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THE PATH TO PEACE

Protests Have a Theme: 'Milosevic Must Go'

Yugoslavia: Thousands defy police and stage rallies in two Serbian cities. Many are angry about the economy.

July 07, 1999|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UZICE, Yugoslavia — A burgeoning grass-roots movement to drive Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from power gained momentum Tuesday as thousands of Serbian men, women and children defied police intimidation and fear to pour into the streets here in Serbia's far west and also in a key southern city.

"Our demands can be summed up in a single sentence: Milosevic must go--without elections," declared opposition leader Zoran Djindjic in this city's central square after about 10,000 demonstrators appeared amid a massive police presence at a rally titled, "Now or Never."

At the same time, in the politically strategic southern city of Leskovac--a Milosevic Socialist stronghold considered so solid that opposition leaders call it the capital of "The Red South"--a local television technician inspired a second day of anti-regime protests. Tuesday's gathering ended with clashes between demonstrators and helmeted Serbian riot police.

The drama in Leskovac began when local TV videotape editor Ivan Novkovic brought about 20,000 townspeople into a city square in an unsponsored and unexpected rally on Monday night.

He did it by interrupting a live telecast of a Yugoslavia vs. Germany basketball game with a brief videotape of himself calling on his neighbors to take to the streets and demand the resignation of the top ruling party official in Leskovac.

Novkovic was arrested Tuesday, triggering a new protest that brought about 2,000 people toward the police station where he was being held pending possible criminal charges. As the protesters demanded his release--and Milosevic's resignation--a wall of police officers closed in, using batons and shields to drive them off, several witnesses said.

"Can you imagine, 20,000 citizens in a city of 70,000 people, and one young man can call them into the streets without organization, without a political message, without a single political leader?" said Slobodan Vuksanovic, the stunned vice president of Djindjic's Democratic Party, just moments before he and his leader led an array of opposition politicians past armed police and into the main square here in Uzice.

"It's a signal, and it shows what we all know but sometimes can't admit: People here are sick and tired of politics and political parties and their games. And they're also sick and tired of Milosevic and this regime. They desperately need an alternative."

They're also sick of war.

To a crowd chanting "Leave, Slobo, leave" and "Stand up, army, stand up," Djindjic framed the frustration that many in the crowd said had brought them into the square.

"In the last 10 years, four times Milosevic has sent the Serbian army into war with the tanks. And four times, Serbian refugees have come out in columns of tractors," Djindjic told the cheering crowd. "This is the worst ruler in the history of the world. And we will not allow him to provoke a new and final war--a civil war in our country."

But despite a war in which Milosevic's forces were accused of atrocities against ethnic Albanians in the Serbian cultural heartland, Kosovo, economic issues and demands for freedom resonated even louder among Uzice's crowd.

"I had to wait 10 years in the unemployment line for my job, and I was just hired this year," said Branislav Paunovic, 40, a teacher who stood hand in hand with his wife and three children in the crowd. "My wife had perfect scores in school. She has been waiting to teach for 14 years, and she's still waiting even now.

"In the last six months, my total salary was 50 deutsche marks [about $27]," he said. "We live with my mother and father, who are pensioners, and they got about the same as me. You ask why I'm here? That's why I'm here."

He added that many of his colleagues would have joined him but were afraid: "The dictatorship is in my school. The dictatorship is everywhere. But really, I figure I have nothing left to lose."

As a succession of speakers fired verbal assaults at Milosevic and his powerful family, Ljubica Maksemovic said she came to the rally to help create "a better future."

"I'm here for my children," said Maksemovic, 38, a nurse who is seven months pregnant with her fifth child. "I'm here so they won't have to live through another war."

Speaking of NATO's 11-week air war, she added: "It was horrible. . . . Our 5-year-old asked why they were bombing us. I said they bombed us because our policies are no good and not in accordance with the world."

Three NATO bombs destroyed the city's postal and telephone building adjacent to the square, knocking out 22,000 telephone lines and leaving Uzice cut off from the outside world.

But even before the war, this once-thriving city was a fitting backdrop for Tuesday's mass show of discontent.

Uzice's opposition mayor, Milan Nikitovic, explained that before nearly a decade of international sanctions against Yugoslavia, this city ranked second in total exports among municipalities in the former Yugoslav federation--$100 million a year, compared with imports of $80 million.

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