Power to the people

55 days of protest on the streets of Belgrade: now Europe's pariah totters
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The Independent Online
It was a moment supporters of the Serbian opposition had come to fear they would never see. But at last, the regime of Slobodan Milosevic yesterday seemed to be in retreat.

On Monday night and through into yesterday morning, there was the deafening sound of whistles as half a million Serbians marked the beginning of the Orthodox Church's New Year and what they hope will be the beginning of a new era for Serbia.

Then, a few hours later, the Serbian authorities made their biggest concession yet, announcing yesterday that the opposition had, after all, won elections in Belgrade and other cities in November. Until now the government had insisted that the election results were not valid, in effect because the wrong side had won.

The concessions come after 55 days of protests which brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets day after day. It showed that people power, which has already shown its astonishing vitality in Berlin, Bucharest and Prague, is still alive in Europe.

The head of the Belgrade election commission insisted there had been "no pressures" on the commission's decision. In reality the pressures were daunting. On the one hand mass protests, similar to those which brought down Communist regimes in 1989, put the government on the defensive as never before. On the other hand Mr Milosevic, who has shown a Houdini- style ability to escape from impossible difficulties in the past, wanted a bone to throw to the opposition, in the hope that the demonstrators would go home.

The concession came in the immediate wake of a giant New Year's Eve protest and celebration combined. Half a million people filled the centre of Belgrade, blowing the whistles that had become the protesters' favourite prop. Crowds remained on the streets until the small hours, walking and whistling their way through the streets or listening to bands playing in the city centre.

The longer the demonstrations continue, the more difficult it has become for the government to snuff them out. Alarmingly for the regime, even the police have seemed increasingly friendly to the demonstrators as the days have gone by.

According to the official results confirmed yesterday, 60 per cent in Belgrade voted for Zajedno ("Together"), almost three times as many as the 23 per cent who voted for Mr Milosevic's party, the Serbian Socialist Party (former Communists). In the southern city of Nis, an electoral commission also announced the opposition had won, a point the courts acknowledged last week, but which the electoral commission until yesterday refused to recognise.

But, politically, the fat lady has not yet sung. Mr Milosevic has not confirmed the election commission's ruling, and opposition leaders yesterday insisted on caution. Zoran Djindjic, a leader of the Zajedno alliance, warned: "We don't know if this is a final decision, or if tomorrow a new decision will be taken to nullify this." He argued that yesterday's announcement might be intended to confuse the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is due to meet this week to discuss policy on Serbia. The OSCE condemned the original annulment of opposition victories.

Mr Djindjic demanded greater openness in the state media, especially the powerful and hated television news. He demanded that people across Serbia "should finally know why for two months people protested". Mr Djindjic said yesterday's concession was like "putting a few drops of water onto a huge blaze". The demonstrations, he said, would continue.

Vuk Draskovic, another leader of the Zajedno alliance, said yesterday's decision was "the first step to common sense". But he also said the street protests would continue until it was clear yesterday's decision would stand.

The knock-on effect of the demonstrations and of yesterday's climbdown may bring down Mr Milosevic, the hitherto unassailable dinosaur of Balkan politics. Mr Milosevic, who came to power almost 10 years and three wars ago on a tide of nationalism, now looks more vulnerable than ever before.

Even if he limps on until elections later this year, the days when adoring crowds chanted "Slobo! Slobo!" are gone. For years, Belgrade seemed caught in the Serbian leader's malign shadow. Many ordinary Serbs seemed hypnotised by a leader who proclaimed his love of peace while encouraging and bloodshed on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Now the depressed city has gained a life of its own once more. As one man said on Monday night: "I thought Milosevic was good but he cheated us." His friend added: "Finally, we want to destroy our Ceausescu."