In what could be a turning point in the largely ineffectual efforts to remove Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from power, riot police wielding billy clubs and backed by water cannon broke up antigovernment protests Wednesday night, as 20,000 demonstrators attempted to march on the president's residence.
More than 60 people were reported injured, including several journalists.
The unexpected violence followed more than a week of peaceful demonstrations around Serbia and could provide the bitterly divided Serbian opposition with a rallying point around which to unify.
At the same time, the use of force is an indicator that the Milosevic regime, determined to stay in power, is becoming increasingly nervous as the protests draw larger and larger crowds. One opposition group, the Social Democratic Party, said several party officials were detained by police yesterday.
Following the clashes, opposition leader Zoran Djindjic urged a crowd in Belgrade's main square to "keep coming tomorrow and the day after and every day.... We will test their nerves every night. They will have no peace."
All of the rival Serbian opposition factions met yesterday to resolve differences over minimal conditions for possible early elections. The Alliance for Change, which organized the demonstrations, opposes elections until Mr. Milosevic resigns. The powerful Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), led by Vuk Draskovic, says it would take part if Milosevic allows a "free and fair" vote.
The group has not participated in the most recent round of rallies, warning they could touch off civil war. Yet with the beating of protesters, pressure has increased for Mr. Draskovic to join them.
Some observers in Belgrade have suggested that by deciding to march on Milosevic's residence, the Alliance for Change was provoking a crackdown that Draskovic could not ignore. Alliance leaders "absolutely know that Vuk cannot watch massive street demonstrations, because he was once king of the streets," says Zoran Ostojic, an independent television journalist in Belgrade.
The bearded, charismatic Draskovic led protests in the past and once took a severe beating. "The pressure on Draskovic [to join the rallies] is stronger from the West than from the Alliance for Change," Mr. Ostojic adds. Draskovic reportedly met US diplomats at the American embassy in the Czech capital, Prague, this week, and one of his top political advisers is currently in Washington.
"The Americans have given us two months to do something about the situation and to replace Milosevic," says a politician close to the SPO. "If not, they told us, Serbia is going to become a Cuba. All opposition leaders understand that well."
One indicator that Draskovic may be approaching the alliance is the extensive coverage of the Wednesday night protest by Studio B, an SPO-controlled Belgrade television station. Yet the SPO plays down the chance of Draskovic joining the demonstrations. "We think elections are the only way for our country," says Andjelko Trpkovic, a party spokesman.
It was the first time police used force against demonstrators since massive anti-Milosevic protests three years ago. When police violently intervened in the past, it had the effect of drawing even more demonstrators. "Those who gave orders to beat [the protesters] forgot the experience of 1996-97," says Ostojic. "Somebody is nervous - I think Milosevic and his wife.... The beatings could be a breaking point. We'll see."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society