Rich vein of warmth brightens streets of Belgrade

Protest anger has given way to charm offensive, writes Andrew Gumbel

Belgrade -What's a self-respecting riot policeman in full intimidatory regalia supposed to say when a beguiling young woman student asks him to dance in the middle of an anti-government demonstration? Say yes? Smash her on the head? Or just stand there looking awkward and smile?

There has been an almost surreal atmosphere in Belgrade these past few weeks, in which charm, good humour and a rich vein of satirical inventiveness have proved more powerful than any number of batons, water-cannon, riot shields and tear-gas canisters.

The students and opposition party supporters pressing the government to acknowledge its defeat in last November's municipal elections are not just political agitators earnestly fighting for their rights. They are having the time of their lives, and every night is an ear-splittingly lively party.

First there were the firecrackers and the multi-coloured party whistles imported from Bulgaria by some enterprising racketeer. Then came the loudspeakers blasting wild gypsy music into the bitterly cold winter night, transforming the capital's icy streets into a slithery giant dance floor. And then there have been the merciless wisecracks at the expense of the ruling regime.

President Slobodan Milosevic announced that he still loved the Serbian people, so the demonstrators shouted: "Slobo, we love you too." The speaker of the Serbian parliament, Dragan Tomic, lashed out at the demonstrators with a string of insulting adjectives only to find his words reprinted on T-shirts and banners that read: "Yes, we are feebleminded, under-aged, manipulated and pro-Fascist!"

When the riot police started pouring into the capital from all around the country, they too became the butt of the demonstrators' ridicule: "Hey Mr Policeman, isn't your wife lonely while you're away on business? Who do you think she's with right now while you're staring at us?"

More recently, the demonstrators have tried to make friends with the police, offering them chocolates and sweets and inviting them to read their leaflets. At first the police remained impassive, but in the past few days they have told the students to leave their goodies by the side of the road so they can pick them up as they go off duty.

On Monday night, which was the Serbian Orthodox Christmas Eve, the police disappeared from the streets altogether as more than 100,000 people walked and danced across town for a late-evening Mass at St Sava Cathedral.

It has been a remarkable display of democracy in action, without a hint of violence or resentment from any quarter. The students have analysed protest movements which date back to 1968 and have tried to avoid the mistakes of the past. They have issued a short list of minimum demands - reinstatement of the election results, greater freedom in the media and the resignation of the dean of Belgrade University - rather than starting off over-optimistic and having to backtrack later.

They have kept their protests separate from those of the opposition to underline their political independence. They have refused to meet Mr Milosevic, knowing that any such meeting risks being manipulated against them in the official media. And they have kept their protests short to keep everyone fresh and enthusiastic day after day.

The opposition coalition, meanwhile, has shown an assured knack for civil disobedience. To counter the propaganda broadcast by the state television news at 7.30 every night they have got Belgraders to "drown out" the official version of the day's events by blowing whistles, banging on pots and pans, letting off fireworks and simply screaming at the top of their lungs.

Last Sunday they worked around a ban on marching down Belgrade's main boulevards by inviting their supporters to drive into the centre and then pretend to break down. "Wet cables! Wet cables!" drivers would mutter as they peered with mock seriousness into their bonnets.

One man, asked what was wrong with his car, answered: "Its soul has broken down. It has been broken for a long, long time."

New ideas include refusing to pay utility bills and jamming the switchboards of ministries and other government offices by bombarding them with telephone calls.

"The less work these people do, the better it is for the country," said Zoran Djindjic, one of the three leaders of the opposition coalition Zajedno (Together).

If this struggle were all about creativity, then the government would have caved in long ago. As it is, its response has been a near-total silence, broken only by an occasional burst of invective that invariably falls flat.

One suspects that President Milosevic cannot believe what he is seeing - his authority flouted day after day with an irreverence that nobody in Serbia would have dared show even a few months ago.

Autocrats rely on fear to bolster their position, but fear has vanished off the Belgrade streets like air whooshing out of a balloon. Mr Milosevic cannot match the humour or the verve of his spirited opponents, and that ultimately may well prove his downfall.

n A hardline communist party allied with Mr Milosevic yesterday sought to blame the opposition for a bomb that exploded outside its headquarters on Monday night and said it expected further such "terrorist" attacks.

Nobody was hurt in the bomb blast, which looked suspiciously like a government provocation against Serbia's pro-democracy demonstrators. Some politicians and diplomats fear it could be a sign of a violent crackdown in the offing.

Comment, page 13

Life under Milosevic: The pain and the protest

September 1987 - Slobodan Milosevic takes over as Communist Party leader in Serbia.

May 1989 - Milosevic becomes President of the Yugoslavian republic of Serbia.

March 1991 - Milosevic crushes opposition demonstrations in Belgrade with tanks.

June 1991-November 1995 - Wars in former Yugoslavia.

17 November 1996 - Opposition coalition Zajedno (Together) defeats Milosevic's Socialists (ex-Communists) in municipal elections in Belgrade and a dozen other Serbian cities.

18 November - Daily protests begin after authorities annul opposition's election victories.

1 December - Socialists underline refusal to compromise by denouncing opposition as "destructive, violent fascists".

24 December - First police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Belgrade results in one death.

27 December - Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe upholds Zajedno's election victories and urges Milosevic to respect will of voters.

2 January 1997 - Serbian Orthodox Church breaks with Milosevic, accusing him of bringing nation to point of complete collapse

6 January - Army distances itself from Milosevic, saying it will not use force to end protests.

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