Milosevic blinks Belgrade showdown: Concessions are right move, if not too late.

December 07, 1996

WRONG-HEADEDNESS on the part of Serbia's strong-man president, Slobodan Milosevic, transformed protests against stolen Nov. 17 local elections into a mass movement to oust him. More and more, in 18 days of ever-larger demonstrations, the shouting was directed at the top.

That may have been surprising to him. Only on Nov. 3, a coalition of the Socialist Party of Mr. Milosevic and the Yugoslav United Left (or Communist) Party of his powerful wife, Mirjana Marcovic, had retained parliamentary control in an apparently fair election.

When protests began over his cancellation of opposition victories in local elections, he cracked down in ways that seemed only to inflame the demonstrators. Now, under considerable U.S. prodding, he has taken the first steps toward reasonable concessions.

Two independent radio stations were let back on the air. Lower court annulment of the municipal elections was referred to the Supreme Court. The first of several resignations is reported. All this followed an attempt at distraction, the promise to pay overdue pensions and student grants and to cut electricity bills.

The U.S. slowly but forcefully has won a promise from the Milosevic regime not to crush incipient rebellion with force. This reflected soul-searching in a Clinton administration rebuilding its foreign policy team. Whatever Mr. Milosevic's role in the Bosnian war, he was the most flexible negotiator in the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords, seemingly indispensable to the fragile peace.

The protesters against him are a strange array of hawks and doves. What would happen to the peace in Bosnia should the Milosevic regime fall is anyone's guess. Since that peace is a U.S. diplomatic achievement, the Clinton administration has had uncomfortable stake in Mr. Milosevic's continuing rule, no matter that he is a former Communist boss.

Now, possibly, he has quelled the protests by conceding the protesters' just demands. But then again, perhaps he has not. Whatever happens, the U.S. has little choice, if it be true to itself, but to support democracy. Even when that means taking a chance.

Pub Date: 12/07/96

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