With his bushy beard and schoolboy build, Dragan Radojicic did not look the part of steely-eyed tough guy as he nervously planted his boots in the middle of Kolarceva Street. But too much is at stake in this mutinous Balkan country, he shouted over the commotion of approaching demonstrators, for him to watch safely from the sidelines.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with other volunteers, Radojicic helped form a human cushion between the rushing crowd and a menacing police roadblock a few paces away.
“We can achieve all that we want peacefully, so we have to make sure no one provokes a conflict,” said the 42-year-old mining engineer as he sternly directed fellow protesters toward the sidewalk. “One life is more valuable than the power of [Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic.”
The tense scene this week outside a bookstore near Belgrade’s central Republic Square reflected a new unease besetting the anti-government rallies that have rocked the Yugoslav and Serbian capital for nearly 12 weeks. With at least partial victory almost in their hands, an unsettling question of strategy has arisen for opposition leaders: Where do the protests go from here?
Milosevic capitulated this week to their main demand--the reinstatement of opposition victories in local elections last November--but he has dragged out the procedure for handing over power in the 14 disputed cities.
A special session of the Serbian parliament will not meet until Tuesday to consider the matter, and there is no telling if parliamentarians will toe the wounded president’s dictatorial line. There is even disagreement about which cities should be on the list and whether intervention by parliament would violate the Serbian constitution.
The waiting game has opposition leaders and thousands of everyday demonstrators second-guessing the government’s every move--unwilling to call off street protests until Milosevic’s intentions are clear but fearful that he may use the volatile daily ritual to provoke a fateful confrontation. And interest in the rallies among all but university students is waning, with attendance Friday only a fraction the size of gatherings earlier in the week.
“The protests will not stop because Milosevic will certainly do something stupid again,” said Vesna Bikic, 33, an archeologist at a demonstration near the museum where she works. “It has gone too far to turn back now.”
Already twice this week, riot police have clashed with anti-government marchers, leading to scores of injuries and arrests and shattering a near-perfect record of tranquil rebellion. Those bloody skirmishes were followed by Milosevic’s surprise surrender; next time, some opposition leaders fear, they may not be so lucky.
“Since Sunday, there has been an obvious escalation of police repression in the street, and a lot of people are scared what may come out of it,” said Milan Protic, a political analyst close to the opposition. “Opposition leaders are afraid to give Milosevic the pretext to use more brutality and proclaim martial law or something along those lines. It is a difficult situation for everyone.”
In speeches this week, leaders of the three-party opposition coalition Zajedno, or Together, have gone to great pains to emphasize the peaceful intent of the protests, particularly since one of its main leaders, Vuk Draskovic, called for an eye-for-an-eye struggle after riot police inexplicably attacked demonstrators Sunday night. Draskovic later retracted his statement and pleaded with demonstrators to keep away from the throng of police who regularly stake out Kolarceva Street during rallies on Republic Square.
The new cordon of anti-government volunteers outside the bookstore, he said, was an insurance policy for both sides.
“They want to spoil this picture” of nonviolence, Draskovic said of Milosevic’s ruling coalition. “Don’t let them do that.”
But even that straightforward message has been blurred by the urgent need to keep pressure on Milosevic: Protesters want tranquillity, but they don’t want to lull the Serbian president into complacency.
“There are always a lot of unresolved things with Milosevic, and certainly the protests should not cease before all problems are cleared up,” said Vladeta Jankovic of the Democratic Party of Serbia, an opposition party not among the Zajedno members.
In Paris on Thursday, Zajedno’s leaders pledged to abandon the protests if Milosevic keeps his word. But in the same breath, they threatened to flood the streets of Belgrade if he betrays them.
And in a speech in Belgrade on Friday, Draskovic reminded demonstrators--and Milosevic--that things could still turn ugly.
“If we don’t win now . . . there will be neither more elections nor discussions about elections,” he said. “Then things will be solved in a more dramatic way.”
Controlling the ebb and flow of the street protests is complicated because many protesters despise Milosevic but also are not big fans of the Zajedno leaders. If the municipal election results are restored, it is unclear how many people will continue to press for Zajedno’s other demands, such as the establishment of a free judicial system and news media.
“I think they will find out that those added demands might not be as powerful among many people as is the election demand,” a Western diplomat in Belgrade said.