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The gathering storm

Published December 9, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

in Belgrade today, the confrontation between the government of President Slobodan Milosevic and his political opponents escalated, with 100,000 protesters marching in central Belgrade. The deepening crisis was spurred by a Serbian Supreme Court ruling Sunday that upheld the government's annulment of elections won by the opposition. Over the weekend, the mood in the streets had been festive after Milosevic appeared to be softening his stand. Now,in the wake of the Supreme Court's action, opposition leaders have declared for the first time that their goal is to drive Milosevic from power.

Salon spoke today with Sylvia Poggioli, the National Public Radio correspondent who has been reporting from Belgrade since the anti-government demonstrations began three weeks ago.

How has the atmosphere changed since the Supreme Court's decision?

People seem grim and very determined. Probably the best way to describe it is a controlled anger. And today, for the first time, there was a very large proletarian contingent among the demonstrators. There were several hundred people with a banner from the city transportation union -- bus drivers, trolly car drivers. There were other blue-collar workers from a factory on the outskirts of Belgrade.

These are independent unions. The big fear in the government is that the larger state-run unions would join the protests. Has that happened?

From what we hear, they are still not involved. But we are hearing that in the big industrial cities down south, like Nis, workers are demonstrating, although not under the banner of their unions. In Nis, we hear that the crowds of demonstrators have doubled in the past few days to about 40,000. We hear there have been demonstrations in other cities as well.

Were people surprised at the Supreme Court's decision? It seemed for a while that Milosevic was moving to diffuse the crisis. The government had allowed an independent radio station that it had shut down to resume broadcasts and fired several unpopular party leaders. There was talk that he would give the opposition some of the elections after all.

Milosevich has set a lot of mixed signals. He seems to be tough one day, and then a few days later he makes a concession. I think the opposition leaders were not surprised, but many people in the crowd were. Milosevic has often made concessions which have meant nothing and later basically consolidated his power. There's this expression in Serbian, enat, which means a kind of spiteful stubbornness. After this court ruling, enat has hit the streets.

Tell us a little about the people leading the opposition. There is a sense in the United States that because they are leading the demonstrations against the dictator Milosevic, they must be democrats by definition. Is that true?

Zoran Djindjic, the leader of the Democratic Party, has had a strong nationalist identification until recently. In September's elections in Bosnia, he openly campaigned for [Bosnian Serb President Radovan] Karadzic's party. He often went to Karadzic's party headquarters in Pale [the Serb capital of Bosnia]. There are those who say he did that for opportunistic reasons -- that it was the only way to gain legitimacy when nationalism was the winning card. I take that with a tremendous grain of salt. In fact, I think he has strong nationalistic tendencies.

Another opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, also used to espouse strong nationalistic slogans. He even had his own paramilitary gangs. He shifted about midway through the Croatian war, became much more anti-war, pro-peace. But again, it's hard to say if that was genuine or just more opportunism.

Vesna Pesic, leader of the Civic Alliance, is the only one with very clear, coherent, consistent democratic credentials. She has won several awards from human rights organizations. She's a recognized democrat.

Who is the most powerful of the three?

The competition is between Djindjic and Draskovic. During the early stages of the protest, people were saying that Djindjic was the rising star, eclipsing Draskovic. I'm not sure. But the opposition coalition is clearly divided. It's surprising to many that it has stuck together this long. There has always been this tremendous rivalry between Djindjic and Draskovic and big differences in policy. They're competing in their slogans. For example, a week ago, Djindjic was not ready to call for Milosevic's resignation. But when Draskovic called for it today, the crowd went with him, so Djindjic had to catch up. So they're chasing each other now, mostly to be recognized by the West as a viable successor to Milosevic. But it's clear that neither really has a strategy. They don't know what to do now, except keep the protests going.

Does the United States have a favorite yet to replace Milosevich? Would they prefer the real democrat, Pesic?

I don't think Pesic is strong enough. Her party is too urban elite, too much made up of intellectual circles and students. I would say her constituency goes no farther than Belgrade. Basically, the United States is waiting to see what happens.

Are there signs of an impending government crackdown? Do you see lots of government troops standing by?

Quite the contrary. They're invisible. The last time I saw police in riot gear was more than a week ago. All you see now is traffic police. Today the students marched in front of police headquarters. Everyone though there would be trouble because one of the students had been arrested yesterday for carrying an effigy of Milosevic in prison garb, and the student's mother had told press conference that he had been seriously beaten. But nothing happened. All I saw were the traffic cops, and they were smiling. Quite a few were collecting leaflets and clearly enjoying it.

Could that be a sign that the police's support for the government may be cracking?

As is always the case in these situations, there is no shortage of rumors. We hear that there are divisions emerging among the lower-ranking officers. Apparently they don't want to be ordered to go out and attack. We don't know how many are involved or if they would even have the courage to disobey orders, but this is what we're beginning to hear. We'll see.

Any signs of Milosevic cracking?

Milosevic controls everything; he decides everything. As Draskovic said, Milosevic is the Supreme Court; he is the editor in chief of the TV and all the other state-run media; he is the chief of police. He's also an opportunist. He'll do whatever is convenient to remain in power. That is the one pattern that's been consistent throughout his political career. Now, apparently, he's under greater influence from his wife, who is intensely Marxist in her ideology. Right now, she's the only person with any influence on him, and she's probably hated more than he is.

So what happens now?

Basically, it's who blinks first. It's an endurance test.

Jonathan Broder is senior editor for the weekend edition of "All Things Considered." He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

Quote of the day

Cruel and unusual

"I don't know how a human being can survive under those conditions. It's like having the flu and living in a freezer at the same time."

-- Rhoda Berenson, after visiting her daughter, Lori Helene Berenson, in a Peruvian jail 12,700 feet high in the Andes. The U.S. woman is serving a life sentence for being associated with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. (From "U.S. Woman's Parents Lament Peruvian Prison's Conditions," in Monday's New York Times)

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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