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Protest Turns Belgrade Into Gridlock City

Balkans: Defying ban on street protests, citizens end seventh week of demonstrations against government by jamming thoroughfares with cars.

January 06, 1997|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The center of this capital city became one giant SigAlert on Sunday as anti-government demonstrators unleashed their newest weapon--their cars--in the fight against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Challenging a ban on street protests, thousands of motorists jammed their vehicles into principal avenues and brought Belgrade to a noisy standstill full of horns, car alarms and protesters' whistles.

Demanding that opposition victories in Nov. 17 municipal elections be respected, the protesters created deliberate gridlock. Many feigned car trouble as an excuse to park in the middle of the street, or stopped to change pretend-flat tires, while others simply abandoned their vehicles and paraded up and down central boulevards.

A sea of cars, buses and taxis, festooned with balloons, flags and oak branches--symbolic of the Serbian Orthodox Christmas, which comes Tuesday--filled downtown for miles and for hours.

The stunt was an effort by opposition leaders to reinvigorate daily demonstrations that on Sunday ended their seventh week. They also hoped to make a show of recapturing the streets after Milosevic banned demonstrations that block traffic and deployed a massive police presence that confined protest rallies to a single town square.

"At last we broke the police blockade!" crowed Nebojsa Kandic, a 32-year-old sound engineer who had raised the hood on his white Yugo and was sitting in the middle of the massive, festive traffic jam.

Kandic, tongue in cheek, explained that his car trouble was caused by "wet cables." When Milosevic shut down, then was forced to reopen, Belgrade's principal pro-opposition radio station, his government clumsily tried to blame the closure on a technical problem: wet cables.

Demonstrators placed red traffic-hazard triangles on their "stalled" cars. Some had tailgate parties, serving up beer and French fries.

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On other streets, traffic was snarled by a slow-moving caravan. Cars traveled about 6 mph, blinking their headlights at hapless traffic cops who stood at intersections and vainly tried to wave the motorists onward.

Other police--the heavily armed special forces that Milosevic has deployed since riots between his supporters and the protesters erupted Dec. 24--sat in buses and jeeps, engines running, around the federal parliament building and City Hall. They watched the show unfolding before them but did not intervene.

"They don't want us walking, so we will protest by car," declared Bogdan Angelovski, 42, whose red Italian-made compact sat near an intersection. He had rigged his car alarm and a musical door chime playing Christmas carols to an amplifier and was broadcasting the ruckus nonstop.

"Milosevic started the war, killed thousands of children in Bosnia and now drives a BMW and opens luxury hotels," Angelovski said. "He is a criminal and has to go."

The anti-government demonstrations were triggered by Milosevic's decision to annul opposition victories in the November balloting.

The opposition, which won key cities, including Belgrade, has earned the backing of international investigators, the Serbian Orthodox Church and even some of Milosevic's allies. But Milosevic shows no sign he is willing to relent beyond token concessions.

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