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Who's afraid of Milosevic now?

Serbia's president seems to have no answer to ever-louder demands for democracy, reports Tony Barber in Belgrade
To the tens of thousands of students and opposition supporters who marched through Belgrade yesterday for the 20th day in succession, he is "the last Tyrannosaurus" and "the last Stalin". Yet if indeed President Slobodan Milosevic is the sole surviving communist dinosaur of Eastern Europe, he is taking a long time before lumbering off into the graveyard of history.

For Serbia's opposition leaders, scenting the chance to sweep the ruling Socialists (ex-communists) out of power for the first time since 1945, it was no easy matter last week to work out whether they, or Mr Milosevic and his henchmen, were in control of events. Encouraged by Western warnings to Mr Milosevic not to use violence against the protesters, students paraded an effigy of the President in prison clothes - an unprecedented insult to the man who has ruled Serbia virtually unchallenged for nine years.

One opposition leader, Vesna Pesic of the Civic Alliance of Serbia, said: "Our protests are the beginning of the end of the totalitarian regime in Serbia. They must end in absolute success and the triumph of democracy."

Yet it was by no means clear that power was slipping from Mr Milosevic's grasp, or that his strategy for containing the trouble had failed. One of his main aims is to prevent strikes and political protests from breaking out in Serbia's factories and coalescing with the largely middle-class demonstrations in Belgrade. Despite three weeks of continuous unrest he has largely succeeded in that objective.

Moreover, at times last week he seemed almost to be toying with the opposition, making threats one day and minor concessions the next. Thus the authorities shut down Belgrade's main independent radio station, B-92, last Tuesday but allowed it back on the air on Thursday, offering the absurd explanation that "heavy rains" had knocked out its transmitter.

To some extent Mr Milosevic's intentions,beyond staying in power, must remain a matter for guesswork, because the 55-year-old son of a Serbian Orthodox clergyman has long made a habit of saying nothing in public unless he absolutely has to. Last week the people of Serbia, players and spectators in a national drama of historic proportions, heard not one word from their leader, nor caught a glimpse of him performing his presidential duties.

Perhaps he remembered the fate of Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator who made the error of addressing a discontented crowd in Bucharest in December 1989, only to see a revolution break out in front of his eyes that quickly resulted in his execution. Yet Mr Milosevic shunned the opportunity to present his case on state-controlled television, leaving it instead to a Socialist Party hack, Dragan Tomic, who can hardly have rallied much support for the President with his predictable denunciations of the opposition as "violent pro-fascists".

The contrast with the methods Mr Milosevic used when acquiring total control over Serbia in the late 1980s and turning public opinion in a militantly nationalist direction could hardly be more startling. In those days it was not uncommon to see him speaking to crowds of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, many carrying icon-like portraits of him and chanting "Slobo, Slobo".

He seems to have sensed his power to ignite public opinion in 1987 when he visited the southern province of Kosovo, for some years a trouble spot between the ethnic Albanian majority and minority Serbs. Reassuring local Serbs who claimed to have been bullied by Albanian policemen, he said: "Nobody will be allowed to beat you!"

The words became a rallying cry for Serbs throughout former Yugoslavia, and Mr Milosevic, who had become Serbia's Communist Party leader in 1987, rapidly abandoned the incomprehensible jargon of Yugoslav "self-management socialism" for the stark, inflammatory rhetoric of Serbian nationalism. Though not a natural orator, unlike one of his opponents in today's crisis, the bearded writer Vuk Draskovic, Mr Milosevic certainly knew how to tell a crowd what it wanted to hear.

His conversion from nationalist rabble rouser into a silent master-manipulator of events behind the scenes occurred during the 1991-95 wars in the former Yugoslavia. It coincided with his decision to cast aside the ambition of uniting all Serbs in one new, enlarged state (incorporating parts of Bosnia and Croatia) and concentrate instead on consolidating his power in Serbia itself.

It was this move which provided an opening for Mr Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, a dedicated communist who is still nostalgic for the defunct multi-national state of Yugoslavia, and whose views on Serbian culture scarcely endear her to the nationalist camp. In a March 1994 diary entry, published last year in a book called Night and Day, she wrote: "Is it doing the Serbian people a service not to point out that they tend to be quarrelsome ... that on average their lifestyle is not very cultured, that their cities are not sufficiently clean, that they are unresistant to kitsch and resistant to hygiene?"

Mrs Markovic's party, the United Yugoslav Left, now governs in alliance with her husband's Socialists, a development that has completed the regime's transition from Serbian nationalism to communism in one family. Serbia under the Milosevics is not perhaps as brutalised a society as Romania under the Ceausescus, but there is a certain resemblance between the two families.

The late son of the Ceausescus, Nicu, though not quite the extravagant playboy of popular myth, nevertheless blazed a trail not unlike that of the Milosevics' son, Marko, a 22-year-old nightclub owner with a self- confessed addiction to guns, racing cars and women. On the other hand, the cult of personality that made Ceausescu one of the most notorious despots of 20th century Europe has no parallel in Mr Milosevic's Serbia.

For a time in 1988 and 1989, it looked as if things might go that way. But in recent years he has retreated from public view so completely that many Serbs cannot remember when they last saw Big Brother.

However, if his intention was to invest his rule with a sense of mystery and awe, not to say fear, then he has palpably failed. Nothing elicited louder and longer jeers and whistles from the Belgrade demonstrators last week than the mention of the President's name by opposition speakers.

The fear factor that is so necessary to the maintenance of an authoritarian system has gone in Belgrade, as has the feeling, widespread during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and in the subsequent wars, that it might be unpatriotic to challenge his rule. The only way to restore fear now would be by means of a so-called "Tiananmen solution", but the Serbian opposition and Western diplomats believe Mr Milosevic is calculating that he can ride out the storm without massacring hundreds of people in the middle of his capital.

However, the truth is that Mr Milosevic has nowhere to hide in the long run. He has ruled by means of Yugoslav communism, Serbian nationalism and what some now call "Socialism without a human face". Everything has failed. The demonstrators in snowy Belgrade know the only logical option for Serbia now is democracy, and democracy spells death for dinosaurs.