With flags, banners and cries of “Red Bandits,” about 20,000 people rallied Saturday against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Opposition leaders had hoped for a much larger turnout, but even a rally of that size was rare, part of an effort by the fragmented opposition to show unity ahead of national elections.
“There is no hope for Serbia until Milosevic is overthrown,” said Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the largest opposition group.
While he and his allies railed against Milosevic on Saturday, riot police and armored personnel carriers waited in a nearby park.
The protest coincided with the anniversary of a 1991 rally - also at the central Republic Square - that led to Milosevic sending in tanks. In that incident, two people were killed, one a policeman, and dozens injured in street battles with police.
In the past year, Milosevic has improved his reputation by signing a peace deal to end the fighting. However, he remains accused of repression at home, including a recent crackdown on the media and groups that promote democracy.
“Serbs have to get rid of fear,” Draskovic told the protesters, many carrying the pale blue flags of his Serbian Renewal Movement. “Milosevic is counting on our fear. Our choice is fear, or life.”
Milosevic fomented the wars in Bosnia and Croatia by urging Serbs there to fight to join their lands with Serbia, the dominant state in Yugoslavia. In return, the international community imposed crippling economic sanctions on Serbia.
At one point Serb insurgents held a third of Croatia and 70 percent of Bosnia, but the tide turned against them last year. They now have lost almost all of the Croatian territory they once held, and the Dayton peace deal gives Serbs 49 percent of Bosnia.
A U.S. government report last week criticized Milosevic’s government for “surveillance, harassment, and even suppression to inhibit the (independent) media from reporting its repressive and violent acts.”
Draskovic and other organizers said the protest marks the start of their campaign. The elections have not been scheduled but they are expected by the end of the year in Serbia and Montenegro, the other Yugoslav republic.