Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appears firm in his resolve to head off an increasingly restive opposition, mindful of elections due later this year.
But a crackdown on nongovernment media and opposition activists, launched in the wake of two recent demonstrations, threatens to tip the country into social disorder.
Early yesterday morning, dozens of police stormed an office building in downtown Belgrade that houses Studio B, a television station run by Belgrade city hall, currently dominated by the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement of Vuk Draskovic.
Police also closed two influential radio stations, Indeks and B2-92, located in the same building, as well as Blic, Yugoslavia's most popular independent daily newspaper.
"This act is aimed basically at destroying all independent media in Serbia," says Freimut Duve, media representative for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in Vienna. Serbia, along with junior partner Montenegro, make up what remains of Yugoslavia.
The government explained its action in a terse statement. "The republic is taking control of Studio B because that station has repeatedly called for overthrowing the government," it said. "Studio B is in the hands of the state, and all journalists and editors functions are annulled."
At an anti-government rally on Monday, Mr. Draskovic told supporters, "We have to rebel against the killers and the terrorists who are ruling Serbia today."
Later yesterday morning, police began knocking on the doors of activists with Otpor, or Resistance, an increasingly popular student organization that the government says is a "fascist" group, and blames for the murder of a top ruling party official in Novi Sad over the weekend. There were reports several resistance activists were detained.
Opposition leaders called for a campaign of civil disobedience and for daily rallies in opposition-controlled towns across the country to protest the government's action. The Belgrade bakers' association, Pekarski Kombinat Beograd, announced it would not bake bread today in solidarity.
In the capital, a heavy police presence was visible at midday. Three armored personnel carriers, numerous police vehicles, and busloads of special police were parked in front of the church of St. Mark's, a popular gathering point for demonstrators.
Residents of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia's second-largest city, gathered in their city center as they heard the news. The opposition-controlled city established a crisis center to inform residents of the clampdown.
Aleksander Tijanic, a former minister of information and Serbia's most well-known print journalist, says, "This is the latest step of Milosevic's rule, which made impossible a peaceful solution to our political problems.... This is how he plans to rule for the next 20 years.
Still, Mr. Tijanic says the clampdown was "a big gamble on Milosevic's part. He wants to rule Serbia by fear, but he does not want a civil war.... If he succeeds in this crackdown he may very well stay in power.
"This is a warning to Serbia that there will not be a peaceful parting of ways," says Tijanic.
Studio B director Dragan Kojadinovic looked visibly shaken as he stood in the middle of a stunned crowd of employees following the police raid.
He called the action a continuation of "state terrorism" and a long pattern of attacks against independent media, from signal interference to repeated heavy fines imposed under the restrictive 1998 Public Information Act.
In recent weeks, Studio B had stopped going to court to defend itself, arguing that the judges already have their decisions made.
"What this means today is the introduction of martial law in the country," Kojadinovic said.
Some in the crowd urged Kojadinovic to flee the area, warning him that "you'll be arrested."
"Let them arrest me," he said.
A number of journalists were traveling last night to Podgorica, Montenegro's capital. Radio B2-92 and other journalists planned to begin using facilities at Television Montenegro to edit and broadcast news programs by satellite to Serbia's independent stations.
The Association of Independent Electronic Media, which represents dozens of television and radio stations in Serbia, urged the world to take energetic action against the government's crackdown.
"Belgrade has been left without one independent electronic voice. This is the strongest attack to date on the free press," read a statement from the Independent Association of Serbian Journalists.
Meanwhile, opposition leaders, political activists, and independent journalists are bracing for more.
"This changes everything. The question now is how far they will they go - will the government let up in the face of demonstrations, or crackdown even harder and declare open martial law? They might even take over Belgrade's city hall," says Milica Kugurovic, a journalist with B2-92.
"The state usurpation of Studio B will have unpredictable consequences as this is a new form of state terrorism," says Ognjen Pribicevic, a strategist with the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement.
The crackdown was widely viewed as a reaction to recent events that began spiraling out of control three weeks ago in Milosevic's hometown of Pozarevac, 55 miles from Belgrade.
Two resistance activists were badly beaten by friends of the president's son, Marko Milosevic, who operates a disco and amusement park in Pozarevac.
The activists were later charged with assault, despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary, prompting two Pozarevac judges to resign.
Serbia's opposition leaders scheduled a protest rally in Pozarevac last week, but had to cancel the demonstration when police blocked roads to the city.
Dozens of journalists and political activists were arrested or detained in what was seen as an effort to deter attendance.
The united opposition then scheduled another rally on Monday in Belgrade. Some opposition leaders addressed the crowd wearing resistance T-shirts with symbols of a clenched fist.
Although that demonstration drew only about 20,000 people, a new militant chant echoed in Belgrade's streets, with the crowd shouting "uprising."
Zoran Djindjic, president of the Democratic Party said, "If you beat our children, you're beating our future. That will be the end of rallies and speeches. Stop while you still have time."
*Material from the wires services was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society