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Serbs roar for velvet revolution

Roars of "Vuk, vuk, vuk" boomed around central Belgrade as Vuk Draskovic, his long black hair and beard flecked with snow, moved forward to address the 60,000 demonstrators. "Can we do it like the Czechs?" he asked, referring to the peaceful overthrow of Communism in Prague in 1989. "Yes!" they cried. "Shall we?" he demanded. "We shall!" came back the thunderous response.

Denouncing President Slobodan Milosevic as "lopoglavnik" (the chief robber), he burst into a passage of passionate, flowing oratory. "That master of judicial terrorism, that head of thievery of electoral will of the people, is for us no longer president, he is the chief robber, the master of thieves."

Mr Draskovic's Messiah-like features make him easily the most identifiable of the three intellectuals who have orchestrated 18 days of protests in Belgrade, the biggest challenge to Mr Milosevic in his nine years of nationalist, neo-communist rule. The authorities yesterday made some minor concessions, promising extra cash for students, payment of delayed pensions and cheaper electricity.

They also allowed a well-known independent radio station, Radio B-92, to go back on the air, rescinding a ban that they imposed earlier this week.

Mr Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, was once a staunch Serbian nationalist, advocating the unity of all Serbs in former Yugoslavia with a fierce conviction which paralleled that of Mr Milosevic. A lawyer and novelist, he swears he now adheres to European standards of democracy and, if in power, would support the Dayton peace settlement for Bosnia - a vital issue for the West.

Mr Draskovic was a central figure in the protests in 1991 which Mr Milosevic crushed with tanks. He has suffered imprisonment. Yet he insists that the campaign must remain peaceful: "We want to defeat his lies with truth, his hatred with love, and his bombs with eggs."

The second opposition leader is Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party, who shares Mr Draskovic's Serbian nationalist background but otherwise could not be more different - with his short, grey hair and plain suits. A philosopher by training, his speeches lack the crowd-stirring rhetoric of Mr Draskovic. He has tried to organise trade-union protests in support of the opposition.

The third leader, Vesna Pesic, who is chairman of the Civic Alliance of Serbia, is a sociologist and describes herself as "a necessary intermediary between the two men who surround me". She was the most explicit of the trio in opposing the 1991-95 wars in former Yugoslavia, which she says enabled Mr Milosevic to deflect demands for democracy by creating "national confusion".

The coalition movement of the three politicians, Zajedno (Together), would almost certainly fall apart if they ousted Mr Milosevic. But the more immediate question is whether the opposition has the strength to bring down the "chief robber".