Students take to streets over Milosevic's poll sham

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Thousands of Serbian university students staged pro-democracy protests in Belgrade yesterday as public pressure mounted on President Slobodan Milosevic and his ruling Socialist Party. Chanting "Red Bandits" and "The Students Have Risen", more than 10,000 students demanded that the authorities reverse their decision to annul opposition victories in municipal elections in Belgrade and other cities.

Anti-government demonstrations have taken place every day in Belgrade for the past week, with thousands of people massing on the streets despite snow, sleet and rain. They represent the most serious outbreak of political unrest in Serbia since early 1991, before war erupted in former Yugoslavia.

Mr Milosevic, a former Communist who maintains tight control over the army, police, bureaucracy and state television, scarcely seems in danger of losing power. However, in what may prove to be a sign of worse troubles ahead, one of his most important former political allies, Dobrica Cosic, announced last Saturday that he was siding with the opposition. Mr Cosic, a former president of rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), told demonstrators: "I call on the regime to hand over power and not to defend it by all means. The time has come for new people, new ideas and new policies."

Although the Socialists control the federal Yugoslav parliament, the opposition Zajedno (Together) coalition shocked the authorities on 17 November by winning municipal elections in Belgrade, Kragujevac, Nis, Novi Sad and other towns. However, Socialist-controlled electoral commissions and courts then methodically annulled the results and ordered new rounds of voting.

The final straw for the opposition was a court ruling last Sunday which stripped Zajedno of its majority in the 110-seat Belgrade city council. Only last Tuesday, official results announced by the electoral commission in Belgrade showed that Zajedno had won 60 seats.

If allowed to stand, the results would have given Serbia's non-Communists their first taste of political power, albeit it at a local level, since the Second World War. But Mr Milosevic was determined to deny the opposition the chance of using Belgrade as a base from which to challenge his autocratic rule.

Serbian opposition leaders are disappointed that Western governments have not been more explicit in condemning Mr Milosevic. Western countries held him largely responsible for the outbreak of the 1991-95 wars in Croatia and Bosnia, but gradually came to regard his co-operation as vital in making sure that peace, however fragile and unsatisfactory, returned to the region.

The leader of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, Vuk Draskovic, expressed frustration with the US and West European countries last weekend, saying: "They refuse to see that the worst sort of crime is being perpetrated here: a crime committed by the state."

Another opposition leader, Zoran Djindjic, said: "We have been brought to a dramatic situation in which all citizens are becoming aware that the regime in Serbia cannot be changed by elections and legally, but only illegally, by uprisings, strikes, violence."