BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — In a direct challenge to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian opposition leader Zoran Djindjic returned here from self-imposed exile Sunday, declaring that he preferred the risk of prison to the prospect of civil war.
"I believe we must, as democrats, do all [we can] to avoid the risk of civil war in this country," the 46-year-old president of Serbia's Democratic Party told reporters and dozens of cheering supporters moments after he landed at the airport in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, on a flight from the neighboring Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.
Djindjic, who said he left Serbia on May 10 amid death threats from paramilitary forces at the height of NATO's air war, added: "But I don't believe Milosevic can take the risk to arrest me and provoke protests around Serbia."
The opposition leader's homecoming, after weeks of touring Europe to condemn Milosevic's regime and garner postwar support for opposition-ruled Serbian towns, appeared to have presented the Yugoslav president with a lose-lose situation.
For days, Belgrade's state-run media had stressed that Djindjic faced criminal charges if he returned: for draft-dodging and "failure to report a change of address" after he fled. Those charges carry prison terms ranging from two months to 20 years, and analysts here said a failure to arrest Djindjic would be seen by many as a sign of weakness on the part of Milosevic's government.
But the arrest of a leader whose party is at the vanguard of nascent street protests in Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia, would be viewed as a harsh crackdown on pro-democracy forces at a time when Milosevic and his nation are already isolated from their European neighbors and the rest of the free world.
After Djindjic strode past the uniformed Serbian police officers who had deployed in strength for his arrival, the opposition leader gave credit for his unscathed return to the assembled reporters and camera operators, who far outnumbered the police.
Then he fired his first salvo against the Yugoslav president: "Most people know the reality. With Milosevic in power, Serbia hasn't a future."
Djindjic brushed aside the deep divisions among Serbia's major pro-democracy parties.
"The people are united," he insisted. "The change must be democratic, not radical and extreme. And the opposition and the Alliance for Change [anti-Milosevic coalition] are strong enough to take the direction for change."
Of closing the rift between his party and the larger Serbian Renewal Movement of sometime opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, who has told his party members not to attend the Alliance for Change rallies that began last week, he said: "It's not up to me. It's up to Mr. Draskovic. . . . I'm ready to forget the past. We have a lot to do in the future."
Later, at his party headquarters here, Djindjic drew a narrow timeline for the popular protest campaign, which he said will become a daily affair around the country and will end in Belgrade sometime in late August.
"We do not have too much time," he said. "It is not a question of his ability to stay in power. This is a question of the survival of the country.
"If we have Milosevic in power in six months, it will be too late. The attention of the international community is only focused on us for three or four months."