Serbia Teeters as Opposition Rallies Despite Ban, Violence

After six weeks of street protests in Serbia, the prospects for political compromise are fading quickly.

Yesterday, about 10,000 opponents of strongman Slobodan Milosevic braved icicle weather and the first police ban on demonstrations to stage another defiant march in Belgrade. Their action came two days after the first violent clash between pro- and antigovernment demonstrators that left one person dead.

"Serbia has never been so close to civil war," said one weary Belgrade citizen as he surveyed the debris of Tuesday's scuffles, during which police wielded batons and fired tear gas at the opposition. The violence, seen widely as having been orchestrated by Mr. Milosevic, sparked sharp condemnation from the US.

The violence was the official trigger for a warning from authorities that they are now prepared to clear the streets. This is the strongest signal so far that Milosevic is preparing a crackdown against the opposition, which claims he overturned the results of recent local elections.

Milosevic's intentions are, as ever, hard to read. Police warnings could be a sign of panic or confidence on his part. He is facing the most serious challenge of his nine-year rule.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is due to present its findings on November's Serbian local elections today, but it's not clear if Milosevic will pay any attention.

Battling it out

The stage seems set for a war of attrition on the streets of Belgrade between the besieged government and the defiant opposition.

The Interior Ministry issued a statement Wednesday saying that any obstruction to traffic in Belgrade would not be tolerated - effectively banning any large gathering in the center of the city.

"The streets are for the use of all citizens," the statement said. "The police in Serbia will not tolerate the blockade of traffic in future and warn the organizers of the demonstrations that they must exercise their right to peaceful demonstrations in keeping with the regulations."

The opposition, however, is determined to be defiant.

One of the coalition leaders, Vuk Draskovic, said the protests would go on as planned. "I'm calling on our supporters to ignore the ban. I will continue marching and I am calling on the citizens to march along with me," he said. "If we show we are afraid now, tomorrow they may forbid us to drink water or breathe air."

Thursday's march

The opposition began to gather for their demonstration on Thursday afternoon, despite a warning from the Belgrade police chief that the security forces were prepared to intervene.

At the time of writing, there had been no further violence, but large numbers of riot police had been deployed into the back streets lining the main route that the demonstration has taken every day for the past month.

The warnings from the police came after rural chapters of Milosevic's socialist party called for tough action against opposition demonstrators following Tuesday's violence. A statement from Milosevic's supporters who had attended a progovernment rally on Tuesday said they had come to the capital "to save Serbia and Belgrade" from the opposition, which was following a terrorist policy of armed attack against "the glorious Socialist rally."

One man was killed, and 58 people were treated for injuries, including one man who was shot in the head. The opposition blamed the governing socialists for planning their rally - the first so far - for the same time and same place as the regular opposition rally.

Opposition officials say the socialist rally on Tuesday was a disaster for Milosevic, who, despite strenuous efforts, failed to muster a larger crowd than the opposition. Socialists were bused in from the country, and workers were given a day's pay for attending. One theory is the government hoped to dwarf the antigovernment rally and gain legitimacy to sweep the opposition from the streets. Despite state television reports that half a million socialists were at the progovernment rally, independent estimates put the total at 50,000 - compared with 200,000 for the opposition.

What police did

After scuffles between supporters and opponents of Milosevic, the police waded into the opposition protesters with batons drawn. They inflicted severe beatings on a number of antigovernment demonstrators and fired vollies of tear gas. More police action will likely cause more international condemnation of the Serbian government, already heavily criticized over the cancellation of the local election results. The United States has raised the possibility of a return to economic sanctions, and even Russia - a traditional Serbian ally - has warned Belgrade against the use of force, yet says the West should not meddle in Serbia's internal affairs.

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