Slobo to Opponents: Let's Take This Outside

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Slobodan Milosevic’s opponents may have him on the ropes, but Serbia’s wily ruler is about to repeat his signature "rope-a-dope" trick — creating a crisis, and then presenting himself as the only solution. As opposition street rallies demanding his ouster grow bolder, Milosevic launched his counterpunching strategy Thursday in the southern Serbian town of Prokuplje. Milosevic’s Socialist Party scheduled a rally of his supporters there at the same time — and in the same place — as an opposition rally. Although only a few dozen Milosevic supporters showed up to confront the 4,000 opposition protestors, the move reveals Milosevic's strategy for coping with popular discontent. "Slobo wants some heads broken in confrontations between his supporters and opponents," says TIME Central Europe bureau reporter Dejan Anastasijevic. "Then he’ll step forward, playing on the fear of civil war in Serbia, and present himself as the only person capable of ensuring peace. It’s the strategy he’s pursued throughout the region over the past decade, only now he’s applying it at home."

Even opposition activists have been shocked by the willingness of ordinary Serbs to demonstrate against Milosevic in the wake of the Kosovo debacle. On Monday 20,000 people — almost one third of the town’s population — took to the streets of Leskovac in response to a call sneaked into a basketball half-time show by a local TV technician. But even widespread grassroots anger may not be enough to bring down the indicted war criminal. "Milosevic won’t go simply because tens or even hundreds of thousands of people are out in the streets demanding his resignation," says Anastasijevic. "He’s been through that before and survived because the protest movement’s leadership was incompetent." Opposition leaders can trump Milosevic every time in the moral authority stakes, but to win they’ll need to match his street-fighting smarts.