Milosevic stays cool as protests jam Belgrade

Balkans: Serb crisis overshadows Bosnia talks
Students, opposition activists and tens of thousands of ordinary Serbian citizens marched through a wintry Belgrade yesterday in the face of mounting evidence that President Slobodan Milosevic has no intention of conceding their demands for democracy and civil rights.

For the 17th day running, large crowds jammed the city centre, waving pro-democracy banners and chanting support for an independent radio station which Serbia's neo-Communist authorities closed down last Tuesday.

At the front of the demonstration was a group of young women carrying loaves of bread, a symbol of friendship and goodwill in Serbia. "We must try and win this battle for our future, because otherwise our country faces years of darkness," said Gordana Tadic, a science student.

As up to 50,000 people protested in the city, the authorities underlined their increasingly tough line by rejecting opposition demands for fresh local elections and by ruling out concessions in response to Western pressure. A Belgrade court dismissed an opposition claim that the ruling Socialist Party had defrauded it of victory by cancelling the results of municipal elections in the capital last month.

The authorities first signalled their more repressive approach last Sunday when the Speaker of the Serbian parliament, Dragan Tomic, went on state television to denounce the daily demonstrations as "destructive, violent and with all the characteristics of pro-Fascist groups and ideologies."

Last Tuesday, the authorities shut down the radio station B-92, which in contrast to the state-controlled media, had carried extensive reports on the anti-Milosevic protests.

Although Mr Milosevic has not ordered the use of force against the demonstrators, hundreds of extra police have been moved into Belgrade and other towns and a handful of opposition activists have been arrested.

With the opposition seemingly running short of ideas on how to expand its protests into a decisive challenge to his rule, Mr Milosevic appears at the moment to hold the upper hand. However, some cracks have recently appeared in the monolith.

Five Supreme Court judges broke ranks last Tuesday and criticised their colleagues for tamely approving the cancellation of the opposition's election victories. According to several reports in Serbia's independent media, the loyalty of the police may also be in doubt, a claim at least partly supported by the evident sympathy of some Belgrade policemen to the street demonstrators.

However, loud criticism from the United States and European countries of Mr Milosevic's policies appears to have made little or no impact. A Socialist Party spokesman, Ivica Dacic, rejected Western charges of election- rigging and said: "We are treating the question of the elections as an internal matter."

The opposition, grouped in a coalition known as Zajedno (Together), vowed yesterday to continue the protests at least until the new year. Yet except in the southern city of Nis, Zajedno has found it difficult to mobilise workers in its cause, a fact that indicates the relative success of the authorities in keeping students and educated people in Belgrade isolated from public opinion in the rest of Serbia.

Even the largest opposition demonstrations, which have attracted more than 100,000 people in Belgrade, have failed to trigger sympathy strikes or protests in factories.

Despite this, the opposition is confident that it has damaged Mr Milosevic's authority beyond repair. "He is bluffing and trying to scare the people, but we shall not be intimidated by his threats and insults," said Vuk Draskovic, an opposition leader.