Serbia was told Friday to reinstate the rightful winners of elections that were overturned by the government, or face further international isolation. The warning, from an international mission, elicited an initial government response that was surprisingly conciliatory.
In a boost to the opposition, Felipe Gonzalez, a special representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Friday that candidates of the four-party opposition coalition had won elections in 13 Serbian cities last month and called on the government to act on the results.
Gonzalez, former prime minister of Spain, was strongly backed in his recommendations by the Clinton administration. Officials in Washington said they saw the mission as a way of getting Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to reverse his action on the vote and to begin a transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
Since the government overturned the votes more than a month ago, demonstrators have packed the streets of the capital daily. In the last three days, Milosevic has countered the protests with massive displays of police power. More than 5,000 uniformed police officers formed dense cordons around the city center Friday, and 15 people, including an elderly woman and two television cameramen, were reportedly beaten during the demonstrations, which attracted tens of thousands.
Yugoslav Foreign Minister Milan Milutinovic told reporters Friday night that Gonzalez’s report was “good, constructive and very balanced.” He said the government now had to “think very seriously about this report, which asks us to solve all problems inside the system.”
With the words “inside the system,” the foreign minister appeared to be referring to Parliament - where the opposition parties hold no seats - and the courts, which are controlled by Milosevic, that formally annulled the local election results in the 13 cities.
Gonzalez said in his report that the authorities in Serbia must “accept and abide” by the balloting in the 13 towns and in nine districts of Belgrade where opposition victories were overturned. He urged that the relevant agencies in Serbia “implement the will of the people.”
Milosevic had asked the European security organization to send a fact-finding mission that he hoped would support his position, but Gonzalez insisted on a broader mandate and called on the organization to help Serbia find a solution to its political problems.
When Gonzalez telephoned Milosevic from Geneva on Friday morning to tell him the results of his report, the Serbian leader was described as angry.
Some minutes later, Milutinovic called back in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the European security organization not to release Gonzalez’s report to the public.
Milosevic made no public response but pledged, according to officials of the European security organization, to reply to the report in the next several days.
In contrast, the opposition forces took great cheer from the conclusions and wasted no time in announcing them from loudspeakers to crowds of demonstrators in the streets Friday.
As soon as the announcements were finished, university students blew whistles in a deafening chorus. Many yelled “Arrest Slobo!”
Despite Milosevic’s reticence over the report, he made it clear on the streets who held the power.
Thousands of policemen in riot gear, many of them bused in from provinces, blocked the central streets Friday, in some places as many as 15 deep. Friday university students, who in the past had been allowed to walk through the city streets as part of their protest, were restricted to a small section of street, which thwarted their plans to walk.
An independent radio station reported Friday that 15 people had been taken to a clinic with wounds from beatings inflicted by uniformed and plainclothes police.