Serb demonstrators rattle the socialist regime with humour and endurance


THE Serbian opposition's witty and inventive street protests have sounded a wake up call to Yugoslavia's socialist establishment.

The opposition antics, ranging from car cavalcades to pot banging concerts, yielded their first fruit this week when, on Wednesday, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) conceded partial defeat in disputed local elections.

The authoritarian party led by President Slobodan Milosevic admitted it had been defeated by the opposition Zajedno (Together) coalition in Serbia's second largest city, Nis. This is where the protest movement began its campaign following the SPS's annulment of Zajedno's election victories on November 17th in 15 of the 18 main cities, including the capital, Belgrade.

Since then, a motley alliance of democrats, monarchists, nationalists, irreverent students, disgruntled jobless and neighbourhood mavericks have rattled the establishment with their ingenuity, strict non violence and endurance.

They have also charmed Western governments pressing for democratisation in Yugoslavia.

The mood at the demonstrations has usually swung between restrained tension - insults hurled at unyielding police cordons - and comic street theatre with protesters kissing policemen and playing cat and mouse to outwit the ban on marches.

The police have only intermittently enforced the edict and some officers have been unable to suppress grins at the protesters' play acting, even while chasing them through the streets.

The demonstrators' main weapons are whistles, pots, pans and drums, using them to create an echoing din. Alarm clocks were added on New Year's Eve, ringing at the stroke of midnight.

Last Sunday, the protesters drove thousands of balloon draped, honking cars into central Belgrade at a snail's pace and stopped. Cars were hoisted on jacks and bonnets were raised.

"For 20 years I had this feeling that I'd break down today right in this spot," one driver said with a wink.

Protesters said breakdowns were inevitable because the government was selling diluted petrol and the people were so impoverished by socialist misrule that they could not afford to replace their ageing cars.

On Wednesday, they "stalled" their cars across tram tracks. A game of tag ensued with cars springing back to life and speeding off as soon as police tow trucks appeared, only to return when the police had gone.

Every evening at 7.30, protesters in Belgrade take to the streets or rush on to their apartment balconies to bang pots, pans and drums to drown out the news on RTS state television, which has ignored or vilified the democracy movement.

Yesterday, students with red, white or blue cards tacked to their chests started a rotating "shifts" system to exhaust police cordons. The first attempt worked within an hour. Police withdrew with weary smiles and waves.