For the first time in a month of unprecedented anti-government protests, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic confronted some of his accusers today after they arrived in Belgrade, feet blistered and exhausted, at the end of a 148-mile trek to his office.
Eyes swollen from lack of sleep but spirits buoyed by pats on the back and a roast pig presented to them by peasants along the way, three students stumbled sleepily into Milosevic's gray office building and spent 15 minutes with a man whom hundreds of thousands of Serbs accuse of masterminding electoral fraud.
In a cavernous room that echoed with the roar of a demonstration outside, the students gave Milosevic a letter demanding that he restore the electoral victory of a coalition of five opposition parties in their home town, Nis, south of Belgrade. Nis is just one of several cities in Serbia, including Belgrade, where Milosevic's Socialist Party allegedly stole opposition victories in municipal elections on Nov. 17, touching off widespread street protests.
"As we do not want to have another civil war in Serbia and we are determined not to have a dictatorship in this country, we are appealing to you to return to the rule of law," a drowsy Nikola Bozinovic, 23, an electrical engineering student, told the president.
Milosevic promised to look into their complaints and then switched topics and accused the students of being manipulated by a political opposition group, which he said is attempting to curry favor with the West.
"It is perfectly clear no matter how strongly your leaders are asking for help from abroad, Serbia will not be ruled by foreign hands," Milosevic intoned, echoing the xenophobic line churned out by his state-run media. "Serbia is its own master. . . . Our country can be a good partner but should not be anyone's slave."
The short meeting in a vast chamber of the Serbian presidential palace was another sign that Milosevic may be preparing to back down from his month-long standoff with the protesters and hand administrative control of several towns to the opposition coalition, known as Together. Two courts, both controlled by Milosevic, have already ordered vote recounts in Nis, Serbia's second-largest city, and Smederevska Palanka, 30 miles southeast of Belgrade. No steps, however, have been taken to ratify Together's election victory in Belgrade, the capital, which was nullified by a court ruling.
The meeting with Milosevic touched off a split within Serbia's student protest movement, a key element in the anti-government ferment. Students from Belgrade universities opposed the meeting, saying the Nis students would be made to look foolish on state-run television -- as occurred in June 1992 when a meeting of students with Milosevic took the steam out of earlier demonstrations. Belgrade students said they wanted foreign television crews to be allowed into the hall to film the event to prevent Milosevic's propaganda aides from censoring it to his advantage.
But the Nis students said they had walked too far and too long not to sit with the president. They also interrupted Milosevic at least four times "to try to make it difficult for them to edit the tape," Bozinovic said.
Tonight, TV Serbia led its news broadcast with several minutes on Milosevic's meeting with the students. While the president dominated the meeting, the students held their own -- talking back to Milosevic but not appearing disrespectful or rude.
The meeting highlighted the growing importance of Serbian students to the protests. While Serbia's state-run news media lambastes the Together coalition nightly, it has yet to criticize the students; at worst, it has accused them of being naive. One reason for the students' growing influence is that their movement has avoided direct support for the Together coalition. Of the 17 people who took part in the Nis-Belgrade trek, Bozinovic said in an interview, only two had any affiliation with a political party.
"It is great that we are neutral," agreed Uros Bobic, 20, a drama student from Belgrade and one of the leaders of the Belgrade student rallies. "We want to show we are citizens of this country with the right to vote and choose. We also want to show the opposition that the moment they start acting like Milosevic we will rise up again."
All sides have courted the students since mass protests began in Nis and Belgrade a month ago. The Together coalition regularly donates food to the Belgrade students and has tried to persuade them to merge their demonstrations with the coalition's. So far, they have declined.
Serbian nationalist organizations also have tried to win the students to their agenda, but among the young there is little nationalist fervor of the sort that has swept this republic over the last five years. "We are finished with most of that stuff," said Katarina Kostic, 23, a music student. "Sure, some crazy guy will suggest us to do something like send a message to the Bosnian Serbs, but we always vote him down."
The Nis students said their march to Belgrade was rough but exhilarating. Setting out at noon Sunday, they walked in groups of three, rotating every four hours. While some walked, others napped in a van that traveled behind them. One of them, Nikola Pejovic, 21, said what touched him most was the support the group received along the way. "People were cheering us as we walked up the highway, honking horns, waving," he said. "We felt like heroes." CAPTION: A group of Serbian workers added to the anti-government climate in Belgrade yesterday with a rally opposing a labor bill they claim would cut 800,000 jobs. CAPTION: Milosevic reads a protest statement delivered to him by student organizer Nikola Bozinovic, who took part in a 148-mile march from Nis to Belgrade.