Serbia's most powerful opposition figure brought tens of thousands of frustrated citizens into the streets of this economically shattered city tonight in the largest protest thus far against the continued rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Vuk Draskovic -- the charismatic leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement which sponsored the rally -- used the occasion to demonstrate his latest strategy for toppling the Milosevic government. Instead of trying to arouse the crowd with rhetoric about sending Milosevic to face an international tribunal on war crimes charges, Draskovic declared that the opposition should say "no to revenge" and added: "I will personally guarantee that Milosevic does not go to jail."
The new tactic could be a dicey one. Many Serbs would like to see Milosevic pay for the misery and global isolation he has brought them through four losing wars, but at least as many fear the internal strife this could cause -- not to mention the national shame of seeing their leader tried in a U.N.-sponsored court most view as rigged against them.
"Serbia has to avoid the danger of a civil war," Draskovic said, warning that there are "forces in favor of civil war" in which Serb would fight against Serb and provide just the kind of excuse for "NATO troops [to] come in" -- as they have in Serbia's southern province of Kosovo.
Draskovic, a bearded populist who spent four months in prison for his attacks on the Milosevic government in the early 1990s, now appears to be reaching out to some members of the government to assure them that while Milosevic must go, some of them can hold on to their positions and perks. In effect, he appears to be trying to create an opportunity for Milosevic to step down with dignity and as little chaos as possible.
"We have to get out of this big disaster as peacefully as possible," Draskovic told the cheering crowd. To do this, he declared, sloganeering and demonstrations are not enough. Serbs do not need to shout at each other, he said, but to listen quietly.
The organizational power of Draskovic and his party, which controls the Belgrade city government, was in evidence here at the first anti-Milosevic rally he has called since the end of the Kosovo conflict -- the latest military debacle for the Serbs in 10 years of Milosevic-instigated wars among the ruins of the old Yugoslav federation.
There has been a number of other protest rallies around Serbia in the last two weeks, organized by smaller opposition parties and ad hoc groups, but they paled in comparison with the sophistication of the show put on by Draskovic -- who called himself the "czar of the streets" earlier in the decade, when he led hundreds of thousands of people in protests against government manipulation of election returns.
Today's rally looked like a rock concert. A large stage was erected near the central square, complete with theatrical lighting and towering sound speakers that blasted out music loud enough to induce a headache. Then, triumphantly, Draskovic arrived amid a small contingent of supporters and bodyguards who parted the crowd as they escorted the opposition leader to the stage.
It is hard to estimate the exact size of crowds at Serbian rallies. Police do not give numbers, and organizers often exaggerate attendance. Draskovic's party controls a Belgrade television station called Studio B, which reported that 50,000 people attended. That seemed a little high to foreign observers, who estimated the crowd at about half that number -- which still made it the largest postwar anti-Milosevic rally thus far.
Whether Draskovic and his new message will resonate with the exhausted and economically ruined residents of this central Serbian city of 200,000 remains to be seen.
"Kragujevac is a dying city," sighed Ratko Jovanovic, a municipal employee who is helping coordinate the massive influx of displaced Serbs here from war-ravaged Kosovo. The large industrial plants in the city's Zastava Complex, which made Yugo cars as well as trucks, spare parts and munitions, was hit hard by NATO bombs. Jovanovic estimates that 60,000 citizens here are out of work.
The only facilities still operating in Kragujevac produce milk, meat, canned goods and alcohol. "Everything else is dead," Jovanovic said. He said the city's heating plants must be rebuilt to keep people from freezing this winter but that there is no money available; the city budget is 5 percent of what it was a decade ago. Mostly, Jovanovic said, "we need food."
Draskovic told the crowd that what this war-weary land needs now is to create a transitional government in Belgrade composed of respected experts, then to seek an immediate end of international economic sanctions and a massive infusion of foreign aid and investment -- something the United States and other NATO countries have said they oppose so long as Milosevic remains in power. Draskovic also called for a return to Kosovo of the tens of thousands of Serbs who fled the province after the war and for speedy national elections conducted to European standards of fairness.
Zoran Spasic and his wife Vesna stood in the crowd with their 5-year-old daughter. Vesna Spasic is an unemployed lawyer; her husband is a salesman selling off the remaining spare parts from the Zastava Complex.
Like many Serbs, the Spasics said they just want to see an end to the Milosevic regime and the beginning of something positive, something that would help their people emerge from the ruin and waste of the last decade and reintegrate them into Europe.
Asked what they would do if they had to choose between violent change and no change at all, Zoran Spasic thought for a moment and asked: "Can we have change without violence?" His wife said, "We have had wars. Too many wars. We don't want any more."