It's 8 p.m. in Belgrade's Republic Square, and several thousand people are warming up for the nightly antigovernment protest march, now in its second week.
A crowd of a few thousand gradually becomes several, then 10,000, then tens of thousands. The gathered are mostly Belgrade's struggling middle class. In vernacular, they're called the "normal people," or sometimes "honorable," because they've kept a long arm from the mafia, the regime, and its culture.
Frustration is growing here, not just with President Slobodan Milosevic, but with the two divided wings of the opposition. Although most people here hold Mr. Milosevic accountable for the country's dire situation, the opposition parties have not been able to unite to form a credible alternative.
Many protesters say they don't support any particular politician or party, but want change. "We can't go on like this, with no money, cut off from the world," says Branislav Madenovic, who took part in the Sept. 27 protest. "I'm here to do something that will change that, but I'm not a member of a party. I just want to see 1 million people on these streets so they know what they're up against."
The flag bearers fan out across the street, and behind them students unfurl the long, white banner of Alliance for Change, a coalition of 35 opposition groups. The crowd warms up by blowing into their whistles, drummers tighten their snares. With his white beard and golden cross, the Rev. Blagoje Krupinovic's - who also demonstrated in 1996 - takes his position at the head of the column.
The command "Let's go!" sets the march in motion. Thousands of whistles, horns, and three snare drums provide a rhythm. Soon the chants begin, "Let's go, let's go, everyone attack." As the march flows into Belgrade's busiest streets, police don't do anything to control traffic. Cars screech to a halt and quickly turn around. The occasional driver who doesn't stop in time often has his headlights broken for not respecting the mob.
The march stops in front of government buildings and media offices where the object is to make the loudest racket possible.
Despite a setback after the Aug. 19 rally, when opposition leaders sent contradictory messages to a crowd of more than 100,000 that curtailed demonstrations, Serbia's new protest movement gathered strength over the weekend. Tens of thousands began turning out every evening last week. On Sept. 26, the crowd swelled to 50,000 marchers, on Sept. 27, it dropped back to 30,000.
The scene is a replay of the winter of 1996-97 when a similar protest movement grew to more than 100,000 marchers. The movement took a few weeks to grow that large, and protest organizers note optimistically that this first week of protests was larger than the first week of 1996.
Three years ago, protesters demanded the recognition of municipal elections. The opposition got what it then demanded: recognition of municipal election results. But then the government transferred key municipal authority to the Serbian government, and Milosevic didn't lose as much authority as people had expected.
Now, protest organizers want Milosevic to resign. This goal has been criticized by local analysts as being unrealistic and perhaps too vague.
Three years ago, the opposition was united in a powerful coalition called "Zajedno," and Milosevic's approval rating was still hovering around 30 percent.
Now the opposition is divided in two camps, but Milosevic's approval rating has plummeted into the upper single digits.
Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, wants to run against Milosevic in a national election.
The Alliance for Change, leading the current protests, wants elections, but only under a transition government after Milosevic resigns.
This summer, Mr. Draskovic was derisive of the Alliance, comparing its political parties to a little brook, while his Renewal Movement was the Danube of the opposition. The Belgrade television station controlled by his political party, Studio B, has given the protests scant coverage and has said trying to overthrow Milosevic on the street is a path to civil war.
Just as Draskovic once led protests against Milosevic's propagandistic state media, the new crop of protesters marched in front of Draskovic's television station Sept. 26 to jeer, whistle, and chant.
Comparisons to 1996 are inevitable. That protest movement left bitter memories for Belgrade's antiregime activists. Residents protested for 88 days straight in freezing winter nights. A long standoff with police was finally broken when Serbian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Pavle led a procession through the blockade.
The failure three years ago to enact fundamental change and the resulting quarrels among the opposition now haunt the current protests.
"The growing protests are a sign that things can be done without Draskovic, and he's more threatened than Milosevic," says one key opposition leader.
"People here know that the national leadership of all the opposition parties has failed, but the protests may force the opposition to talk to each other and form a spirit of community. As much as they hate to admit it, they can't do anything without each other," says a senior Western diplomat in Belgrade.
There are indications of a possible rapprochement among opposition leaders. Democratic Party President Zoran Djindjic indicated Sept. 27 that the positions of the divided opposition may be reconcilable. The opposition has agreed to meet on Sept. 31 to discuss the minimum conditions for fair elections, should they be called.
And Draskovic said recently that he would be willing to go on the street for the limited goal of forcing fair elections.
These indirect goals may be more important than any immediate threat to Milosevic, who analysts agree will preside safely over his devastated country until the opposition unites.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society