By STEVEN ERLANGERLarge crowd in Belgrade heartens YU opposition
April 15, 2000
BELGRADE, Serbia, April 14 -- At least 100,000 people jammed sunny central Belgrade today for an opposition rally demanding early elections to oust the government of President Slobodan Milosevic.
It was the first opposition rally in many months, and the first since 1997 that brought together the two rival leaders of the main opposition parties, Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement and Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party, who even shook hands on stage, although gingerly.
The rhetoric from the various political leaders was sometimes uninspiring, and they provided no clear strategy or set of actions to bring about early elections on all levels, which the traditionally fractured opposition has agreed upon as its goal.
But the real message to Mr. Milosevic came less from the speakers than from the size of the crowd.
The large turnout, which some estimated at 150,000, will be registered by Mr. Milosevic, who said in mid-February that Serbia did not have "a real opposition," only traitorous politicians in the pay of the same Western countries that were bombing this country a year ago.
It will also oblige the opposition, which will take heart from the size of the crowd, to work harder not to dissipate this new energy and superficial unity in further squabbling.
In his first major public speech since August, Mr. Draskovic caught the mood of the crowd when he said he knew why the people had come in such numbers. "It's because the life we are leading is not a life anymore, because we are being killed, beaten, arrested, because we live in misery, humiliation and sorrow," he said. He then listed a catalog of ills from high emigration and unemployment to a low birthrate, the loss of Kosovo and attacks on the opposition and the independent news media.
Mr. Milosevic is "the only chief of state in the world who calls more than half of his people enemies," Mr. Draskovic said.
He told the crowd that the whole country was watching and asking, "Are we united enough to carry out change? And we will answer, 'Join us and we will be united enough.' "
But no speaker gave the listeners any notion of what to do except vote when the time comes. For some of those who came today, however, the rally itself was enough.
"I'm 54 and I cannot live off my salary," Dragan Vujacic said. "The electricity bill is half my salary and food takes the other half, and my wife can't find a job and I've got two kids. I've been working for 25 years, and I have a salary of 100 German marks," about $55 a month.
"I'm here to change something," he said. "I don't want my kids to live abroad or be married to foreigners and my grandchildren speaking a foreign language. I want to live normally in my Serbia."
Dragisa Jovkovic, 27, who trained as a psychologist but works as a secretary, said she came "to give my support to the people who want a better life." The opposition had problems of credibility, she said. "But I know for sure who I am against, even if I'm not sure who I am for. And now, that's enough. It would be very hard for someone to be worse than these authorities."
Some speakers, like the centrist Vojislav Kostunica, a moderate nationalist who appeals to some disaffected Milosevic supporters, spoke about restoring dignity and limits to the state. "When we win, our mandate will be limited and our power controlled," he said. "That is democracy. Democracy is not absolute power. Only Serbia is forever."
Like others, he criticized the government's division of people into patriots and traitors. "These patriots destroyed our country and made countries for the others," he said, referring to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. "Slobodan Milosevic has done the worst thing to his own people."
But privately, Mr. Kostunica had been wary of this rally, worried that the opposition had too little concrete to offer. "We've had more rallies than any country in Eastern Europe and less change," he said in an interview.
When Dragoljub Micunovic noted that 10 years ago, he and Mr. Draskovic had organized the first major rally on this same square, Nenad Stefanovic, a reporter with the weekly magazine Vreme, noted, "This is rather sad proof of 10 years without success."
While the opposition would gain some momentum from today, he said, "they are also quite capable of wasting all that energy again."
But Milan Milosevic, an analyst for Vreme and no relation to the Yugoslav president, said the rally will force the government to take the opposition more seriously, while encouraging the opposition to press harder for early elections in Serbia, not due now until at least the summer or fall of 2001.
Local and federal elections are due sometime before the end of this year, most probably in the fall, but the opposition already controls the big cities and towns, and the outcome of those elections will have little impact on Mr. Milosevic's hold on power. His own single term as Yugoslav president does not expire until the middle of next year.
The opposition hopes that a sizable victory in the Serbian elections will crack the government and bring Mr. Milosevic, who cares for legal niceties, to hand over power. But Milan Milosevic said that as head of the country's largest party, Mr. Milosevic would retain significant power over politics and business, and would probably be able to negotiate some protection for himself and his family, Yeltsin-style, from any new government.
While the police were watchful, there were no incidents today. The government did try to keep the size of the rally down, however, blocking some buses from entering Belgrade. More effective, perhaps, was the well-advertised decision by the state-owned Television Politika to show a nonstop range of movies not yet released here, including the Oscar winner "American Beauty," "The Matrix" and the latest James Bond film.
Live coverage of the rally on the television station that Mr. Draskovic controls, Studio B, was partially jammed, the station said. Studio B, which usually covers Mr. Draskovic more lavishly than state-controlled television covers Mr. Milosevic, has been pressed by Washington and the West to be more open to the views of other opposition leaders.