Nation is reborn, says Serbia's protest leader

"I was amazed. It's like a new birth. The child is born in poverty, the parents are old and unwell. Everything seems to be against a healthy birth. And then, suddenly, the baby is so beautiful. Everybody is amazed. That's how it is in Serbia today."

Zoran Djindjic, one of the leaders of Serbia's Zajedno ("Together") alliance, makes no secret of the extent to which Serbia's quiet revolution has taken him by surprise.

He told The Independent: "I expected us to lose the elections. Really to lose. Then I planned that we would go to the trade unions and organise strikes in the spring and summer of 1997, as the economic crisis deepened."

In reality, Zajedno stormed to victory in municipal elections in November in Belgrade and many other Serbian cities, a result which an electoral commission finally recognised this week but which Mr Milosevic's ruling party may still attempt to overrule. Since the elections, street demonstrations of up to half a million people in Belgrade have demanded that the authorities retreat.

Mr Djindjic is at the heart of the storm. Of the three leaders of Zajedno, Mr Djindjic, leader of the Democratic Party, is seen by many as the most likely next president.

Interviewed in his office yesterday - a few crammed and bustling rooms on the fifth floor of an apartment block in central Belgrade - the dapper Mr Djindjic made it clear he does not believe Mr Milosevic has given up. Equally, he insisted that the President is doomed: "His power is in the last stages of decay. It's rotten to the core. Without these demonstrations, it would have taken much longer to show this."

Despite a ruling by the electoral commission in Belgrade this week acknowledging the opposition victory in the city in November, Mr Djindjic expects a challenge from the ruling party. He predicted that Mr Milosevic, a past master at divide-and-rule tactics, would then allow an "interim government" for the city, leaving the whole result in limbo.

Like many in the opposition, Mr Djindjic seems to have resigned himself to waiting until elections later this year for Mr Milosevic's departure. "The general condition must be free elections and free media. If that is not met we will boycott the elections. There will be a social rebellion." He argued that even if the opposition wins the next elections, "That is not yet victory. Victory comes later. Winning the elections merely gives us the entry ticket".

Meanwhile, he insists that important victories have already been won. "We have changed Serbia's image in the world. We have removed the aura surrounding Milosevic, at home and abroad. At home, we have shown that he is weak. Abroad, we have shown that he is a risk factor, not a stability factor, just as he has been since 1990 [in the lead-up to the Yugoslav wars] ... He was ready to start a war, not for Serbia, but to keep himself in power."

Despite his proclaimed disapproval of nationalism, Mr Djindjic is reluctant to distance himself from the Bosnian Serb leadership. In 1994 he famously showed solidarity with Radovan Karadzic in the Bosnian Serb capital, Pale. He still sees nothing wrong with this: "I don't regret showing solidarity - we had a national crisis."

Is that not akin to suggesting that it was every good German's duty to show solidarity with Hitler when the world was against him? "A better comparison: a Jew in America shows solidarity with Israel, even if it has dubious policies."

He studied in Germany with the leading social philosopher, Jurgen Habermas. "He influenced me very much. I understood that if a society wants to progress, it must communicate its own problems. I saw that authoritarian societies are a blockade on their own society."

In Kosovo, Serbia's southern, Albanian-majority province, the Serb rector of the University of Pristina was injured in a car-bomb explosion yesterday. The attack seemed likely to heighten ethnic tensions in the already unstable province.