After 2 1/2 months of pro-democratic protests, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic today conceded the opposition won municipal elections in Belgrade and other Serb cities.
Milosevic’s refusal to honor results from the fall elections triggered an unprecedented wave of unrest and anti-government protests for 77 straight days.
Because the politically savvy Milosevic has alternately raised and dashed hopes that he would accept the opposition victories in 14 cities across Serbia, protest leaders reacted cautiously to today’s announcement and said the rallies would continue.
When an opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, told protesters assembled today in Belgrade of Milosevic’s decision, the crowd responded with cries against the president of “Resign! Resign!”
But this latest act appeared to be a genuine attempt by the president to stop weeks of demonstrations and improve his government’s international image.
Protesters clashed with police yesterday (1:36 min.)
The state-run news agency Tanjug said Milosevic instructed Premier Mirko Marjanovic to have the government pass a special law that will accept the Nov. 17 elections results as confirmed by international reviewers.
It was the first time since the crisis began that Milosevic had issued a written instruction to Serbian authorities that was made public.
“The election disputes … have caused great damage to our country both domestically and internationally and it was high time to solve the problem,” Milosevic said in a letter to Marjanovic that was published by Tanjug.
Moving to defuse the biggest challenge to his rule since he came to power a decade ago, Milosevic said in a statement:
“I think that the state interest of improving relations of our country with the international community by far exceeds the significance of any number of seats in a handful of cities.”
A Portrait of the protest: Rock ‘n’ roll in Belgrade
The announcement triggered initial jubilation among protesters, coming right before the start of the daily rally, but opposition leaders later said this was just the beginning.
“This is a first step, but it is not enough,” said Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party, one of three parties comprising the Zajedno (Together) alliance that has led the pro-democracy movement.
“He finally accepted what he should have accepted 2 1/2 months ago,” Djindjic told reporters among a crowd of 50,000 supporters who packed the central Republic Square.
Djindjic, who would be Belgrade mayor if the opposition’s victory claims are recognized, said the opposition would continue its protests until those responsible for the police crackdown that injured 80 protesters late Sunday and early Monday are punished.
He also demanded that the media be freed from state control. Independent radio that reported live from the protests had been briefly shut down by the authorities after the elections were annulled.
Earlier today before the announcement, about 20,000 students marched through Belgrade to police headquarters to demand the release of 20 colleagues arrested the day before. The students were joined in their march by about 1,000 Belgrade lawyers, who have been on strike since Friday.
The lawyers promised free legal help to students and other citizens arrested and beaten by police.
The question of who won the city elections in Belgrade and other Serbian cities has been at the center of the social unrest that has divided Yugoslavia’s dominant republic for months.
Pro-democracy activists carried their protest into the country’s cultural life, with film distributors closing down cinemas across Yugoslavia today for two days. The National Theater also canceled its performances indefinitely to protest the police assaults.
In the November elections, the opposition coalition Zajedno, or Together, won 60 of 110 Belgrade city council seats. Socialists won 23, other parties took the rest.
An independent fact-finder confirmed in December that Zajedno won Belgrade and 13 other city councils. Milosevic has conceded six of those wins, but refused to recognize others.
The protests, called originally to demand the acknowledgment of the opposition-led local governments, have grown to include wider calls for democracy in Serbia.
After a rally Monday by about 60,000 protesters, up to 200 young people, many of them teenagers, threw stones and skirmished with police. Police chased the youths, beating and dragging away some of them.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which confirmed the opposition election victories, called through Denmark, its current chairman, for dialogue on democratic reform and urged authorities “to immediately stop the use of force.”
In Washington on Monday, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said: “It is strange to see still in Central Europe … that there are authoritarian figures who deploy these security goons to beat up democrats.”
An off-duty American embassy Marine guard was caught and beaten by the riot police, Burns said.