Besieged Serbian Leader Squirms to Keep Power

"The world senses that something special is happening in Serbia, much like the toppling of the Berlin Wall." So says Belgrade's independent weekly journal of opinion, Vreme, capturing the spirit of its middle class, largely professional readership - the kind of people who daily bring the capital to a standstill with huge antigovernment demonstrations.

It is this kind of exuberance that continues to pervade the protests against Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic.

And it stands in stark contrast to the dark outlook for Mr. Milosevic himself, as he has begun maneuvering to bypass this crisis and remain in control.

On Dec. 17, Milosevic held his first meeting with protesters. He promised a small band of students from the southern city of Nis that he would punish any officials who committed fraud in last month's elections. Milosevic seems to be getting ready to blame junior officials for acts widely attributed to him. It was his annulment of many municipal elections - which the opposition says it won - that initially sparked the protests.

Also, a month into the protests, Milosevic has begun to give his opponents what they are asking for - control of the many city councils that they won in November elections. Local courts overturned the cancellation of opposition victories in Serbia's second city, Nis, on Dec. 15, and another smaller town near Belgrade Dec. 16.

It appears that Milosevic is prepared to sacrifice smaller towns as a means of hanging on to control in the capital, Belgrade.

But the opposition says the moves are not enough to end the street demonstrations. Their demand remains the recognition of all original election results. And in fact, they have only been buoyed by gaining power in two cities, figuring that if they continue demonstrating they may win more.

"There will be no dialog with Milosevic until he recognizes all our election victories," says one opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic. Another opposition official says the court rulings could be an attempt to "clean things up" before the arrival of a delegation from an international elections monitoring group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

In what some observers see as another miscalculation, Milosevic offered to let the OSCE send a mission.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, he said the daily demonstrations had given the world a "distorted picture" of Serbia and said the OSCE would verify that everything had been done correctly during the elections.

At first, the US condemned the move as "whitewash," saying Milosevic would give the OSCE only restricted access to the documents and the invitation was part of a tactical game to defeat the opposition. Then the European Union insisted that the OSCE mission could go ahead only if it had the power to reinstate the original results, or order new elections.

The confirmation on Dec. 17 that a former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez will head the OSCE delegation further confirms diplomats' analysis that Milosevic's invitation may have been a serious miscalculation that could backfire if the OSCE is unable or unwilling to verify the elections.

Meanwhile, Milosevic's support in the international community has eroded.

Many in the West have considered him crucial in keeping the peace in Bosnia, where he wields strong influence. But on Dec. 16, the former US official who brokered the Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia, Richard Holbrooke, said the US "does not and should not have a special reason to support him."

Mr. Christopher warned that Serbia could not be ruled as an "unreformed dictatorship." And the international civilian administrator in Bosnia, Carl Bildt, said that Serbia needs democratic reform to be able to cope with "huge economic, political, and social problems."

He added: "If we don't get peaceful, orderly change in Serbia, the region's headed for disaster in the next couple of years."

Among protesters, long-time taboos are being broken while spirits are ever-high.

Angry workers in the southern town of Nis hurled television sets from the roof of their factory - scenes that would have been unthinkable just a month ago and that make the governing socialists deeply nervous.

At the head of the huge column of marchers that makes is way through Belgrade every day is carried a life-sized effigy of President Milosevic in prison uniform. "We have to get rid of Milosevic," says one of the protesters. "He created enemies for Serbia, but they are his enemies - not ours."

But such actions have a price. The authorities - perhaps fearing international condemnation - have not ordered a widespread crackdown. Instead, they have swooped down on those judged most objectionable among the demonstrators.

One was Dejan Bulatovic, arrested and allegedly tortured for displaying an effigy of Milosevic and "offending" the state president.

Still, the opposition coalition Zadjeno ("Together") says the demonstrations have spread to some 30 towns. And there are plans for massive New Year's protests.

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