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Movement to Oust Yugoslav Leader Sputters Forward

Balkans: As opposition prepares for big strike, many fear that Milosevic has had too much time to regroup.

September 30, 2000|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUDVA, Yugoslavia — The protest movement aimed at driving Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from power sputtered forward Friday with rallies and a few scattered strikes.

The opposition hopes to build up a full head of steam by Monday, when it has called on supporters to go on strike for five days and bring Serbia, the larger of Yugoslavia's two republics, to a standstill. But many already are asking whether the slow start has given Milosevic and his allies too much time to regroup.

About 20,000 protesters rallied Friday night in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital. Opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica, who has declared himself president-elect after a disputed election Sunday, did not appear onstage.

At least 150,000 joyous Kostunica supporters packed central Belgrade on Wednesday to celebrate his self-declared victory, in one of the largest demonstrations ever against Milosevic's 13-year rule.

Yugoslavia's Federal Electoral Commission, which is dominated by Milosevic supporters, declared this week that none of the four candidates won an outright majority in the presidential election. It ordered a runoff Oct. 8 between Kostunica as the top vote-getter and the second-place Milosevic.

Milosevic has announced that he will be a candidate. Kostunica's aides continue to insist that their candidate won Sunday, based on ballot-count reports filed to the commission by the nation's nearly 11,000 polling stations, and say he will not participate in the second round. They charge that the Yugoslav leader would steal a runoff vote by fraud, though their boycott strategy could allow Milosevic to declare victory by default.

Their charges of fraud in Sunday's count were backed Friday by the United Nations' administrator in Kosovo. Bernard Kouchner, who oversees the Serbian province in the wake of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's air war against Yugoslavia last year, said the electoral commission's count from Kosovo was "a lie" and "a manipulation."

Speaking at the United Nations, Kouchner dismissed as "fiction" the Milosevic regime's claims that 140,000 people, including 8,173 ethnic Albanians, voted in the province. U.N. observers who monitored all voting stations in Kosovo had reported earlier this week that fewer than 45,000 people cast ballots.

Kostunica has formally written to several governments asking them to participate in an internationally supervised recount of Sunday's results, and so far Norway and Greece have agreed to send monitors, Vladeta Jankovic, Kostunica's deputy, told the cheering crowd Friday night.

"A recount is the only way to absolutely confirm our success," he said. "We have nothing to hide."

If Yugoslav officials deny visas to the monitors, "that means they have something to hide," Jankovic added.

The state-run Radio-Television Serbia counterattacked earlier Friday with a lengthy report that pointed out what it said were discrepancies in the opposition's count.

While Kostunica's own party headquarters declared that he had received 51.34% of the ballots, the 18-party coalition backing him put the figure at 54.66%. Those figures showed that the opposition can't be trusted, the state TV report claimed.

Coming from what has long been Milosevic's biggest propaganda tool, the criticism was far from convincing. But it could plant doubts in enough people's minds to undercut the opposition further as both camps settle in for what most expect to be a long confrontation.

The opposition's five-day campaign of strikes and civil disobedience got an early start Friday in a few opposition-controlled towns and cities such as Nis, Yugoslavia's third-largest city, and Cacak.

About 3,000 high school students gathered in Nis' central square to shout anti-Milosevic slogans. In Cacak, teachers and pupils at two high schools and most primary schools went on strike, Reuters news service reported.

"You are the youth and the brains of this country," Cacak Mayor Velimir Ilic, a staunch opponent of Milosevic, told the protesters. "You were the first to enter the strike in Serbia. You should be an example to the others."

Along with its street demonstrations, the opposition is also trying to send Milosevic a message with a new tactic: protest postcards. Activists handed out thousands of them on the streets of Belgrade on Friday, with instructions that read: "If you agree with this message, affix a postage stamp, sign this and throw the postcard into the nearest mailbox."

One of the cards shows a photo montage of Milosevic and his neo-Communist wife, Mirjana Markovic. Milosevic's head is on an ape's body, while his wife's sits atop the naked form of a much younger woman. She is sitting on Milosevic's hairy shoulder. The name "King Kong" is printed beneath Milosevic.

The mailing address is printed on the back of the postcard. It is Milosevic's former home in Belgrade at 15 Uzicka St., which NATO warplanes bombed during 78 days of airstrikes last year.

"Dear Mr. Milosevic," the postcard's message reads. "After 10 years of misery which you brought to the former Yugoslavia, Serbia and the Serbian people, it is time for you to step down before it becomes too late, both for you and for us."

*

Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.

An audio analysis by correspondent Paul Watson of the events in Serbia can be heard on The Times' Web site: http://www.latimes.com/watson.

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