Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Revolution Grips Belgrade
The massive people's protest in Belgrade is turning into a true revolution, with the pillars of the regime falling to the protesters.
Reports estimate a half million demonstrators on the streets. Protesters have stormed the federal parliament building, which has been abandoned by the police. Like the central and eastern European revolutions of 1989, demonstrators are waving flags from the smashed and darkened windows of the upper floors.
Momcilo Perisic, formerYugoslav army chief and now a senior opposition figure, was by the afternoon reported to be in negotiations with federal military officials in Slavia Square in the centre of the city.
The content of these talks is as yet unknown. While the army had previously indicated that it would not attack Serbian civilians it has so far declined to engage in any talks with opposition figures.
Crucially, the state broadcaster RTS - the central mouthpiece of hatred and war in the Balkans for the past decade - has gone silent. As the demonstrations escalated, RTS aired only classical music, and with most other electronic news sources shut or jammed, news was restricted to rumour and word of mouth.
By the afternoon, the television screens in Serbia were dark, the building abandoned and in flames.
"The situation is very, very tense. Hundreds of thousands of people who came from around the country," said Hari Stejner of the Belgrade Media Centar. "Everyone is waiting, but we don't know for what: maybe the impossible, that Mr Milosevic will admit that he has lost the elections."
Belgrade awoke in a defiant mood, infuriated by the Constitutional Court's annulment of the presidential election results the evening before. The president of the court, Milutin Srdic, said fresh elections would only be held after the end of Milosevic's term - presumably in mid-2001.
"People are very angry with this decision," said Peter Lukovic, a senior Belgrade journalist. "It seems that this was the last straw and it has added a new dimension, a new aggression to people. I have never experienced such an atmosphere in Belgrade."
Thousands and thousands of people streamed into the city from all directions. All the shops closed, some with signs declaring, in a reference to the elections, "Closed for theft".
Demonstrators flooded into the capital for the rally to coincide with the opposition's 3 PM deadline for Slobodan Milosevic to resign as Yugoslav president. Citizens from Cacak, Kraljevo, Kragujevac, Nis and almost every other Serbian city started their journey early this morning.
Fist to reach Belgrade was the convoy from Cacak led by Velja Ilic, the city's legendary mayor, renowned for his outspokenness even during the NATO bombing campaign. He declared that he would not leave the city until Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition candidate, is officially declared president.
The demonstrators said they were determined to "reclaim their stolen votes". As one protester from Cacak declared, "I don't know about the strategy of the Serbian opposition, but I have my own strategy, he [Milosevic] has to go today."
The demonstrators faced several police barricades on the Ibar highway on their way into Belgrade. Yet after police refused requests to remove their vehicles from the road, bulldozers leading the convoy pushed them out of the way.
At points during the day, there were reports by B2-92 radio that the line heading into the city stretched for 40 kilometres.
The assembling mass confronted police protecting the parliament. Both sides exercised relative restraint. Occasional shouts of "Lets go to Dedinje!" - Milosevic's residence - could be heard above the hum of the crowd.An announcement that state television, two hundred metres away, had ceased transmission was met with an enormous roar.
The mass of demonstrators converging on the parliament provoked a violent police backlash.
"Suddenly the police attacked the people with an incredible amount of tear gas," Stejner says, "and the crowd went crazy." Stejner reports hearing some shots, and believes one demonstrator may have been killed and some wounded.
The crowd responded by driving back the police, forcing them to relinquish control of the parliament.
By late afternoon, the opposition had declared that it was in full control of the assembly. Several police, who had previously blocked the entrances to the key governmental building, had by the afternoon actually joined the demonstrators. B2-92, the independent radio station shut down by the authorities this spring, was preparing to relaunch.
By late afternoon, with Kostunica set to address the crowd, there were fears the regime would hit back. Communications had almost completely broken down - both mobile and land-line telephone networks - and there were reports of tanks and other armoured vehicles on the streets.
The whereabouts of Milosevic and his wife, Mira Markovic, were unknown. Milosevic's Serbian Social Party declared in a statement that it would "fight with all means to protect peaceful life in Belgrade".
For the first time in a decade, the possibility of change in Belgrade seemed real. Yet the risk of real violence remains high.
"People don't care anymore," said one demonstrator, Tanja, a librarian. "The last barricade, the barricade of fear in our heads, has fallen, and we will carry on."
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