State of Angst

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He was having none of it. Vojislav Seselj, leader of Serbia's hard-line Radical Party, stormed out of the meeting in the Serbian parliament in downtown Belgrade last week, vowing not to succumb to "mob rule." Unlike other former allies of ousted President Slobodan Milosevic, he declined the back door and headed for the main entrance where he met a crowd of about 100 protesters. In a muted echo of the revolution that overthrew the Milosevic regime earlier this month, they hurled epithets, stones and coins at the widely reviled Deputy Prime Minister. Seselj forged ahead, a phalanx of bodyguards surrounding him, and when the small crowd moved forward the guards pulled out concealed weapons and fired bursts into the air. "I don't care if there are 100 million people in the streets," a defiant Seselj later told reporters at his well-tended, 19th century, party headquarters on the outskirts of Belgrade, angrily punching the air. "If they are misbehaving it is mob rule. And we will not accept it."

Welcome to the real world. After the dreamlike events of Oct. 5, in which Serbs managed to defend their electoral victory and unseat one of the Western world's most reviled leaders, the smoke has cleared to reveal the raw underbelly of party politics in what remains of Yugoslavia. The regime of Slobodan Milosevic may have surrendered the presidency of the rump Yugoslav federation, but it is showing few signs of giving up what remains of its power.

Backroom battles rage for control of key institutions, particularly those of the government of the republic of Serbia and its powerful state police. Milosevic himself is maneuvering behind the scenes to undermine ongoing efforts to form transitional governments at both the republic and federal levels. By week's end, despite some hope of a new interim government in Serbia that would include moderate members of Milosevic's Socialist Party, essential government functions were grinding to a halt. "We are in a vacuum, and it doesn't suit anyone, least of all us," said Goran Svilanovic, head of the Civic Alliance and a key coalition partner of the new President Vojislav Kostunica.

How long the uncertainty will last is unclear. Serbian republic elections tentatively scheduled for December could help clear away the main obstacle of a deadlocked republic parliament. But the country cannot afford to go that long before installing interim institutions. The failure to do so has already provided fuel to Socialist Party members and others who want to paint the new regime as incompetent. Meanwhile, ordinary Serbs are growing increasingly restive. In the absence of command and control in the police hierarchy, crowds eager to oust the old guard are taking over state institutions by force. "This is a dangerous game," said Radomir Diklic, director of the Belgrade-based Beta news agency.

Much of the euphoria is still benign. Crowds throng city centers to talk politics, drink coffee, and listen to blaring rock music. At a street corner kiosk in downtown Belgrade one evening, a bearded dwarf stood maniacally tapping his fingers to the title song of the capital's hottest selling CD: a compilation entitled He's Finished. On the cover is a reproduction of Milosevic's campaign poster, mangled and torn.

Outside Serbia, Western leaders moved quickly to bolster Kostunica's position. The Germans announced an immediate aid package to clear the Danube river of debris from last year's nato bombing; French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine arrived to announce the lifting of E.U. sanctions; and U.S. President Bill Clinton's top Balkans adviser, James O'Brien, flew in to proclaim an end to American bans on oil imports and commercial flights, though restrictions on travel for officials of the old regime will remain. "We will keep our promises to Yugoslavia," said O'Brien.

But in a country that has suffered under autocratic rule for most of a bloody century, expectations run high. At businesses across Serbia, crowds of angry workers and the unemployed ousted government-appointed executives and senior managers. Directors of Yugoslavia's biggest automobile plant, several large banks and even the beloved Partizan Belgrade basketball club were chased from their executive suites. A self-proclaimed "crisis committee," under orders from the Party for a Democratic Serbia, part of the 18-member opposition alliance, tried to seize control of the air traffic control system, but was rebuffed by the army.

At the posh headquarters of Genex, once Serbia's most profitable conglomerate, about 300 disgruntled employees surrounded director Radoman Bozovic, an unpopular former Serbian Prime Minister who had held the job 18 months. "You will pay!" they screamed. Bozovic hastily signed a sheet of paper admitting responsibility for mismanagement and surrendering his job, a tactic he later described proudly as a "trick." A gardener now occupies his chair. "There is a lot of fear and a lot of anger," said a security guard at Genex who asked not to be named. "It is not just here. It is everywhere in Serbia. Anything is possible today."

Opposition leaders, including Kostunica, have repeatedly called for calm, but without a government to enforce laws they have only the tools of persuasion at their disposal. Every new unrepentant statement from members of the Milosevics' Socialist Party or its allies further inflames opposition supporters. "In the Balkans we have a tradition," said one travel agency manager in the southern town of Nis, after hearing that Milosevic was still trying to re-enter the political arena. "It's called the rope."

How much power the old regime still wields is unclear. The army's high command, though appointed by Milosevic, has declared its support for Kostunica. But midweek the Serbian Prime Minister, Mirko Marjanovic, a close Milosevic ally, announced that he had taken control of the 80,000-member police force, raising fears of a coup. The police are central to Milosevic's security apparatus. They played a brutal role in the Balkan wars of the past decade, and many officers who enjoyed a privileged status within Milosevic's system would welcome his return. But opposition leaders scoffed at Marjanovic's claim. "He can say what he likes," said Svilanovic. "It has no effect." Zoran Djindjic, the head of the Democratic Party, who emerged last week as the key player in efforts to cut a deal with police, told Time: "We have provided guarantees that the police will not be targeted by our supporters, and they have pledged that they will not execute any order to move against us. I think it's a fair deal."

But some Serbs wonder whether such dealmaking is not compromising the movement. Djindjic told TIME that in the efforts to win the day during the storming of the parliament the opposition was joined by some of the most notorious paramilitaries from the Balkan wars, including the special units known as Frenke's Boys. Without their help, and in one case their refusal to carry out orders to shoot into the crowd, says Djindjic, Milosevic would have crushed the uprising. "We all owe them a big favor. Many people would have died if it wasn't for them," he says.

Djindjic's actions highlight a split in the new leadership between those who want immediate results and are willing to use extraordinary means to obtain them and Kostunica's camp, which favors a more methodical approach. "Kostunica would like to stick to the strictly legalistic tack, but he does not have much support for that," said one Belgrade-based analyst.

As experts and diplomats continue to pour into the Serbian capital to congratulate Kostunica, most say they are astonished at how peaceful the transition was and for the most part continues to be. In a part of the world that has shown little mercy for leaders when they fall from power, Serbia's October revolution remains the exception. But with Milosevic still at his heavily fortified villa on a hill overlooking Belgrade, and with his close allies still maneuvering to short-circuit the new regime, no one is predicting how long that calm will last.

With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade