Belgrade protesters are demanding democracy

International | U.S. on the wrong side, and evangelicals stuck in the middle

Issue: "Social Security," Jan. 11, 1997

To outsiders the demonstrations in Belgrade have the earmarks of a serious, if overdue, democratic uprising. Protesters at times numbering more than 150,000 have taken to the streets of the Serbian capital since late November. Even when temperatures dipped to their lowest of the season last week, gatherings of 40,000-50,000 overcame below-zero cold and icy streets to send socialist President Slobodan Milosevic a message.

The protesters are demanding that Mr. Milosevic affirm the results of local elections, including those of the mayor of Belgrade and a majority of the city government's local council, which gave victories to coalition candidates who oppose Mr. Milosevic's autocratic regime. The protests are a daily fixture since a court dominated by the president overturned those election results. If enacted they could spell the end of Mr. Milosevic's lock on power.

Protesters have stood their ground despite threats from government riot police, who have clubbed small groups of demonstrators. But the crowds have been buoyed by support from several members of the U.S. Congress and the findings last week of an international organization that said opposition candidates did win the elections in question.

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"Milosevic is digging a hole," said an American humanitarian aid worker who demanded anonymity because of government contacts needed to bring supplies through Serbia. "Once it is too big, it will start to cave in on him."

A Communist Party leader when the Eastern Bloc crumbled, Mr. Milosevic has managed to stay in power for nine years. In 1991 he sent Yugoslav army tanks into the streets of Belgrade to end protests, and in June 1993 police crushed the opposition with clubs, tear gas, and arrests. Police have not gone beyond using clubs so far. One protester died from such beatings Dec. 27, and 58 were injured that week.

The current protests call up recollections of Gdansk and Solidarity, Prague and the Velvet Revolution, Leipzig and the Berlin Wall. But it is not clear what the victory of Serbian democratic forces could mean-to the peace process in Bosnia and to those who've suffered most in this part of the former Yugoslavia: the non-Serbians and the non-Orthodox, including evangelical Christians.

When the campaign began, people cheered as protesters draped the facades and windows of Mr. Milosevic's downtown office, city hall, the state-run television station, and the offices of Politika, the state-run newspaper, in yellow. Huge columns of demonstrators stamped their feet in unison and chanted, "We won't give up our victory!"

Mr. Milosevic tried to stamp out the protests by closing independent radio stations covering the demonstrations. He was forced to reopen them a week later.

Contrary to CNN reports, this is not a student uprising. Young and old attend the rallies as well as a significant contingent of labor-movement types, according to those who've attended the demonstrations or waited in Belgrade traffic stalled by them. The misnomer plays into Mr. Milosevic's hand, who'd like to portray his opposition as a simple band of hippies with nothing better to do.

Also defying the student label is the movement's telegenic 44-year-old leader, Zoran Djindjic. When he appears from a balcony above the crowds in Terazije Square in a tweed jacket and dark turtleneck, his admirers chant, "Zoran! Zoran! Zoran!" It was Mr. Djindjic who beat the ruling socialist party in the race for mayor of Belgrade, one of the elections the government nullified.

The leader of the four-party coalition Zajedno ("Together"), Mr. Djindjic is seen as the emerging power broker should leadership in Serbia change hands. As his bubble has surfaced, so too have questions about what kind of democracy he wants.

Mr. Djindjic has embraced Serb nationalism since 1993. He has accused Mr. Milosevic of abandoning the Serb nationalists he once supported in fighting in Bosnia and Croatia. Mr. Djindjic even organized demonstrations against the NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb army positions around Sarajevo last year after the Serbs violated ceasefire agreements prior to Dayton. He has favored Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is said to have ordered the massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica and whom many in the international community want tried as a war criminal.

For his part, President Milosevic broke with the Bosnian Serbs and the nationalist cause he had championed since 1991 in an effort to end economic sanctions that have crippled the country's decrepit economy. The about-face led to a strange-bedfellows relationship with United States negotiators at Dayton, Ohio, a year ago. Mr. Milosevic became a key figure in the U.S. strategy to win peace in the Balkans while Mr. Djindjic opposed the process.


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