Belgrade Braced for War

A siege mentality envelopes the Serbian capital as Milosevic rattles his sabre.

Belgrade Braced for War

A siege mentality envelopes the Serbian capital as Milosevic rattles his sabre.

An air traffic controller is hoping to get a job in Skopje, Macedonia. A cafe manager plans to stay with his sister in Switzerland. An anthropologist is heading for Slovenia. Planning escape routes has become a major pre-occupation amoungst young men in the Serbian capital.

Panic has gripped Belgrade. This week rumours of a new round of NATO bombing swept through the city like wildfire. Suddenly people fear conflict on several fronts - between Albanian guerrillas and Serb forces in southern Serbia, between pro-separatist and pro-federal forces in Montenegro and, perhaps most ominously, between pro-government forces and people on the streets of Belgrade.

Opposition politicians are still debating if and when to call street protests demanding early national and presidential elections. A brutal crackdown on such demonstrations seems inevitable.

"Certainly, it will be a war," said a burly taxi driver on Tuesday. "Between whom? Between the government and the people."

"I am going to postpone my trip to Spain," said one mechanical engineering student. "I can't leave my mother, father, and sister here when there's going to be a war."

One prominent student activist - recently arrested along with 57 members of his student group - said he expected Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's government to take full advantage of the escalating panic overtaking Serbia.

He criticised NATO's timing of military exercises in Kosovo for later this month. "It comes right on the anniversary of the bombing. And everyone is expecting that it is just the prelude to a new bombing campaign. Serbia is testing its air raid sirens. All of it means that the opposition can't even choose a day to hold a peace rally during those manoeuvres without seeming like complete NATO stooges and traitors."

Albanian guerillas operating in southern Serbia, along the border with Kosovo, have intensified attacks on Serbian forces in recent weeks, killing one police officer last weekend and wounding a UN worker on Tuesday. This growing confrontation has prompted concerns that NATO could intervene in Serbia proper on behalf of the ethnic Albanian community around Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac.

Such suspicions are reinforced by the frequent repetition of news footage from northern Kosovo showing US troops manhandling Serbs during search operations last week.

Recent comments by US State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin that Milosevic does not have the right to beef up his military forces along the Montenegrin border with Albania, has merely fuelled outrage at a perceived assault on Yugoslav sovereignty. Milosevic moved the troops to the region following a decision by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic to open the frontier last week.

In recent weeks, the government has issued over 100,000 army call-up papers, mostly in southern Serbia, adding to the feeling of a nation mobilising for yet another war.

The recent murders of Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic and defence minister Pavle Bulatovic have created a sense of impending anarchy, that Belgrade itself is on the brink of uncontrolled street violence.

Faced with such an atmosphere of crisis, Serbian opposition parties appear to have slumped into a state of confusion. Opposition visibility and resolve have dropped considerably in the past month. Security guards for Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic say he has not appeared at his office for three weeks.

"Draskovic is terrified," said the student leader. "He has entirely disappeared. We are in offices across the street from his party, and you always see a bunch of security guys outside when he is in the office. They haven't been there for weeks now."

The students themselves could not conceal a sense of doom. They anticipate the sharp increase in the number of arrests and beatings, particularly outside Belgrade, will be followed by an increase in trials and prison terms.

The government's clampdown on students began, they say, after the Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia held its annual congress in Belgrade in February. At the congress, Milosevic announced a new "development plan", which the students argue amounts to a state of emergency.

Suddenly police began arresting students, confiscating posters and forcing students to sign papers stamped with "on the orders of the development plan".

"We all know he is going to be killed," one law student half-joked about his activist friend. "We all know that."

Psychology professor and leader of the Social Democratic Party, Zarko Korac, said he refuses to submit to the regime's blatant attempts to intimidate Serbian democratic forces. When Korac returned from the inauguration of new Croatian President Stipe Mesic last week, an unknown attacker beat him up outside his apartment.

"That is what the regime wants, for us to be afraid," Korac said. "And I refuse to show it."

Laura Rozen, a frequent IWPR contributor, is a journalist who specialises in the Balkans.

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