Push for Break Point in Belgrade ; Today's Protests Are Billed as an All-Out Bid to Force Slobodan Milosevic from Office

By Scott Peterson and Alex Todorovic writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 2000 | Go to article overview

Push for Break Point in Belgrade ; Today's Protests Are Billed as an All-Out Bid to Force Slobodan Milosevic from Office


Scott Peterson and Alex Todorovic writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On the frontline in the spiraling political standoff in Yugoslavia sits a young man named Bane. He is one of several thousand students blocking the main north-south highway on the edge of Belgrade.

"Of course I'm a bit scared," says the veterinary student, warily eyeing some 100 helmeted riot police nearby. "This has to be the end of the regime, or else I have no hope," says Bane, unwilling to give his last name.

The students' determination evoke images of a similar pro- democracy standoff in China's Tiananmen Square a decade ago. But Belgrade is not Beijing. The students here are not alone. The resolve of anti-Milosevic protesters is deepening, and their numbers are growing across Serbia.

Opposition leaders - in what they're billing as a final push to drive President Slobodan Milosevic from power after nearly a week of general strikes - have called on all of Yugoslavia for a make- or-break march on Belgrade tonight.

The standoff between democracy and dictatorship could lead to violence, analysts say, in the wake of the contested Sept. 24 election, which opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica claims he won.

"Strictly speaking, you can't remove Milosevic without some trouble," says Srdan Darmanovic, head of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Serbia's sister republic of Montenegro. "I don't like violence, but the Serbian people feel they must test the armed forces and police - not to fight them, but to test them. Otherwise, Milosevic will not step down."

A nationwide strike that began Monday has brought parts of Serbia to a standstill. But Milosevic - who admits that Mr. Kostunica won more votes than he did in the earlier election, just not enough to avoid a runoff - has shown no signs of moving aside. Yesterday, his government began carrying through on Tuesday's promises of arresting strike leaders and using "special measures" against "organizers of criminal activities."

Police in full riot gear and flak jackets yesterday arrested several miners at Kolubara coal mine - the largest of hundreds of work stoppages nationwide. And about 30 miles southeast of Belgrade, in Pozarevac, Milosevic's hometown, police arrested several truckers who were blocking a main road. But elsewhere in the country, roadblocks remained in place for a third day.

Tonight's march, timed to coincide with a strike by the Council of Trade Unions, (the nation's largest labor organization and in the past a firmly pro-Milosevic group) is a bid to send a definitive message that a second-round runoff vote, scheduled by Milosevic for Sunday, is unacceptable.

Regime opponents have been here several times in the past decade, only to be beaten back by riot police with plastic shields, body armor, blue helmets, and truncheons.

"This time, this will be resolved only in a direct clash between the Serbian people and the regime," Mr. Darmonovic says. "Milosevic always puts his opponents in a situation of 'double regret.' if you move one way, you regret it. If you move the other, you regret that, too."

But evidence is mounting that the strike action is beginning to bite. Work stopped at coal mines has meant power outages across Serbia, and in the capital Belgrade, mountains of trash have been growing as garbage collectors refuse to work. …

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