Serbia bans street protest Milosevic warns marchers after Tuesday's violence

Opposition leaders defiant

Crackdown feared

demonstrators urged to ignore government

December 26, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The government of President Slobodan Milosevic banned street demonstrations yesterday amid signs that the embattled Serbian leader was moving to crush an opposition movement that has protested election fraud for more than a month.

Police, who beat protesters Tuesday in the first significant violence since the demonstrations began, will "intervene" to end any "disruptions of law and order" on city streets, the Interior Ministry said in a statement issued late last night.

The warning followed another day of protest, when defiant and boisterous opposition demonstrators returned to the snowy streets of the capital, despite clashes the day before with Milosevic's bused-in supporters and riot police.

Opposition leaders had said they feared Milosevic would use Tuesday's violence to justify a wider crackdown and predicted that a protest ban would be ordered. A previous prohibition was ignored. But that was before police beatings and other skirmishes injured more than 50 people.

Vuk Draskovic, one of three leaders of the opposition coalition known as Zajedno, or Together, urged followers late yesterday to disregard the police order.

"We are walking against the stealing of elections, and we will continue walking," he told radio listeners. "Citizens, behave as though you didn't hear the [government] message and walk tomorrow in all directions."

Yesterday's protest began with fewer than usual students, who used liquid detergent and brooms to "decontaminate" the site of the previous day's pro-Milosevic rally. Later, tens of thousands of opposition activists marched through downtown, then gathered in Republic Square. No riot police were visible and no violence was reported.

Tuesday's fighting, which shattered more than five weeks of relatively peaceful protest against Milosevic for annulling opposition victories in municipal elections, has made a solution to the political crisis in Serbia seem more remote than ever. Both sides hardened their positions yesterday.

"It seems now there is no room for dialogue," said Vesna Pesic, a Zajedno leader. "We can be nice and say we are ready for dialogue, but the reality we saw [Tuesday] is he doesn't want it."

In police-escorted buses, Milosevic transported thousands of rural, working-class supporters to Belgrade on Tuesday for a rally timed to upstage the daily demonstration by opposition forces.

The bewildered government supporters, reportedly paid to attend and unaware of what they would be up against, fought with opposition hecklers until police separated the groups. Police later fired tear gas and used batons to disperse opposition activists.

But the regime controlled by Milosevic for the past nine years, shaken by protests it cannot stop, was reportedly stunned by the low turnout of its supporters, a fraction of the crowd mustered by Zajedno and student groups.

Flanked by the elite of his leftist ruling coalition, including his powerful wife, Mirjana Markovic, Milosevic attempted to rally supporters and portray opponents as foreign lackeys who want to weaken Serbia, which with tiny Montenegro makes up the rump Yugoslavia.

As he did during his rise to power in the late 1980s, Milosevic drummed up support by creating an enemy within that must be && resisted. The earlier performance played on festering nationalism and led to civil war in neighboring republics that ended in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

On cue, Milosevic's supporters yesterday issued condemnations of the violence, blaming it on the opposition, and demanded punishment of the "peace-breakers."

State television, controlled by Milosevic, is the main source of news for all Serbia; it did not broadcast footage of a Socialist Party supporter shooting an opposition activist in the head, the most serious of Tuesday's injuries.

In one sign of compromise, however, opposition leaders signaled their willingness to participate in new elections if the Nov. 17 results are recognized. This would enable Zajedno to have its people in office oversee preparations for the new round of voting.

Milosevic's hard-line speech, declaring that Serbia will not be enslaved by a foreign power, also might have been a pre-emptory slap at the findings of an international commission examining the election fraud that sparked 38 days of protest.

A delegation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will make recommendations by the end of this week, and is expected to urge Milosevic to recognize the Nov. 17 results.

Already, officials of the regime are prepared to dismiss the OSCE findings, even though the delegation came to Belgrade at Milosevic's invitation.

"The commission can give its opinion, but it has no right to [enforce] conclusions," Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic told the daily newspaper Nasa Borba.

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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