By Julius StraussProtest over Milosevic swoop on opposition
Thursday 18 May 2000
ABOUT 30,000 people rallied in Belgrade last night to protest against a crackdown on the Serbian opposition by President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.
At least two people were taken to hospital after baton-wielding police intervened when demonstrators shouting "Save Serbia and kill yourself, Slobodan," threw stones at a police cordon.
Milosevic had earlier launched his harshest action so far against the opposition, with dozens of people arrested, newspapers and television stations forcibly closed and heavily armed anti-riot squads on the streets. The moves followed weeks of cat-and-mouse tactics between the opposition and the authorities and came amid warnings from diplomats that civil war in Serbia could be imminent.
The attack on the independent media began soon after dawn, when masked police stormed the offices of Studio B, Serbia's leading independent television station, which broadcasts to more half of the country. A leading anti-government newspaper, Blic, and the student-operated Radio Index were also closed.
A government statement said the moves were a response to frequent media demands for "the toppling of the constitutional order and rebellion against a legally elected government". Freimut Duve, the media representative of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said: "This act is aimed basically at destroying all independent media in Serbia."
Opposition leaders responded by calling supporters on to the streets. One of them, Vladan Batic, said: "The government has imposed an informal state of emergency. This indicates an introduction of civil war."
Aleksandar Cotric, a spokesman for the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement which runs Studio B, said: "We call on all Belgraders to come to defend their radio and television." Tensions between the Belgrade regime and the opposition have been running high for weeks. Last week riot squads and plain-clothed police blocked a rally in the Milosevic family's hometown, Pozarevac.
The immediate pretext for the curbs was the shooting of a government official at Novi Sad in north Serbia on Saturday. The government claimed that the killer, a security guard, had links with the opposition. Analysts say the government decided to make its move after only 20,000 protesters turned out for an opposition rally in the capital on Monday. Previous demonstrations had attracted up to 100,000 protesters.
Since Nato air strikes last year, the regime in Serbia has resorted to increasingly draconian measures to crush popular discontent. Opposition media have been harassed and fined and anti-government activists detained and beaten. On Monday police detained at least 20 student activists.
There are also growing signs that dissent in Serbia is spreading outside the traditional opposition circles. A student movement demanding the overthrow of the Milosevic regime, called Otpor, is growing in popularity and in southern Serbia local people say several towns are on the verge of open rebellion.
Army sources report dissatisfaction in the military, particularly in the middle-ranking officer corps. Two communist-style show trials are under way against "foreign spies" said to be trying to topple the regime.
Foreign diplomats are reluctant to predict the fall of Milosevic, who has endured more than a decade of internal unrest and several failed wars only to remain in power. But there is now a growing consensus that economic desperation and the defection of a growing number of Milosevic men have set the scene for a bloody showdown in Serbia.