Clergy join crusade against Milosevic

More than 100,000 Serbs marched through Belgrade yesterday in a religious procession designed partly to sustain the 10-week protest movement against President Slobodan Milosevic. But a court decision appeared to reverse an earlier opposition victory.

Two dozen Orthodox priests led the procession, one of the largest church- sponsored events in Belgrade for 50 years. Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox church, praised demonstrators who have staged peaceful protests in Belgrade and other towns every day since the Socialist (former Communist) authorities annulled opposition victories in local elections in November. "Today, eyes are watching us from the sky and ground and are telling us to endure on the holy and righteous road," he said.

In Belgrade, the city electoral commission which awarded victory to the Zajedno (Together) opposition alliance last week said yesterday its ruling had been quashed by the First Municipal Court.

The commission chairman, Radomir Lazarevic, was enraged by the ruling. "The decision is completely against the law," he told reporters. "Truth and justice are endangered. There is a legal right of the people to start a rebellion."

Opposition rallies have spread to about 50 Serbian towns, but in Belgrade in recent days the number of protesters has fallen from a peak of 100,000 to a hard core of 15,000 to 20,000. Yesterday's march was the largest daytime gathering in the city for more than a month, but it was at least as religious as political in nature, since it officially marked the holiday of St Sava, the 13th-century founder of the Serbian Orthodox church.

Patriarch Pavle has thrown the church's considerable authority as a symbol of the Serbian nation squarely behind the opposition. However, his motives are more complex than the desire for justice and democracy that has fuelled the protest movement.

During the early period of the 1991-95 wars in the former Yugoslavia, he was as much of a Serbian nationalist as Mr Milosevic. The rift that later opened between them owed much to his view that Mr Milosevic had betrayed ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia by standing aside as they lost their lands in a conflict inspired largely by the Serbian president.

Zajedno legislators yesterday took formal control of Nis, Serbia's second-largest city, where the Socialists conceded this month that they had lost the November elections.

Sixteen Socialist deputies boycotted the ceremony in Nis . Zoran Zivkovic, the likely new mayor, said that five decades of Communist and Socialist rule had left the city "totally ruined".

By mixing restraint with mild repression and by making concessions that seem genuine but eventually turn out to be trivial, Slobodan Milosevic appears to be calculating that he can wear out the opposition in a contest that could last months.

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