In Slobodan Milosevic's hometown, you can smell the fear now gripping his brutal regime

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The Independent Online

Radojko Lukovic, a bearded, out-of-work PE instructor in the central Serbian town of Pozarevac, talks in a mumble. And yet, what he says is dynamite.

Radojko Lukovic, a bearded, out-of-work PE instructor in the central Serbian town of Pozarevac, talks in a mumble. And yet, what he says is dynamite.

"Marko came into the opposition offices, and asked to see me," said the broken-nosed Mr Lukovic with a gap-toothed grin, as he sipped his Turkish coffee in a Pozarevac cafe. "He told me: 'I'm sorry about what happened.' He wanted me to tell the opposition not to be rude to his family."

Marko Milosevic - the loathed son of the President and uncrowned king of Pozarevac - was upset in May when Mr Lukovic stepped in to defend a student who had been beaten up by Marko's thugs. Those same thugs broke Mr Lukovic's nose, kicked his teeth out, and left him unconscious.

The police reaction was to charge Mr Lukovic with involvement in attempted murder. So far, so normal in Mr Milosevic's Serbia. But an apology from Marko is quite unheard-of; it seems that even the inner clan is now positioning itself for a defeat to come.

In that respect, Mr Lukovic's encounter can be seen as history in the making. As I listened to him describing his visit from Marko, I finally became convinced of something which until now I had not quite dared to believe. This is, indeed, a revolution. It may yet fail and the chances of bloodshed remain high. But the chances of victory - perhaps even a peaceful victory - are greater than ever before.

In Pozarevac, Mr Milosevic's hometown and one of his strongholds, you can smell the fear that has begun to grip the regime. As in dozens of towns and cities across Serbia, thousands gathered in Pozarevac's city centre yesterday, demanding an end to Mr Milosevic's rule and chanting " Gotov je! He's finished!" Factories and schools were closed; the main roads out of the town and on to the nearby motorway were blocked by tractors and cars.

The blockades bringing the country to a standstill covered more than just the main roads. When a blockader accompanied The Independent along muddy farm tracks to help us return from Pozarevac to Belgrade, we found ourselves stuck in yet another blockade in the middle of nowhere.

These protests and strikes- which Serbia has, after all, seen before - are important as a reflection of the restlessness that has gripped the country. But the multiplying signs that the regime itself has begun to fissure are even more significant.

The local television station in Pozarevac, traditionally slavishly pro-regime, startled viewers when it displayed a message along the bottom of the screen on Sunday night informing viewers of plans for this week's general strike. After an hour, three policemen entered the television studio and ordered that the message should be removed. But the embarrassment remains.

In Pozarevac, even the pessimists seem to be optimists these days. Dragana Dejavic works for the local paper which, like the television station, has always been pro-Milosevic. Her first reaction to a question about Mr Milosevic sounds cautious. "It's not the end. It's only the beginning." So how long does she think it will be before the end? Weeks, months, a year? "Oh, no. Maybe two or three days. Up to a week."

Dragan Milinovic, the student victim rescued by Mr Lukovic in May, started the Pozarevac branch of Otpor (Resistance), a student opposition movement. He, too, believes that the end is near. "It's not a question of how long I give him. It's a question of how long The Hague [war crimes tribunal] will give him."

More cautious observers are still worried that everything can fall apart, as it has done so often before. One Belgrader said: "It has to be within a week. If it doesn't happen within a week, I'm afraid it won't happen at all." The opposition still has the chance to shoot itself in the foot again. If it falls apart amid arguments about tactics, Mr Milosevic could yet hang on for dear life.

But it is remarkable to see a once resentful and apathetic town like Pozarevac so alive with the possibilities of change. The rally yesterday was full of laughter as speakers mocked Mr Milosevic; confidence in Pozarevac, and all across Serbia, is now stronger than fear. The provinces will almost certainly play a more important part than the capital, Belgrade, in forcing change.

The confidence is infectious. Djordje Rankovic, a judge for 22 years, was sacked earlier this year after police video cameras caught him at an opposition rally. The only colleague who dared to stand up for him publicly was also removed from her post.

Not everything has changed, even now. You can still meet those who glance around nervously before telling you: "All we want is a better life. We hope for change. But who knows?" But Serbia is much closer to change than at any time in the past decade.

Mr Rankovic insists that change can no longer be reversed. "It's just a matter of days. In a few days, we'll have the new Serbia. But already it's not the old Serbia."

To a much greater extent than ever before, the opposition has succeeded in communicating with the police at local level. Police cars were present for the blockades around Pozarevac and at many of the hundreds of blockades across the country; at Pozarevac, a single busload of policemen in full riot gear appeared on the scene. But they eventually drove off without getting off the bus.

The face-to-face meetings in Pozarevac have sometimes been almost friendly. It seems that neither side is eager to become involved in the bloodshed that Mr Milosevic may yet seek to unleash. Srbislav Stojanovic, a lawyer active in the Pozarevac opposition, described a recent encounter, which revealed that tensions are running high on both sides. "Our representative went to the police and said: 'Let's do this peacefully. My pocket is full of tranquilliser pills.' And the policeman patted his pocket and answered: 'My pocket is full of tranquillisers, too.'

"The authorities are completely lost," Mr Stojanovic said. "They didn't expect any of this. Frankly, we didn't expect it either." Like so many others in Pozarevac, he believes that the clock is now ticking fast. "Soon, everything will be resolved. We could see the headline 'Milosevic is gone' within a week."

But Mr Milosevic came out fighting yesterday, insisting in his televised speech - live on half a dozen television channels in Belgrade - that anybody who supported the opposition was against Serbia. The voting figures in Pozarevac give a sense of how beleaguered he now is, however. In past years, up to 80 per cent voted for Mr Milosevic. In last month's elections, two thirds voted for Vojislav Kostunica, the candidate of the opposition.

Already, Mr Milosevic's hold on Pozarevac - and all Serbia - is weakening. Marko's Madonna discotheque on the edge of Pozarevac - a huge and astonishingly ugly place which bizarrely carries the slogan "Stop the Violence" on its outside wall - is now closed, not least because of a boycott that following the attack on Mr Lukovic. His little Pasaz Cafe, where his thugs beat Mr Lukovic and Mr Milinovic up, is closed, too.

The closed-circuit cameras are still in operation outside the Milosevic estate on the edge of Pozarevac. But it seems unlikely that this will ever be a retirement villa for a former President. A typical response about where he might spend his retirement came from one resident of Pozarevac, who argued: "Either a jail here in Yugoslavia, or a jail in The Hague."