Belgrade turns up heat on Milosevic

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EVEN as the United Nations relief operation gets under way in Sarajevo, Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, is coming under increasing pressure in Belgrade.

On Thursday night around 100,000 protesters, the largest number that Belgrade has yet seen, gathered in the Serbian capital to demand the resignation of Mr Milosevic. Pioneer Park, in central Belgrade, now has a mixed population of permanent protesters. Their numbers are small but the nightly protests have not died away.

Even now, however, there is no certainty that Serbia is heading for an east European-style revolt against its authoritarian leadership. Mr Milosevic was the Communist Party leader before the party renamed itself 'Socialist'. But, unlike the Ceausescus of this world, the nationalism of Mr Milosevic also made him hugely popular, even when he was Communist Party leader.

His growing lack of popularity has as much to do with the state of the economy as with his lack of democratic credentials. Indeed, many Serbs blame him not so much for waging the war against Croatia and then Bosnia, as for failing to win it.

None the less, the fact that protesters are going out on to the streets for the first time has encouraged the small, brave band of Serbian liberals, who have often been threatened because of their views.

Some in the West feared that the international sanctions against Serbia might create a laager mentality in Belgrade, with Serbs huddling in embattled solidarity against the rest of the world. But for the moment at least the opposite has happened. Serbs have blamed Mr Milosevic, the man who caused those sanctions to be imposed, rather than blaming those who are imposing them. The final result of this resentment is still unclear.

Meanwhile, the appointment this week of a US businessman as the new prime minister of what is left of Yugoslavia, the hardline republics of Serbia and Montenegro, seems to be an attempt to persuade the world that the behaviour of Yugoslavia is not as bad as it looks.

Milan Panic owns a pharmaceuticals company in California. Before accepting the post of prime minister he ensured that his own American citizenship would not be jeopardised.

Mr Panic said on his arrived in Belgrade yesterday, that his first priority was to stop the fighting in the former Yugoslav federation and lift UN sanctions against Belgrade. He also insists that he will seek to establish a 'free multi-ethnic and multi-religious society' and revitalise the Yugoslav economy 'on the basis of the market economy'.

But the very fact that he was appointed by the ultra-hardline new President, Dobrica Cosic, suggests either that the appointment is mere window-dressing, or that he will quickly come into conflict with those who chose him. Mr Panic's return to his homeland had to be specially cleared with the United Nations. Under sanctions, no planes are allowed to fly into Belgrade.

Even today there is no single Serbian opposition leader on whom hopes are focused. A loose coalition, called Depos, has been formed but its supporters have nothing in common except the desire to get rid of Mr Milosevic.

The would-be monarch, Crown Prince Alexander, who was born in a Claridges hotel suite and travelled from Park Lane, London, to Belgrade last weekend, describes his hobbies as water-skiing and scuba-diving, and speaks little Serbian. And yet the prince is almost all that the opposition has in common.