'Belgrade is asleep. We have come here to wake it up'

When the people of Serbia finally rose up against Slobodan Milosevic they closed one of the bloodiest chapters inpost-war history
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The Independent Online

The moment that finished Slobodan Milosevic was when Bratislav Avramovic, a 39-year-old electrical engineer, and his friends decided they had had enough of him. On Thursday they went to Belgrade to get him out, bringing a bulldozer with them.

The moment that finished Slobodan Milosevic was when Bratislav Avramovic, a 39-year-old electrical engineer, and his friends decided they had had enough of him. On Thursday they went to Belgrade to get him out, bringing a bulldozer with them.

Mr Avramovic comes from Cacak, a town 60 miles south of the capital which was known for its hatred of the Yugoslav ex-president. Many other municipalities fell to the opposition in the local elections, held at the same time as the presidential vote last month, but only in Cacak did Mr Milosevic's SPS party fail to win a single council seat. The people of the town were in no doubt that Vojislav Kostunica had won the presidential election just as decisively, and watched in increasing disgust as the great survivor in Belgrade tried all his old tricks to stay in office.

Finally Mr Avramovic and hundreds of others from Cacak, including the mayor, Velimir Ilic, decided they would have to go to the capital and sort things out. "Belgrade is asleep," said the electrical engineer. "We've come to wake them up."

The bulldozer had already proved handy for crushing police barricades along the way, and showed its value again when they got to the city. It was used to smash down the entrance to the headquarters of the hated state television station, which was soon on fire, taking all three channels off the air.

Most of the protesters from Cacak and other southern towns, however, gathered in front of the federal parliament building, where the decisive confrontation of Serbia's "people's revolution" took place. The arrival of opposition supporters from outside emboldened the people of Belgrade to join them, and the noise grew as the crowd, waving Serbian flags and chanting "Save Serbia, Slobodan - kill yourself!", faced a line of nervous policemen with riot shields on the steps of the building.

Some of the boldest spirits were football hooligans who support the Red Star and Partizan soccer clubs, veteran Milosevic-haters accustomed to battles with the police - and each other. This time, however, they were united. Alexander Bozic and other Red Star fans got into scuffles with the police, ignoring appeals for calm from Mayor Ilic and others, and the crowd scattered as the white smoke of tear gas erupted. Fear of Mr Milosevic's forces had always prevented previous clashes from going any further, but this time the crowds came back, swelled by the news that Mr Kostunica was on his way to address them. The protesters renewed the pressure - and the tyrant's power broke. Army conscripts could be seen in the crowd being hugged by protesters, but Mr Milosevic has always relied on the police as his enforcers. When they folded, he was finished.

"I grabbed the shield of the cop in front of me and for a few seconds we were tearing it back and forth," said Mr Bozic. "I looked him in the eye, and suddenly he let go." The protesters surged into the building, setting it on fire and smashing offices as they searched for evidence that the election had been rigged. They found it: unfolded ballot papers, all with a cross against Mr Milosevic's name, were soon fluttering out of the broken windows.

Studio B television - once an independent channel which had been turned into a government propaganda outlet - went off the air, then came back as its old self, referring to Mr Kostunica as the elected president. By the time he appeared before the delirious crowds outside parliament, he was able to begin: "Good evening, liberated Serbia." And it was true.

It goes without saying that Mr Milosevic never anticipated such an outcome when he called the election. The opposition had shot itself in the foot so many times before that there was little reason to believe it would be different now. It was a surprise when 19 parties managed to unite around Mr Kostunica, but there was still no need to worry: the state and party apparatus was well used to rigging elections.

At this point the extent of the leadership's self-delusion became clear, however. Mr Kostunica's support was so huge that no amount of fixing could bring Mr Milosevic out ahead. No problem: announce that his opponent had fallen short of a 50 per cent majority, and buy some time by announcing a second round, scheduled for today. There were street protests, but Mr Milosevic had seen those off before. In the winter of 1996-97, the streets of Belgrade had been filled with demonstrators every night for months, calling for him to quit, to no avail.

But that was several years of economic decline and a war ago, and the president failed to sense that the mood had changed. On Tuesday, when a strike by the country's coal miners began to cause power cuts, he sent in the police to break it up. Not only did they fail, but some policemen joined the strikers, and at that point the regime began to fall apart.

The announcement the next day that the election was being called off until next year was the final insult to Serbia's people. Mr Milosevic had fired them with his dream of a "greater Serbia", only to implicate them in genocidal slaughter in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Sanctions and the corruption of his family and cronies had impoverished them, and his suicidal intransigence over Kosovo had brought Nato bombs down on their heads. Thanks to him they were international pariahs, and their fear of him had been replaced by contempt and loathing.

Yesterday Mr Kostunica was to be sworn in as Yugoslavia's new president. After the amazing events of Thursday, the Russians, the army and even Mr Milosevic himself were forced to acknowledge that he had won fairly. He is now putting together a government that faces the huge task of rebuilding Serbia and restoring its relations with the world. As if in sober recognition of how much there is to be done, the streets of Belgrade were quiet yesterday after what had felt like more than 48 hours of carnival.

So far, however, the drama has lacked a final act. Although the ex-president's son, the thuggish Marko, was revealed yesterday to have fled with his family to Moscow, father Slobodan remains at his mansion in suburban Belgrade. He is not in exile or under arrest. Nor has he been shot out of hand after a quick military "trial", the fate of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, which some thought might be his as well. Although it does not seem likely that Serbia will hand him over to the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, as the prosecutors are demanding, his fellow Serbs may well put him on trial.

The man himself is talking of returning to politics after a period of rest, and says he hopes to win the next election. It is hard to imagine that anyone shares this delusion, apart possibly from his equally loathed wife, Mira. But one would expect that if he ever looks like making a comeback, Mr Avramovic, his mates from Cacak and their bulldozer might have something to say about it.