Belgrade braced for five days of defiance

General strike call prompts Milosevic bid to stem defections after courts and state media declare support for Kostunica
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Serbia began grinding to a standstill yesterday in advance of five days of general strikes called by the opposition to start on Monday.

Serbia began grinding to a standstill yesterday in advance of five days of general strikes called by the opposition to start on Monday.

The authorities clamped down still further on international reporting of what many could prove to be the death throes of the Milosevic regime. Jacky Rowland, the BBC correspondent in Belgrade, was told she had 48 hours to leave the country after being accused of biased reporting on the election. Following enormous reluctance by Belgrade to grant visas for this historic election, and following a number of expulsions in recent weeks, the number of foreign journalists remaining in Belgrade is now tiny.

Thousands of Serbs gathered again in the centre of Belgrade and in cities across the country in defiance of President Slobodan Milosevic's attempts to steal the election victory from the opposition leader, Vojislav Kostunica. Some theatres and cinemas closed, as did universities and schools.

The opposition has called for a nation-wide campaign of civil disobedience but Mr Kostunica is anxious to avoid any moves that could provoke a Milosevic crackdown. Earlier yesterday, Zoran Djindjic, the head of the opposition election campaign, met with 40 diplomats accredited in Belgrade to brief them on what the opposition has said was a major election fraud by Mr Milosevic and to see how the EU could help.

An opposition source said diplomats were interested in the possibility of a run-off. "They did not suggest there should be a second round but were just inquiring about it," the source said.

Earlier Mr Kostunica made a specific appeal to Greece to use its influence over Mr Milosevic to agree to a recount of the votes from last Sunday's vote. "I appeal to all well-intentioned people to help ease tension which could destabilise not only the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but the whole Balkan region, to get involved" in the recount, Mr Kostunica said in a statement.

Splits in the Milosevic regime continued apace. Even parts of the state TV network began to suffer from internal mutiny. Journalists at TV Novi Sad, part of the main RTS Serbian TV network, threatened to go on strike if the station refused access to the opposition coalition; the journalists demanded that the opposition election figures - which show a clear-cut, 52 per cent victory for Mr Kostunica - should be broadcast.

The independent Beta news agency said that uniformed and plainclothes police were in the building.

The defection of state TV journalists to the opposition - enabling previously unseen and unheard pictures to be broadcast - proved to be a key turning point in some of the east European revolutions that ended communism in 1989.

Even the traditional instruments of the Milosevic regime began to indicate their loyalty could no longer be relied upon. A court was reported to have closed in solidarity with the opposition demands. The courts have traditionally been ready to do Mr Milosevic's bidding.

The opposition began to refer to its candidate as President Kostunica of Yugoslavia. In a simultaneously conciliatory and defiant tone, Mr Kostunica said it was "more than necessary" to have a recount, in view of the "more than obvious" differences between the figures carefully collated from official return sheets by the opposition and the figures claimed, without substantiation, by the government.

Because the reach of independent media is patchy at best, part of the purpose of yesterday's rallies was to ensure that people across the country were aware of the opposition's demands and the plans for next week's strike. Already yesterday some factories closed. The atmosphere at the rallies was relaxed, almost celebratory. Despite the dismal history of the opposition, there is considerable confidence now that this time will prove to be different.

Part of the confidence comes not just from the clear-cut electoral victory - the first time that the opposition has truly defeated Mr Milosevic at the polls - but also from the sense that the regime is beginning to crumble. Representatives of the the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition met army and police chiefs for talks in the provinces.

Mr Kostunica and his colleagues are eager to achieve a handover of power without bloodshed, a possibility that until a few days ago still seemed unthinkable.

The opposition also sought meetings with the bosses of Serbian state television, to demand air-time to explain the position of the opposition, including the nature of next week's strikes. The strikes are limited to five days, a neat Monday-to-Friday self-contained set of pressures, in the hope that the response will be so overwhelming that the regime will start to crack and offer new compromises - and perhaps, even - though most Serbs still find it impossible to imagine that that day is near - that Mr Milosevic and his family will be bundled on to a plane to Moscow or elsewhere.

Zoran Djindjic, the opposition;s campaign manager andone of the main opposition leaders in the huge demonstrations of winter 1996-97, was cheered by the crowds in Belgrade when he quoted a popular new opposition slogan directed at Mr Milosevic: "Leave, before we come to you." Another popular, more brutal slogan says: "Slobo, save Serbia - kill yourself." Mr Milosevic's parents committed suicide.