The thousands of alarm clocks that demonstrators sounded in the streets of Belgrade on New Year's Eve sent a message as clear as it was concise: Slobodan Milosevic, your time is up. Peacefully or with violence - that is still unclear.
Ten years and three wars after he first used demagogy and nationalism to come to power, the Serbian leader is embattled as never before. The sustained protests of the past two months, demanding the acknowledgement of opposition victories in elections in November, have put the regime under unprecedented pressure. Crucially, we are now seeing the knock-on effects of those demonstrations: new rifts in the structure of the establishment itself.
Those who once loyally supported the regime are eager to distance themselves from the man who bears much responsibility for the deaths of others, and who now himself faces the prospect of political sudden death. The demonstrators talk of their "velvet revolution" - a wistful looking back to what the demonstrators achieved in Prague in 1989. But the latest cracks, as revealed this week, are a reminder that the collapse of the regime may owe as much to Romania as it does to Czechoslovakia.
Even before the New Year, some officers had expressed anonymous solidarity with the demonstrators. Last week, the Orthodox Church, once fiercely nationalist, sharply condemned the regime. Now, in a remarkable twist, some in the Serbian military have declared themselves ready to use firepower against Mr Milosevic, if the Serbian leader tries to use force to suppress the protests. That raises the spectre of Romanian-style bloodshed, when the army and Nicolae Ceausescu's hated Securitate forces battled it out in the streets of Bucharest in December 1989.
The army appears to have realised what Mr Milosevic may perhaps not yet have acknowledged: that, for the first time in his political life, he has nowhere to turn. The pattern was set in the rest of east Europe, seven years ago. Hard and soft alike, the regimes collapsed. When they offered concessions - as the Serbian government has done in recent days, by offering limited recognition of opposition election victories - demonstrators became emboldened to ask for more. And when the authorities clamped down - by threatening a massacre (in Leipzig) or just by beating people up (in Prague), that enraged even those who until then had stayed at home making dinner or watching TV, unmoved by the dramas on the streets.
If he unleashes bloodshed, Mr Milosevic may even learn the lesson that Ceausescu learnt on an icy Christmas Day: that those who live by the gun do indeed sometimes die by the gun.
Even if Mr Milosevic resigns tomorrow, his departure would be lethally late. Because of the nationalism that the Serbian leader unleashed (abetted at one remove by his Croatian shadow, President Franjo Tudjman) hundreds of thousands of innocent people lost their homes, their families, their lives. The wars in Yugoslavia took place to ensure Mr Milosevic's own continued hold on power, threatened by the multi-party elections in Yugoslavia that immediately followed the upheavals of 1989.
And yet, with the conclusion of the Dayton peace accord, Mr Milosevic has repeatedly been praised by the West for his contribution to peace and even "stability" in Bosnia today. It is as if a crazed gangster who dispatched killer thugs to the other houses in his street were to be praised for helping the police with their inquiries - once most of the people in the street were already dead.
There are important differences between Belgrade in 1997 and Leipzig, Prague or Bucharest in 1989. The Serbian regime, sustained by poisonous television propaganda, is not universally loathed and feared (just as, we should remember, Hitler was not hated by ordinary Germans). A small and outspoken opposition press has long been tolerated in Belgrade - because only a tiny minority cared enough to read it.
Even now, Mr Milosevic. might pull one last bloodstained rabbit out of the hat to neutralise the opposition and save his political skin - if, for example, he unleashes yet another conflict, in the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo where nationalism first helped him to power. The tensions in Kosovo, where Albanians have been stripped of basic rights, have repeatedly exploded in recent years. Serbs see Kosovo as their historic "heartland": they would be happy if the Albanians were not there at all. With enough encouragement from Belgrade, the tensions might be persuaded to explode, once more.
The demonstrations that have filled the streets of Belgrade for the past seven weeks have not yet gained the Prague-style momentum - where the numbers doubled, tripled, and multiplied tenfold as the days went by - that would make the early collapse of the Serbian regime inevitable. Importantly, however, the elephant's hide has been pierced. In the past, Mr Milosevic has reacted calmly, almost dismissively, to protests on the street. This time, things have been different. He has tried, and failed, to mount counter- demonstrations; and his government has even admitted to losing a few elections.
Even now, there is no brave new Serbian world around the corner. The alarm clocks in Belgrade were a conscious throwback to the little bells Czechs rang in Wenceslas Square in November 1989, as a get-out-of-here message to the regime. But Serbia is not Czechoslovakia, not by a long way. Above all, it has no Vaclav Havel to lead it into a democratic future. The sanest of Serbia's three main opposition leaders, Vesna Pesic, is the one with least popular support. The other two, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, are still tainted by the nationalism of recent years. Mr Draskovic's own party has had a clearly nationalist tinge in past years (the leopard insists he has changed his spots). Mr Djindjic was happy to fraternise with Radovan Karadzic, during the war in Bosnia.
After 1945, it took years for most ordinary Germans to accept the monstrosity of what their country and countrymen had done. Equally, it will take years for Serbia - which still sees itself as almost guilt-free - to come to terms with what Serbs have done, in Srebrenica and elsewhere. But by acknowledging the horror of the past, Serbia would not diminish itself. On the contrary, as the German example has shown, such admissions could provide the foundation for a self-confident and honest Serbia; one that would no longer be a menace to its neighbours.
For now, even ordinary Serbs remain mistrustful, still seeing themselves as victims. Like millions of Russians, they forget that they, too, actively or passively helped an evil regime to flourish. One day, though, self- awareness may come to Serbia. And Western politicians and Serbs alike might understand that the true interests of Serbia are not identical with the murderous nationalism, incited by Slobodan Milosevic, which has maimed his country and destroyed the reputation of its people.Reuse content