Milosevic is braced for mass protest

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SERBIA FACES its starkest choice today: tanks or democracy. Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of protesters are expected to gather in the capital, Belgrade, to demand the resignation of the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, in a demonstration that is likely to shape the country's political destiny.

The protest, which is supported by the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, is being organised by a group of independent economists known as the G-17. Should the opposition muster enough numbers to begin the process of bringing down President Milosevic, they are likely to be met by force, as happened in March 1991, when street demonstrations turned violent. Mr Milosevic sent tanks into the streets to end the uprising.

Toppling the President is likely to be a long process that could turn bloody and violent along the way and some fear a civil war could erupt. The question is: who could replace him as leader of Yugoslavia? One of the men most often touted as a future president, Vuk Draskovic, the mercurial opposition leader who wavers between condemning the Milosevic government and taking ministerial portfolios within it, has announced he will not attend the rally, although he has encouraged his supporters to travel to the capital.

In an ominous sign that the 1991 tanks scenario could be repeated, General Nebojsa Pavkovic told the newspaper Glas that "the army has to stand between the divided people to prevent civil war. The army will not stand against people, but [against] all those telling various stories, those who want to come to power illegitimately." General Pavkovic said the army was right to intervene in 1991, when two people were killed.

What gives President Milosevic greatest hope are the continuing squabbles between opposition leaders. Democratic Party leader, Zoran Djindjic, a rival in the opposition movement, has questioned whether Mr Draskovic was really committed to toppling Mr Milosevic. Mr Draskovic has been calling for an agreement between the regime and the opposition on the President's peaceful resignation. In an interview with B2-92 radio, Mr Draskovic said: "There is real danger of civil war in Serbia and we have to insist on a peaceful concept at the opposition rallies. Serbia is full of poverty, hatred and weapons. It would take little for us to go against each other."

However fractious the anti-government opposition remains, it is riding high on a wave of anger and deep disillusion at Serbia's parlous economic state, its ramshackle Balkan democracy and its international isolation, which is increasing.

The formerly cosmopolitan, bustling city of Belgrade - 10years ago one of the most dynamic capitals in central and eastern Europe - is now a bomb-scarred shadow of its former self, its once sophisticated population depressed, poverty stricken and largely unemployed.

Adding to tensions was last night's football match between Yugoslavia and wartime rival Croatia, with fears that it too could become the focus of anti-government protest. The Yugoslav army and Serb paramilitaries fought a bitter war against Croatian forces when the country declared independence in 1991.