Millennium party falls flat in YU capital

BELGRADE, Jan 1, 2000 -- (Reuters) State-sponsored millennium celebrations fell flat in the Yugoslav capital, a focus of opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic, but tens of thousands turned out in the opposition-held second city.

Two open-air concerts laid on by the government in the center of Belgrade, which has seen many mass rallies over the past decade, initially for Milosevic and more recently against, attracted no more than a few thousand people.

In the northern town of Novi Sad, run by opponents of Milosevic who have been part of a new protest campaign to try to oust him since NATO's March-June bombing campaign over his policy in Kosovo, tens of thousands turned out for a concert.

The celebrations in Belgrade had been due to be run by an opposition party led by the mercurial Vuk Draskovic, but he pulled out at the last moment, saying he did not want to start a civil war with government supporters.

Just a few hundred people appeared in front of the Yugoslav parliament to listen to the special brand of Serb traditional music mixed with pop known as "turbo-folk".

A rock concert in Republic Square, where opposition politicians have held nightly rallies for three months, drew a few thousand, about the same number that turned out for an opposition celebration of New Year held three days before.


"This is absolutely pathetic," said Nemanja, a 22-year-old student. "We are optimistic and we can't wait for Milosevic to step down."

Nenad, 40, a graphic designer, was equally disappointed.

"This is a lousy New Year Eve celebration. In fact, it's the worst I've ever been to. I just hope we will be able to avoid another war," he said.

The government put festive lights on some of the buildings still damaged from NATO's air strikes this year, including the headquarters of Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party, and in central streets.

"They want to show that there's nothing they can't do," said one disgruntled Belgrader, referring to the government's public pride in avoiding a winter of power cuts after the air strikes.

An official at the Yugoslav Y2K crisis center said no problems had been reported.

An indoor concert of "turbo-folk" fared quite well. People, frisked at the doors for guns, danced on tables, throwing firecrackers and kissing each other three times in traditional Serb fashion.

They also sang a nostalgically about Kosovo, where Serbs now suffer revenge attacks by the ethnic Albanian majority since NATO troops moved in to end a campaign of terror and killings by Serb forces and paramilitaries.

"The Serb trumpet in Kosovo sounded to make all Serbs happy," they sang.

A folk songwriter, Simonida Milojkovic, told Reuters: "I want Serbia to regain Kosovo, but I know that's a case of wishful thinking."

Shopkeeper Mihajlo Arsenijevic, 27, tried to be optimistic.

"I hope things will get better for us, but I am afraid they will only get worse. Still, I'm optimistic as only positive energy can change things for the better," he said.

There was no word on what the reclusive Milosevic was doing at the millennium. He earlier called for unity in a New Year message and praised the nation's "heroic defense" against NATO.

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