This southern Serbian town has long been known as a stronghold of President Slobodan Milosevic. So it came as something of a shock when thousands of people took to the streets last month in response to a lone protest by a maverick employee of the local government-controlled television station.
Since then, there have been daily demonstrations against Milosevic and local authorities in Leskovac, which lies midway between the city of Nis and the provincial border with Kosovo. The man who started it all, Ivan Novkovic, has emerged as something of a folk hero throughout Serbia.
While opposition politicians continue to squabble among themselves and the protest movement seeks direction, the 34-year-old technician has come to symbolize not only the discontent of many Serbs following their debacle in Kosovo but also the hope that, somehow, they can change the country's government.
The chain of events started at halftime of a televised basketball game between Yugoslavia and Germany on July 1, when Novkovic suddenly came on the air and began talking about the people's grievances. Viewers were stunned to hear him charge that local leaders of Milosevic's Socialist Party, the successor of the Communist Party, had protected their sons and friends from a call-up of army reservists for service in Kosovo.
They listened as he complained about a lack of free speech and employment opportunities, about the poor economy and the area's disproportionate burden for fighting in Kosovo. And they took note when he invited everyone with similar views to meet at a public square four days later.
Novkovic made the comments in a videotape he had recorded at home. Without telling anyone of his plans, he played the tape at halftime, then left the station and went into hiding.
At the appointed time the following Monday, the locals received another shock when up to 20,000 of Leskovac's 70,000 residents showed up for the demonstration. Novkovic addressed the crowd with a loudspeaker from the roof of a car. He was later arrested on misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace and holding a rally without permission.
Released last week after spending 30 days in jail, an animated Novkovic said he had no regrets, although he faces criminal charges stemming from his unauthorized broadcast. As he sat in the modest apartment he shares with his wife and 6-year-old daughter, he summed up his motives: "A person has to have a dream that change is possible."
At a demonstration that evening, the 32nd successive day one has occurred here since Novkovic's call to action, about 3,500 people chanted "Ivan! Ivan!" as he expressed thanks for the support he received from Serbs "who long for freedom."
Aleksandar Visnjic, a student leader from Nis, said at the rally: "We're doing our best to get all of Serbia to look at Leskovac, to look at Ivan. This is how you can make resistance."
Throughout the demonstration, the crowd booed, jeered and whistled disapproval at every mention of Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic, who heads the Yugoslav United Left, a small political party allied with the Socialists.
"This was something that people have been keeping inside themselves," said Jovan Jovic, a 24-year-old student. "What Ivan did was something that woke people up. What he said everybody had in mind, but they didn't know how to send the message."
A main target of discontent has been the local leader of the Jablanica district, which includes Leskovac. A Socialist Party stalwart named Zivojin "Zika" Stefanovic, widely known around here as "Zika the Blinker" because of a persistent eye twitch, was accused of shielding five of his bodyguards from the Kosovo call-up, a charge he denies.
In the only violence here since the demonstrations began, protesters last month stoned Stefanovic's house, breaking a number of windows.
According to Milorad Marjanovic, a reserve officer who served as military police chief in Leskovac and oversaw the call-up here, Stefanovic first arranged for the five to obtain fraudulent papers saying they were not to be drafted because they were involved in "territorial defense." After the fraud was exposed, Marjanovic said, Stefanovic helped the men get papers excusing them from service on grounds of mental incompetence.
"But they still carried guns, drove cars and guarded Zika the Blinker," Marjanovic said.
"That's a lie," Stefanovic said of the accusation that he helped his bodyguards avoid duty in Kosovo. He described his accusers as "rascals" sponsored by the local Democratic Party and said the protest rallies on most days consisted of "just a few dozen people from who knows where."
Public resentment of the alleged draft-dodging has been fueled by what residents say was a disproportionate call-up of reservists from this and other parts of southern Serbia, although casualties were not particularly heavy. Of about 40,000 reservists enlisted from around Serbia, 18,500 came from the Jablanica district, Marjanovic said. At least 54 were killed and nine are missing, he said.
In the town of Lebane, with a population of about 10,000, more than 2,000 men were called up, reservists there said. On Friday, about 100 of them gathered on a street corner for the first of what they said would be a series of demonstrations to demand payment for their service in Kosovo and to show solidarity with protesting reservists elsewhere in Serbia.