After Milosevic exit, time to clean house in Yugoslavia

Serbia's pro-Milosevic government resigned yesterday, as European leaders eased an oil embargo and other international sanctions.

In the end, the people of Yugoslavia have reclaimed their country. After 13 years of harsh sanctions and isolation caused by the authoritarian rule of strongman Slobodan Milosevic, people took to the streets, backing up their democratic vote and bringing his reign to an end.

Yugoslavia's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, is moving to consolidate his hold on power days after the popular uprising. In a significant boost, the Serbian parliament - separate from the Federal parliament, and controlled by Milosevic allies - resigned yesterday. Parliamentary elections are expected to be held Dec. 19.

Milosevic's ouster came after people blocked roads throughout the country last week, closed down the largest coal mine - disrupting electricity - and persuaded the military and police not to crack down.

Those events continued to reverberate as workers stormed a state-run textile factory in Nis, Serbia's third-largest city, demanding the removal of managers loyal to Milosevic.

Serbs are stunned and still celebrating noisily, since their protests for years were met with brute force and tear gas. Most predicted that the final push of democracy against dictatorship would result in bloodshed.

Instead, as smoke rose above the sacked parliament and state television last Thursday, riot police gave up their shields and truncheons and fled before hundreds of thousands of protesters. Across Serbia, ordinary people witnessed extraordinary moments of change that add up to a defining moment in European history.

"Mothers kissed their sons, and husbands told their wives: 'Here are the keys, and there is money,' as if they knew they might not come back," says Alexander, an eyewitness to events who did not want to give his last name. From his town of Cacak, 60 miles south of Belgrade, he watched people drive to the capital to protest. "They were determined. It took 10 years, but then they came to Belgrade to do their job."

Clearly emotional at Yugoslavia's first-ever peaceful and democratic transfer of power, Mr. Kostunica told parliamentarians after his inauguration on Saturday: "To me, it appears that everything that has been happening is a dream, but a dream that is true when I wake up.

"If there is something this nation lacks after all the tests, and after all the suffering, all the hardship, it is peace and calm in the most basic sense of the words."

Kostunica is just beginning the tricky game of consolidating power, though Western leaders vow to immediately end Yugoslavia's isolation. European Union foreign ministers moved quickest, lifting embargoes on oil and commercial flights yesterday and easing other sanctions. A $2 billion aid package over seven years is on the table, and the Americans also want to help.

But Milosevic's legacy of four disastrous Balkan wars - which gave the term "ethnic cleansing" to the war crimes lexicon - a decade of sanctions and impoverishment, and last year's 78-day NATO bombing campaign, will not be so easily forgotten.

The Cacak convoy - 13-miles long and carrying a bulldozer to remove police checkpoints - was one element of the opposition strategy that unnerved security forces and forced the democratic victory. "The police saw that these guys [from Cacak] were serious. They had no emotion, no adrenaline. They were cool as a cucumber," Alexander recalls of the first police checkpoint outside Cacak. "The mayor came and negotiated for three minutes, but in that time men with crowbars and hammers pushed two of their vehicles into a ravine." The police gave way.

Important moments also occurred at the Kolubara mine complex south of Belgrade, where more than 7,000 miners refused to work and faced down the chief of staff of the Yugoslav Army. In Belgrade, the scale of the street protest reminded many of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

At the coal mine, a standoff on Wednesday galvanized opposition supporters and showed the first cracks in police might. Miners had never protested Milosevic's rule in that way. "I was surprised to see thousands of cars from everywhere in Serbia, there to support the miners and bring them food," says Natasha Kandic, head of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade. "People said, 'The police can arrest and kill us, but they can't begin production without us,'" she recalls. "Then I asked a policeman, 'What if you get the order to attack?' and he said 'Nobody can order us to attack civilians.' "

The prelude climaxed with the mass demonstration Thursday in Belgrade in front of the parliament building. Early on, police fired a single volley of tear-gas canisters, but the crowd did not disperse. Opposition leaders had given Milosevic until that afternoon to concede outright defeat in Sept. 24 elections. But the embattled president was silent.

"There were three times more people than ever before," says Nebojsa Spaic, a protest veteran with the independent Media Center in Belgrade, who was not far from the front line on the parliament steps.

The Cacak convoy was there too, with the bulldozer - and their resolve. "I saw that those Cacak people were willing to go all the way, and it encouraged us," Mr. Spaic says.

There were surreal scenes: A boy, about two years old, escaped his parents and got through the police line and somehow walked along the parliament steps. A dog wandered along also, with an opposition "He's finished" sticker on his side. Then a man broke through, and from the steps waved everyone forward.

"The crush started, and so did the running battle," Spaic recalls. "They [police] did not shoot, use water cannons or horses, and they could have."

The action shifted to the nearby state television building, and a gun battle there. Emerging from the smoking building, pro-government journalists were set upon by the crowd. "I saw a TV presenter for Radio-Television Serbia, Staka Novovic, who had presented the 3 p.m. news," Spaic says. "She had mud in her hair, and so much spit on her face that her make-up had run. Then I understood it was all over. Now we are entering the period of real transition."

Since then, the parliament building and TV station have become an attraction for "tourists" of the revolution. Couples holding hands stray from one smashed window to another, peering past jagged glass at aged velvet chairs that escaped the fire, or piles of documents. Among them lie election ballots, all dutifully marked for Milosevic, and presumably meant for stuffing ballot boxes.

Milosevic conceded defeat just before midnight Friday, and the streets echoed with the blaring horns and whistles of Yugoslavia's revolutionaries.

But all that mattered to those who visited the ruins was the example of years of misrule. "See, look at Milosevic!" cried one man, pointing out a pig's head that had been placed on the burned chassis of a car. The slogan "He's finished" - referring to Milosevic - was painted in black on the wall behind.

Students swept up glass and ash, but a steady stream of people just walked around the building, slack-jawed at what they had wrough. Some picked through the debris for souvenirs.

"The system is collapsing, in the same way it did in Eastern Europe in 1989," says Zarko Korac, an opposition leader whose day of revolt included delivering a message on state-run Politika television.

" 'This is the property of the people now,' I said when I went into Politika," Mr. Korac recalls. The managers left through the back door and the elevator was shut down, so he ran up to the 17th floor studio. "There was music, and then all of a sudden I appeared and people were startled - I didn't know so many people watched Politika," he says. " 'Welcome, this is the new TV. It's free now,' I announced, and then left it to the journalists."

The result of all these moments was an unexpectedly violence-free coup, a mixture of both revolution and democracy that toppled a die-hard regime.

"This is a weird, strange ending of the collapse of the Berlin Wall," Korac says. "This was a mutant system, but it was more similar to a communist totalitarian system than a democracy. It was based on fear, lies, manipulation and the secret police.

"Everybody says 'We are liberated! We are free!" he adds. "Do you know how I felt when I learned that state security is no longer taping our calls?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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