Balkans: Milosevic plays hardball as unrest grows in Serbia

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The Independent Online
Slobodan Milosevic is on the offensive again. On Tuesday night the wily Yugoslav President engineered the sacking of the most popular of his opponents as mayor of Belgrade.

Yesterday, his riot police broke up a peaceful demonstration in the tense southern province of Kosovo.

But, as Andrew Gumbel reports, this tough line is a high-risk strategy.

It was not so much a sacking as a coup. The Belgrade City Council meeting that voted to dismiss Zoran Djindjic on Tuesday night was called without the consent of the mayor of Belgrade and was boycotted by his Democratic Party.

What had, for seven fragile months, been a beacon of democracy in Mr Milosevic's autocratic Serbia suddenly turned into a cabal of extremists and nationalists bent on wresting control of the capital for themselves.

Along with Mr Djindjic's seat, they also took over the capital's biggest independent television station, Studio B, interrupting news coverage of the sacking and replacing it with a non-stop diet of music videos. The two acts so incensed the citizens of Belgrade that thousands of them spontaneously appeared on the streets blowing whistles, just as they did every day for three months last winter.

It was not a joyous protest, however, as riot police swooped down on the crowd, making numerous arrests and causing a number of injuries. Protest leaders immediately vowed to resume their demonstration last night, and every consecutive night, until Mr Djindjic was reinstated.

Mr Djindjic's undoing was not so much the new hardline attitude of Mr Milosevic as the betrayal of his comrade-in-arms from last winter, the quixotic nationalist Vuk Draskovic, who has abandoned the opposition, where his popularity was slipping badly, and joined forces with the government.

The two men have quarrelled ever since their victories in last November's municipal elections were recognised at the end of the winter protests, bringing the alliance they forged to an acrimonious end and permitting Mr Milosevic to retain his grip on power. I

In the parliamentary and presidential elections that took place on 21 September, Mr Djindjic's Democratic Party did not participate because it did not consider the poll fair.The political wind did not all blow Mr Milosevic's way, however. He failed to clinch an outright majority in Parliament, and his candidate for the Serbian Presidency, Zoran Lilic, failed to be elected in the first round.

The run-off, pitting Mr Lilic against the ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, is due this Sunday, but there is a danger the whole contest could be declared null and void if less than 50 per cent of the voters turn up.

There were even more violent clashes yesterday in Kosovo, where students from the majority Albanian population took to the streets only to be beaten back by Serbian riot police.

The authorities had given specific promises to foreign embassies in Belgrade that no violence would be used. But heavily-armed riot police used tear gas and clubs to break up a huge protest in Pristina by ethnic Albanians against Serb repression in the worst clash between Serbs and Albanians since Serbia stripped Kosovo of autonomy in 1989.

The protesters were mostly ethnic Albanian students demanding a right to return to Albanian-language education at university.