Headed for a Showdown

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The noise from the corridor at 2 a.m. startled Boris, a technician for Belgrade-based FM station Radio B2-92. Seconds later, armed police broke down the studio door. "They wore camouflage and ski masks," Boris recalled some eight hours following the raid last Wednesday, after he and several colleagues were released from police custody. "They said we were a terrorist station, and that the government was taking over."

The police simultaneously swooped on two other radio stations, a local television outlet and a newspaper all in the same building in downtown Belgrade practically smothering the remains of the free media in the Serbian capital and triggering a wave of protests across the country. "The regime has taken the country into a state of emergency," declared the Serbian opposition in a joint statement. On Wednesday evening, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in central Belgrade, occasionally throwing rocks at the police. "Slobodan, Slobodan, kill yourself and save Serbia," they chanted. The police eventually dispersed the demonstrators with batons and tear gas, but the protests continue. "It may be over for tonight, but we'll be back tomorrow, and the day after, until we prevail," said Ivan Marovic, 26, the spokesman for the student movement Otpor (Resistance).

The growing popularity of Otpor may be what prompted Milosevic to stop tolerating a limited number of opposition outlets to keep up the pretense of democracy. Founded in 1998, the organization was virtually unknown until some months ago, when it started rapidly gaining supporters. Its logo a clenched fist is now scribbled on walls and fences throughout Serbia and more and more people brave police harassment by wearing it on T shirts and buttons. Apart from an estimated 20,000 activists, Otpor has no identifiable leadership and no political platform other than the overthrow of Milosevic by peaceful means. Its support comes from Serbia's silent majority people who dislike the government, but who also distrust the traditional opposition, for its lack of unity and its occasional flirtations with Milosevic. "We work with the opposition parties, but we are not a party ourselves," explains Marovic. "We act as a catalyst to bring others together and trigger the reaction."

The reaction may have started. In the weeks preceding the crackdown on the free media, Milosevic's officials started describing Otpor as "terrorists" and a "nato-sponsored fascist group," and the police started bringing in and questioning the activists. "Accusing us of being terrorists was really dumb," says Marovic. "Nobody believes that." But when a mentally disturbed security guard assassinated Bosko Perosevic, the governor of the province of Vojvodina, on May 13, the government quickly accused Otpor and the Serbian Renewal Movement the party led by the maverick politician Vuk Draskovic of being behind the killing. Four days later, those media outlets which expressed doubts about the government's version were shut down for "inciting terrorist activities."

Instead of weakening the opposition, Milosevic gave it new focus. As the protests continued, spreading to some 20 towns throughout Serbia, Draskovic told demonstrators in Belgrade Friday night that he and the two other main opposition leaders will go to Russia and ask President Vladimir Putin to pressure Milosevic to end the media crackdown and call elections. He appealed to the crowd to show restraint to avoid further clashes with Milosevic's heavily armed riot police. "No radio or television station, and no position of authority, is worth spilling even a drop of blood for," he said. But patience is thin. "I don't care about Draskovic and his maneuvering," said Zoran Smiljanic, 42, an electrical engineer. "I have three kids. Unless we kick Milosevic out as soon as possible, they will have no future. And if we need to fight with sticks and stones, so be it."

The overwhelming feeling is that change in Serbia is under way, peacefully or otherwise. "This is the beginning of the endgame," says Milan Milosevic, an analyst for the Belgrade-based political weekly Vreme, adding that his namesake's regime is too weak to maintain power. Such predictions have been made before. But this time, the Belgrade strongman will need all his survival skills to contain the tide of discontent.