Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, declaring that Serbia will not become a “proving ground for terrorism,” again deployed riot police Monday to club and corral anti-government demonstrators who returned to the streets despite bloody skirmishes the night before.
Thousands of students and others were allowed to march briefly, then were blocked by police who chased and beat small groups of people hurling rocks and insults. Arrests and injuries were reported, but most in the crowds fled before the violence escalated.
Both police and demonstrators appeared more restrained Monday in comparison with the night before, when opposition leaders and a U.S. Marine waving his diplomatic identification were among the scores of people beaten by police.
The clashes were the most violent show of force in 78 days of generally peaceful demonstrations and appeared to be an attempt by Milosevic to reassert his challenged authority at a time when the economy is in a tailspin and strikes are spreading.
But in the short term, the action may backfire by further galvanizing an opposition movement that had seemed to be losing steam. Certainly, the mood in the streets Monday was angrier than before.
“We have embarked on a very dangerous road of escalation,” said Zarko Korac, a political analyst who supports the opposition. “This is like a prairie fire, spreading but slowly. It will drag on for weeks, but what is clear is Milosevic will not back down.”
Demonstrators Monday screeched insults at police, calling them Ustashe, a term for Nazi-era Croatian fascists who were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Serbs in World War II.
Leaders of the Zajedno (Together) opposition coalition--which initiated the protests after Milosevic annulled Nov. 17 municipal elections that his Socialist Party lost--pleaded for calm and ordered followers not to provoke police.
“This is just the beginning of a great Gandhi-like, nonviolent resistance to brutal force,” said Vuk Draskovic, president of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, backing down from an apparent appeal earlier for protesters to arm themselves in self-defense.
U.S. diplomats protested to Milan Milutinovic, the Yugoslav foreign minister, about the police beatings. They also sought to use their influence with Draskovic and other opposition leaders, cautioning them against calling for further violence.
In Washington, the Clinton administration condemned what officials called “police goons” and said the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, had filed a formal protest.
“We believe that the actions taken by the Serbian leadership to unleash their police and security forces over the weekend will only further Serbia’s isolation, deepen the political crisis in Belgrade,” State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said.
Burns said Richard Miles, U.S. charge d’affaires in Belgrade, met Draskovic on Monday “to express our support for the opposition’s track record of peaceful protest.”
The off-duty Marine guard from the U.S. Embassy who was roughed up by Serbian police was not seriously injured, Burns noted.
Inviting a new round of world scorn, an increasingly isolated Milosevic gave additional signs Monday that he intends to play hardball. As condemnation of the heavy-handed police action mounted from Washington, Paris, London and Bonn, state television broadcast a meeting of the president congratulating his senior security officials.
Milosevic’s decision to resort to fierce use of force baffled observers in Belgrade. An expert at sowing confusion to unnerve his opponents, he is thought to be embroiled in a power struggle between hard-liners in his ruling coalition who advocate a tougher crackdown on protests and those who advocate concessions.
On Friday, Yugoslav President Zoran Lilic made conciliatory statements in support of opposition demands that their election victories be restored.
Lilic’s title--president of the rump Yugoslavia, which is made up of Serbia and Montenegro--may sound grander than that of Milosevic. But he is actually considered a spokesman for Milosevic.
Yet at the same time that Lilic appeared to open the way for concessions, Mirjana Markovic, Milosevic’s hard-line and very powerful neo-Communist wife, wrote in her regular magazine column that the opposition is made up of “criminals and rapists” who are plotting to kill her and others.
Opposition leaders said Milosevic may have been especially angry at demonstrators because of the loss of lucrative government contracts with British and Italian firms in recent days. London’s NatWest Markets announced on Friday that it would no longer advise Belgrade because of the government’s failure to live up to promises of economic liberalization and democratization. The relationship with NatWest was expected to bring in millions of dollars.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Bloody clashes between protesters and police could signal that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is growing impatient and plans to crack down on the demonstrations that have shaken his government.
(Please see newspaper for chart information)