Anti-Milosevic Rallies continue, But Serb Opposition Weak

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07pm EDT

London ( - Mass rallies by Serbs demanding President Slobodan Milosevic's resignation continue daily on Yugoslav streets, but the opposition looks too weak and too divided ever to achieve that goal.

Moreover, the risks Serbs face in taking to the streets are so considerable, relatively few are prepared to do so. Unlike protests of 1991 and 1996-7, when hundreds of thousands participated, the biggest turnout in the recent series of rallies was 50,000, in Belgrade at the weekend.

Wednesday night saw demonstrators beaten by police for the first time in nine consecutive days of protest, as they tried to march on Milosevic's residence in Belgrade. About 60 were hurt in the clashes, which Yugoslav police blamed on "hooligans, drug addicts and known troublemakers."

Rival opposition groups met Thursday in an attempt to resolve differences over how to end the Milosevic regime.

The largest opposition organization, the Serbian Renewal Movement of Vuk Draskovic, has declined to take part in the series of protests. Draskovic has warned the demos could lead to civil war, although other opposition leaders say their only goal is to weaken Milosevic and force him to call elections.

Zoran Djindjic, who heads the Democratic Party and the umbrella Alliance for Change spearheading the protests, called on demonstrators to continue taking to the streets and said the police response was evidence Milosevic regarded the rallies as a "big threat"

"We must prevail, keep coming tomorrow and the day after, and every day," he told a crowd assembled in a public square after the incident.

But a Balkans specialist Thursday painted a gloomy picture of the likelihood of Milosevic crumbling in the face of a growing and unified opposition.

Speaking to from Brussels, Christopher Bennett, a founder of the European Stability Initiative thinktank, dismissed the notion of Serbs rising up to topple the regime.

"It's extremely easy for westerners to say: 'It's up to the Serbs to sort out Slobodan Milosevic. It's their country.'

"But in reality, it's very difficult [for Serbs] to step out of line," he said, labeling "exceptionally evil" the system that keeps ordinary people in check.

Bennett explained that Serbs' jobs were linked to socially-owned flats. Anyone deemed a troublemaker risked simultaneously losing job, home and social security benefits. Fearful of retribution, many would never protest.

He said Wednesday's police action was a message from Milosevic, who was "explaining to the people the risks they're running."

To make matters worse, the opposition was in a shambles. "The opposition is incompetent. Each believes he's the savior, and forms his own party. There are so many groups, but no serious opposition. We're not looking at an early end."

In cities or areas where opposition leaders have come to power, Bennett added, they have "used and abused the system for their own personal gain."

There were no obvious reformers - "no Lech Walesa" - and no Gorbachev-like figure likely to arise from within the ruling party. Many promising Serbs had left the country in the 1980s and 90s, but most had struggled to make a living elsewhere and tended to be apolitical.

Bennett believes Milosevic will remain in power until he runs out of the money needed to keep his security apparatus going.

When he does eventually go, a situation of bankruptcy and anarchy will result under "warlord types" who have already systematically looted Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. International intervention will probably be needed.

Meanwhile, another protest rally is scheduled for Thursday night.

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