In a bid to intimidate the huge crowds marching daily against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, police arrested a group of demonstrators Sunday and state television likened opposition leaders to Adolf Hitler.
Issuing an unusually harsh condemnation of a protest movement it has virtually ignored, television controlled by Milosevic accused demonstrators of using “pro-fascist hysteria and violence” to “introduce terrorism” onto the streets of Belgrade.
The commentary was accompanied by repeated footage showing a small group of demonstrators destroying government property and a warning from police headquarters that it will no longer tolerate illegal acts. All of the demonstrations, technically speaking, have been illegal.
The warning and the harsh language, coupled with the first reports of arrests in the protests, appeared to signal an imminent crackdown.
Until Sunday, Milosevic had officially ignored the biggest-ever sustained protests against his authoritarian rule. Independent media were largely gagged and state-controlled media had mostly ignored the unrest. But as international pressure mounted - and as the largest crowd yet filled downtown Belgrade on Saturday - Milosevic apparently decided to up the ante.
Dozens of busloads of police from southern Serbia were seen moving into Belgrade, which is both the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, on Sunday night.
Whether or not Milosevic actually orders police to repress the next round of marches, Sunday’s warnings chilled opposition passions.
“They are trying to nibble away” at the protest movement, said Miodrag Perisic, vice president of the opposition Democratic Party. “They see the determination of the people who come out every night, and they are trying to play on the fears of the people.”
A smaller crowd than on previous days turned out Sunday in Belgrade as the protests - which began after Milosevic annulled the opposition’s landslide elections in municipal elections - entered their second week.
In an interview that occupied a third of the nightly newscast, Dragan Tomic, speaker of the Serbian parliament and a frequent proxy for Milosevic, labeled the opposition coalition “Zajedno” (Together) a collection of “pro-fascist groups and ideologies” that simply could not accept defeat in the elections.
Opposition leaders said five demonstrators, including an official of the Belgrade branch of the Democratic Party, were rounded up by police and being held without access to lawyers or family members.
Attorney Milojica Cvijovic said he was concerned they would be rushed through a quick judicial procedure that would send them to a remote prison within hours.
The charges against the men are expected to be related to vandalism and carry sentences of less than a year, Cvijovic said.