A volatile political power struggle in this Communist-ruled country escalated here Thursday as more than 100,000 demonstrators surrounded the ruling party’s headquarters in Vojvodina, one of Yugoslavia’s eight constituent jurisdictions, and forced the resignation of the entire provincial leadership.
The unprecedented mass demonstration in the city of Novi Sad, 40 miles north of Belgrade, was a major victory for Slobodan Milosevic, the party leader of Serbia, Yugoslavia’s largest republic. Milosevic, in an aggressive drive for power, is seeking to establish Serbian political control over Vojvodina and Kosovo, which are autonomous provinces surrounded by Serbian territory.
Months of Demonstrations
The forceful ouster of the provincial leadership, which began when a crowd marched on the capital late Wednesday, came after months of mass demonstrations orchestrated by the Serbian leader on the basis of nationalistic appeals to Serbians, the most populous of the seven major national groups that coexist uneasily in Yugoslavia.
Milosevic and his supporters say they are seeking to reassert Serbia’s rights within Yugoslavia and force the ouster of politicians they blame for ethnic strife in Kosovo and for the country’s severe economic crisis. But opponents charge that the 47-year-old Serbian chief is embarked on a dangerous course in a country that has been badly divided and practically leaderless since the death of postwar ruler Josip Broz Tito eight years ago.
“Something about these rallies reminds people of our bad past, of that which brought out extreme nationalistic hostilities,” said Stanislaw Marinkovic, the editor of the national newspaper Borba. “If that is allowed to thrive, the consequences for the country could be grave. Some people are afraid there could be civil war.”
So far there have been no major incidents of violence in the Serbian campaign. But the mass rallies, which began in Vojvodina in July and have been staged in cities and towns around Serbia, evoke for many Yugoslavs the virulent nationalism that led to some of Europe’s bloodiest fighting here during World War II.
The rallies, organized at first by a committee of ultranationalist Serbs from Kosovo, originally focused on the alleged persecution of Serbs in Kosovo by the province’s majority ethnic Albanian population. Recently, the campaign has been taken over by the Communist-run Socialist Alliance in Serbia, and demands have expanded to include giving Serbia direct control over the provinces and purging their political leaderships.
Milosevic, who took power in Serbia 13 months ago and has since established strong control over the Belgrade-based party apparatus and media, also has been pushing for major changes in the top ranks of the Yugoslav League of Communists at a plenary meeting due to be held in 10 days. Party officials, including Presidium President Stipe Suvar, have said that more than 30% of the Central Committee and most of the 25-member party Presidium could be replaced.
Serbian party officials, in an apparent attempt to increase the pressure on the plenary meeting, are planning a rally in Belgrade that they say will attract more than 1 million people.