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Support Tepid at Latest Anti-Milosevic Rally : Yugoslavia: Rain, cynicism dampen turnout as campaign to oust president starts. Key opposition leaders fail to attend.

September 22, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Cold drizzle and deep public cynicism Tuesday dampened the start of what opposition leaders are trying to make the final push to drive Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from power.

Splintered by infighting, the opposition managed to rally an estimated 20,000 demonstrators in central Belgrade, a sharp drop from the more than 100,000 people who turned out here Aug. 19 for a protest.

Vuk Draskovic, ranked the most popular opposition leader in a recent public opinion poll, stayed away from Tuesday night's rally and has repeatedly called for negotiations with Milosevic's government toward early elections.

Draskovic and others have warned that protests could lead to violence and give Milosevic an excuse to use security forces to crush the opposition movement.

The Alliance for Change, led by Democratic Party head Zoran Djindjic, staged rallies Tuesday here and in 18 other cities across Serbia, the dominant of Yugoslavia's two republics.

Turnout also was low in the southern city of Nis, where reports said 10,000 people joined the rally, and the northern town of Novi Sad, where about 7,000 showed up.

After more than two months of almost daily protests and little to show for them, Djindjic had to search for new ways of denouncing Milosevic.

"We have to push out this big fat bully, this giant cicada, this boulder," Djindjic told protesters in Liberty Square here in the Serbian and Yugoslav capital. "We need every hand, even the weakest ones--even those of grandpas and grandmas--and we must gather every day to pull out the crab grass."

Many protesters wore cardboard "Slobo-buster" masks with Milosevic's face crossed out by a slashed red circle. One man added a Hitler mustache with a pen and tied the mask to the seat of his jeans.

Milosevic can survive for years, Djindjic added, so the opposition has only this chance left to force him from power over the coming weeks.

"We have to show this country who is stronger," he said. "Are the people stronger or is evil stronger? Is Serbia stronger or is Milosevic stronger?"

The Alliance for Change has also called for a general strike to back demands for Milosevic to resign, but there were no signs Tuesday of widespread labor unrest.

In an economy crippled by war and economic mismanagement, workers are struggling just to collect unpaid wages; most have to rely on part-time jobs or black market trade to get by.

At least 1 million Serbian workers are unemployed, out of a population of about 10 million people, said Dragoslav Avramovic, Milosevic's former central bank governor.

Avramovic drew the longest applause from the protesters, and has been suggested as the best replacement for Milosevic in a proposed interim government of technocrats.

Djindjic has staked his own political future on a campaign to remove Milosevic by year's end and is trying to mobilize millions of demonstrators. The alliance plans to hold daily protests across Serbia for the next 10 to 15 days.

Organizers plan to change tactics if the pressure hasn't worked by then, but they haven't revealed details of their long-term strategy.

Despite efforts by the U.S. and European governments to cajole opposition leaders into a more united front, the Alliance for Change has been undercut by powerful politicians who disagree on how to get rid of Milosevic.

Momcilo Perisic, who was army chief of staff until Milosevic dumped him last year, has formed his own opposition party. He didn't take part in Tuesday night's rally.

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