After 11 weeks of massive street protests, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on Tuesday announced he will honor opposition party victories in municipal elections in Belgrade and other major cities in the republic of Serbia.
The announcement, which came in a letter released by the state-run Tanjug news agency, appears to be a significant concession to opposition protesters, although leaders of the anti-Milosevic movement said they remain wary.
“Resign! Resign!” the crowd of 50,000 people who poured into Republic Square for their daily rally cried when opposition leader Vuk Draskovic told them Milosevic had finally recognized his election defeats.
“It is great to see him weak and backing down. It took us weeks, but it is finally happening,” Zorica Divcevic said. “But what I really want is to see him resign.”
According to Tanjug, Milosevic has instructed his government to pass a special law that will validate the Nov. 17 election results as certified by international monitors. He has offered similar concessions in the past, only to allow hard-liners within his Socialist Party to withdraw them or entangle them in legal issues.
“He has finally accepted what he should have accepted two months ago,” opposition leader Zoran Djindjic told reporters among the crowd of 50,000 who gathered in Belgrade’s Republic Square for their daily protest.
“This is a first step but it is not enough,” he added.
Draskovic and Vesna Pesic, the two other leaders of the opposition coalition known as Zajedno (Together), also cautioned against taking Milosevic at his word. “We know who we are dealing with. I suspect anything the other side says,” Draskovic said.
Some opposition strategists suggested that Milosevic was merely trying to distance himself from the problem by appearing to yield to the will of the protesters and the international community, while in reality allowing anonymous underlings in his party to stall any transfer of power to the opposition.
These opposition leaders warned that Milosevic’s lieutenants in the parliament could engineer a long delay in passing legislation certifying the election results or could vote down the certification altogether. Lengthy court challenges also could be mounted.
Already, lawyers for Zajedno raised technical questions about the legality of Milosevic simply ordering the government to accept the election results after previously ordering local election commissions to annul them and Serbian courts to uphold the annulments.
Zajedno swept the local elections in 14 Serbian municipalities, including Belgrade, the capital, and Nis, the second-largest city. Milosevic’s refusal to accept those results sparked daily street protests.
For the most part, the demonstrations have been non-violent. But on Sunday, and again on Monday, protesters clashed with police. More than 80 people were injured when police used riot sticks, tear gas and water cannons on the crowd.
The violence drew immediate condemnation from the international community, and both sides heeded the warning to back off.
Tuesday’s demonstration, by a crowd estimated at 50,000, was peaceful. Despite Milosevic’s apparent concessions, organizers say they will keep up the daily marches until the government agrees to implement sweeping democratic reforms.
In Tuesday’s letter to Serbian Premier Mirko Marjanovic, Milosevic said the election dispute had “caused great damage to our country both domestically and internationally, and it is high time to solve the problem.”
He said Yugoslavia’s interest in improving relations with the international community “far exceeds the significance of any number of seats in a handful of cities.”
Marjanovic said he would formally present Milosevic’s request to the Serbian parliament Wednesday.