Milosevic set to concede defeat in elections

President Slobodan Milosevic appears to be on the verge of a major climbdown in his stand-off with street demonstrators in Serbia's major cities and the crisis could be resolved as early as this weekend, political and diplomatic sources in Belgrade say.

Information emanating from the highest circles of the Serbian government suggests that Mr Milosevic is prepared to concede defeat in the municipal elections held last November so that he can restore order on the streets and ward off the prospect of punitive sanctions from the international community.

The eight weeks of protests have badly eroded Mr Milosevic's authority, even within the ranks of his own supporters. Members of his party, the SPS, have spoken out against him in Serbia's sister republic Montenegro, while his erstwhile allies among the Serbs of Bosnia have come out unequivocally in favour of the protesters.

The resolve of the students and opposition leaders on the streets, by contrast, has been unwavering, as has the attitude of Europe and the United States who have made clear they expect the municipal election results to be respected in full.

Yesterday, the 53rd straight day of protest in Belgrade, was a typically uncomfortable experience for the government, with students organising a high-spirited plan of civil disobedience against the riot police.

The students had planned to keep up a 24-hour happening, with literature students reading Dostoevsky to the police "so they wouldn't get bored", and medical students advising them about the health risks of wearing riot helmets over an extended period. But the police did not have the stomach for the confrontation and stood bashfully on street corners while the protests swirled unimpeded all around them.

All week, the government has been making concessions as the pressure has mounted. On Wednesday they admitted defeat in Nis, Serbia's second city, while yesterday the Supreme Court instructed the authorities in the northern town of Vrsac to reconsider the merits of the opposition's case.

The independent media, meanwhile, has been awash with rumours that the Serbian Prime Minister, Mirko Marjanovic, is about to resign along with some or all of his government team. The mayor of Belgrade, Nebojsa Covic, has also threatened to quit.

The scenario being suggested yesterday was that the election results would be recognised this weekend. Mr Milosevic would then issue a ban on street protests and, once passions had cooled, quietly reshuffle his government to eliminate the most unpopular hardliners.

Already, there are indications of a rush among his supporters to be considered among the more moderate faction. Yesterday's independent newspapers reported a furious row breaking out at a meeting of the hardline Communist JUL party which is led by Mr Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, over the merits of giving in to the protesters rather than attempting to quash them by force.

If Mr Milosevic does climb down, it is by no means clear that he will be able to restore his tattered authority to survive the Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections due by the end of the year. Opposition control of the country's biggest municipalities will vastly extend their access to the media, and will provide an important safeguard against electoral cheating.

The opposition's increased profile will also make it difficult for Mr Milosevic to alter the constitution, as he had apparently planned, to ensure there is still a role for him after the Serbian elections. Under present rules he would be obliged to bow out since he has already served two terms as president.