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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Milosevic Likely to

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The idea, unthinkable just weeks ago, now is on everyone's mind: Could this be the beginning of the end of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic?

For the last nine days, and again Thursday, tens of thousands of students and anti-Communist demonstrators have filled the streets of this capital and other Yugoslav cities to protest Milosevic's heavy-handed rule. Combined with a similar wave of outrage against neighboring Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman, the two most powerful leaders in the Balkans suddenly and unexpectedly face serious challenges to their authoritarian regimes.

Milosevic, who Western leaders hold as a key to regional stability, appears to have been especially stunned by overwhelming opposition victories in local elections in Belgrade and across Yugoslavia.

His response: annul the results. "I'm not going to live in a ... city controlled by the opposition,'' Milosevic is said to have complained to associates.

On Wednesday, Milosevic held the elections again, but this time the opposition labeled the vote a farce and boycotted. More than 100,000 students and others again rallied, squaring off with police and burning a U.S. flag to plead for Western support. For the first time there was violence: Rocks, instead of eggs and tomatoes, were used to smash scores of windows in state buildings. And B-92 Radio, the only independent electronic media in Belgrade, was jammed Wednesday during its coverage of the demonstrations.

Even as opposition leaders step up their demands that Milosevic resign, the Serbian president is more likely to clamp down more strongly rather than to relent, diplomats and Serbian analysts say. Despite the growing anger on the streets, Milosevic is the consummate survivor and has long managed to outmaneuver his opponents -- or lock them up. He may also purge members of his own Socialist Party to rid those who allowed the election to escape from their control in the first place.

"We all realize that when push comes to shove, he and his people are not going to share power,'' said one Western diplomat. "But this was more blatant than we expected. He's in a corner and he hasn't quite figured out how to get out of the present situation.''

As before, Milosevic can be expected to ignore the demonstrations and any international outcry against his actions. If, however, the protests build and become more violent, he may take drastic steps, such as a police crackdown or the declaration of a state of emergency. The last time he faced major opposition, in 1991, Milosevic called out the troops and fueled war in neighboring countries as a distraction from domestic unrest.

His options may be more limited now, but Serbia's citizens, beleaguered by a dismal economy that has left half the urban population out of work, appear more incensed.

For Washington and European capitals, the tension in Belgrade is especially problematic.

Western governments, particularly the United States, argue they need Milosevic because of his cooperation in executing the U.S.-brokered Dayton, Ohio, peace accord that halted the war in Bosnia a year ago. Like Tudjman, who is said to be terminally ill, Milosevic helped foment the ethnic-based war, but is now viewed by the West as central to the Bosnian peacekeeping effort in which thousands of U.S. troops participated. Milosevic is used to pressure from his one-time Bosnian Serb proteges.

"We don't want to lose him as a connection,'' a European diplomat said.

In fact, Milosevic's grudging cooperation has always been self-interested and limited, with an eye toward lifting punitive economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations. The sanctions were removed this year, but the final step -- membership in international organizations -- will remain off-limits to Yugoslavia, U.S. officials told Milosevic this week.

The opposition is accusing the West of failing to show support for its cause. While other governments have criticized Milosevic's annulment of elections, those condemnations have been mild.

"Milosevic cannot be a peacemaker,'' opposition leader Vuk Draskovic argued Wednesday. "I am sending this message to republics and governments of European countries and the United States. Milosevic is a war-maker, not a peacemaker. He is guilty of the deaths of thousands of people, he is guilty of ethnic cleansing, he is [responsible] for a million refugees.''

Some diplomats in Belgrade appear more fearful of instability triggered by the demonstrations than of the attack on the democratic process.

"When you have a crowd of 100,000,'' said a Western diplomat, "and then it grows to 200,000, it becomes uncontrollable from both sides.''

Opposition politicians, united loosely in a coalition called Together, seemed as surprised as Milosevic was at the strength of their electoral victories and the momentum of their street protests. Future escalation could include general or transport strikes.

Regardless of how Milosevic survives this current and unprecedented crisis, permanent damage has been done to his regime, diplomats and analysts said. The obvious unrest will scare off potential investors just as markets, thanks to the lifting of UN sanctions, were about to open.