BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — In an apparent breakthrough Sunday for opponents of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, a government court ordered opposition election victories to be restored in Serbia's second-largest city.
It was the first victory by the opposition after 28 days of massive street demonstrations against Milosevic, and it appeared to be an attempt by the Serbian leader to neutralize the protest movement challenging his regime.
Milosevic's decision to annul municipal elections lost by his Socialist Party on Nov. 17 triggered the largest and longest series of anti-government rallies in Serbia in more than 50 years.
Sunday's court ruling, if obeyed, will give the Zajedno (Together) opposition coalition control of city government in Nis, a onetime Socialist stronghold and scene of the most blatant fraud on election day.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators who had gathered Sunday night in Belgrade's Republic Square chanted "Victory! Victory!" upon hearing news of the ruling.
Opposition leaders welcomed the reversal in Nis but said it was not enough to quiet their protest.
"What about the falsifying? What about torturing people? Who is going to be responsible for that?" Zoran Djindjic, an opposition leader, told Sunday's crowd. "These elections are not the only issue. [They expect] us to receive these results and go home to sleep? We've only just started to give rebirth to Serbia.
"If they think they can stop the volcano now, they are badly mistaken."
Analysts speculated that Milosevic may be trying to strike a deal in which the Socialists relinquish Nis but keep control of Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia. That exchange is said to have been one of several offers on the table in indirect negotiations underway between the two sides. The opposition has so far pledged to fight for both cities, where it believes it won City Hall majorities.
In Nis, original election results gave 41 of 70 City Council seats to Zajedno. The local, Socialist-controlled Electoral Commission took 17 seats from Zajedno and awarded them to the Socialists, who had only 20, clumsily doctoring vote tally sheets to back up the decision, according to monitors and diplomats.
But opposition politicians retained copies of the original tally sheets and presented them to the court.
"The difference between here and Belgrade is that this was the most obvious stealing," Aleksandar Krstic, an official of the opposition Democratic Party in Nis, said by telephone from the southern city.
Krstic suggested that it would have been impossible for the government to show the doctored records to an international delegation that Milosevic has invited to inspect election results. Anticipation of a visit by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe may have forced the authorities to resolve the Nis results.
Although courts, which are controlled by Milosevic, rarely work on Sundays, Zajedno officials said a copy of the ruling was delivered by courier to their Nis office at 1 p.m.
Until recently, Nis, an industrial hub devastated by economic decline, was the domain of a powerful Socialist Party chieftain named Mile Ilic, purported to be one of the most corrupt officials in the Milosevic regime.
Ilic, who is said to have used his political office to enrich himself through lucrative city real estate deals, became the first casualty of the election troubles. Milosevic fired him earlier this month, apparently because of his bungled handling of the Nis elections and their aftermath.
Sunday's court order must be put into effect within 10 days. It was not clear if the Socialists will try to appeal.
"We will be certain that the [original] election results are recognized when our members take their seats in City Hall," said Zoran Zivkovic, head of the Democratic Party in Nis. "If they try to avoid this ruling, the consequences are unforeseeable."
Also Sunday, opposition leaders, who have been branded tools of foreign interventionist forces by state television, had their highest-level contact yet with the Clinton administration.
Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, one of three parties in the Zajedno coalition, met for two hours in Geneva with Assistant Secretary of State John Kornblum, who voiced support for "the democratic process." Earlier this month, Kornblum canceled a meeting with Milosevic.
"We believe it is now essential for Mr. Milosevic to accept the result of the election and open himself to continuing the democratic process and particularly to allow much greater freedom of the media," Kornblum told reporters after his talks with Draskovic.