?

Although better organized than in earlier protests, the opposition bloc's component parties are an amalgam of competing egos and divisive philosophies.

Demonstrators have marched in other cities, but the majority of protesters belong to Belgrade's educated middle class. One of their main leaders is Vuk Draskovic, head of the Serbian Renewal Movement. He is an author and former communist who initially joined the vanguard of the Serbian nationalist wave that Milosevic unleashed upon taking power in 1987.

But Mr. Draskovic's conversion to anticommunism brought him into opposition with Milosevic - and the wars the Serbian leader sparked in Croatia and Bosnia.

The opposition's other senior leader is Zoran Djindjic, president of the Democratic Party. A German-educated philosopher and onetime bitter rival of Draskovic, Mr. Djindjic tried to enhance his party's standing among voters in Serbia by supporting the Bosnian Serb conquest of an ethnically pure state in Bosnia. He has since endorsed the 1995 Dayton peace accords.

A third component, led by Vesna Pesic, a sociologist, is the Civic Alliance, a small party that opposes nationalism and led Serbia's tiny antiwar movement.

Students at Belgrade University, independent of the opposition, have staged their own marches. Many are Serbs from Bosnia and Croatia who denounce Milosevic for "betraying" the Serb revolts he fomented.

The US Role

The Clinton administration initially reacted to protests in Serbia with silence. Apparently, it was fearful of jeopardizing Milosevic's cooperation in Bosnia, where US troops are part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force deployed under the Dayton accords.

But the administration switched gears after it was accused of coddling a despot. It demanded Milosevic abide by election results, not suppress the protests, and cease muzzling independent radio stations. Two stations were then allowed back on air.

The US also expanded the Voice of America's Serbian-language broadcasts, canceled a meeting between Milosevic and a senior US diplomat, and pushed leaders at last week's NATO summit to demand a recognition of the vote results.

In its most forceful action, the US has threatened to reimpose economic sanctions on Serbia. But the US may not be able to deliver on that threat: Its European allies are reluctant to support such a measure for fear of exacerbating the crisis. And Russia - which regards Milosevic as its only friend in an Eastern Europe now oriented westward - opposes sanctions.

Milosevic appears to know the limits of American pressure and has seemed willing to wait out the storm. On Friday, however, he asked international elections monitors - the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - to certify the vote. The OSCE said it is too late to do so, but that it would be willing to propose solutions to the crisis.

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