Is Milosevic on the way out?

He's been written off before. But with the economy in chaos, Steve Crawshaw in Belgrade finds this time the protests might be for real

EVERY Balkan analyst learns not to be too confident in writing off Slobodan Milosevic. His downfall has regularly been predicted. Almost everybody gets burnt once; it is a rite of passage.

When I walked amid the joyous crowds in Belgrade on the Serbian New Year's Eve in 1997, I was convinced that Mr Milosevic's time was up - not tomorrow, nor the day after, but soon. The mood, in Belgrade and even out in the sticks, was in favour of change. The excitement was infectious, as it had been on Wenceslas Square in Prague seven years earlier. Serbs believed, and it was easy to share their optimism.

Within weeks, it had all evaporated. President Milosevic held his nerve. The Serb president (as he then was - he later became Yugoslav president, in order to keep power) made concessions, including the acknowledgement that when the regime said that the opposition had lost local elections, it actually meant that the opposition had won the elections. Once that little misunderstanding had been cleared up, the opposition quarrelled bitterly about what to do next. Mr Milosevic sat pretty and watched them slice each other to pieces. The voters became more disillusioned than ever.

In short, one would have to be a lover of very risky bets to state confidently that he is now on the skids. No demonstration in Serbia in recent weeks has come close to the huge protests that unseated authoritarian regimes in eastern Europe in 1989 - or, indeed, to the demonstrations that failed to unseat Mr Milosevic in winter 1996.

There are other reasons to be cautious, too. People's reasons for disliking Slobodan Milosevic are varied. Admittedly, every revolution relies on a readiness to submerge political differences until the basic goal of unseating the regime has been achieved. None the less, the Serb differences go well beyond the normal spread. If you ask demon- strators who they would wish to see as Serb president, the almost universal answer is: "They are all as bad as each other." Politicians who are rewarded with half- supportive mutterings vary from quasi-fascists to social democrats. Some protesters believe that Slobodan Milosevic led Serbia into an unnecessary war in Kosovo. Others reckon he betrayed the nation by losing the war in Kosovo. Some talk little about Kosovo, but are angry that they no longer have jobs; or, if they have a job, that they rarely get paid; or that they get paid a pittance, if they get paid.

It is one of Mr Milosevic's remarkable achievements that he is hated by people with such different views, who distrust each other even more than they distrust him.

The Serb protests can hardly be described as nationwide; the capital has so far remained virtually unaffected. Partly, this is because Belgrade has been less affected by the catastrophe of Kosovo than other parts of the country. Most of those who went to risk their lives in Kosovo came from the provinces. The poverty is less acute in Belgrade, too. In addition, the failure of the protests in winter 1996 has left Belgraders feeling less inclined to try their luck again.

The rallies organised by the umbrella group Alliance for Change are all very well as far as they go. But the most charismatic (and unpredictable) opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, is not even taking part. Nor are the protests snowballing into something bigger - the point at which regimes lose their nerve. Only demonstrations that double in size every day cause dictators to have palpitations. Some elements are new, however. One of the biggest demonstrations so far was a spontaneous affair, triggered by a lone television technician.

If this half-revolution turns out to be successful - in other words, if Mr Milosevic is out of power before the end of the year - then the name of the town of Leskovac and of Ivan Novkovic will be inscribed in the annals of the new Serbia. His intervention in the middle of a basketball game, when he broadcast an unauthorised taped appeal, brought more people on to the streets than did any of the centrally planned rallies. That was an important indication of the depth of disillusion.

The little town of Prokuplje, close to the Kosovo border, is also likely to get an honourable mention in the history books, if it turns out that history is made. Mr Milosevic's Socialists deliberately scheduled a rally to clash with an opposition protest. Previous experience made it seem that violence was pre-programmed. In the event, the Socialists found they were so beleaguered they gave up the idea of holding a rally at all.

Prokuplje, like Leskovac, used to be a Milosevic stronghold. The failure to muster enough people to hold a counter-rally was thus a serious humiliation. A local Milosevic luminary fired his gun several times, which made life scary for a few seconds as we all collapsed in a heap on the ground or jumped behind the nearest newspaper kiosk or tree: it seemed quite within the lunatic bounds of possibility that the Socialists were practising a little rerun of Tiananmen Square. In reality, the shots were an indirect admission of defeat.

Tiny sparks, as in Leskovac, sometimes come to be seen as the beginning of the end. In Romania, for example, a small group dared to protest in the town of Timisoara when a Hungarian pastor was arrested. Within a week, the most brutal regime in Europe had been overthrown.

Mr Milosevic is not a Ceausescu, nor a Saddam Hussein. His reign is based on intolerance, more than on fear - which makes him potentially much more durable. He has repeatedly won elections, some of them fairly. He has also, however, made a string of promises, all of which he has broken.

The economy is in a worse state than when he came to power - and was, even before the Nato bombing began. The loss of Kosovo is so humiliating that the Serbs fleeing their homes have officially become non-people. There is no reference to them on television. They are being ordered to return to Kosovo, even when they do not wish to do so. The children of Serb refugees are not allowed to enrol at local schools - unless, that is, they fetch up in the little republic of Montenegro, which still practises Yugoslav tolerance.

While Serb troops were running amok in Kosovo, Montenegro gave shelter to tens of thousands of Albanian refugees. When the Albanians returned, thousands of Serbs found new homes in Montenegro. It is not the kind of example the President appreciates.

He must instead rely on supporters like the man I met on the central square in Prokuplje on Thursday night, who explained why he is in favour of Mr Milosevic: "He defends the people." It is a not a line that you hear often in Serbia, these days. Those in the crowd around him looked on in sheer disbelief.

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