Nationwide anti-government rallies in Yugoslavia fizzled tonight, attracting only a modest turnout and underscoring how the opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic has been weakened by divisions within its leadership.
In Belgrade, the main event among rallies in 20 cities, no more than 20,000 people showed up, far fewer than the estimated 100,000 who packed the main square on Aug. 19 to demand Milosevic's ouster.
In Novi Sad, 5,000 turned out, half the total for a summertime rally. Turnout in other cities also was low. In Leskovac, for example, where 20,000 people showed up for an anti-Milosevic protest more than a month ago, only 1,000 came today.
The light turnouts bolstered Milosevic, who in early summer seemed to close to being removed from power in the aftermath of the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia and withdrawal of government forces from Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. In July and August, army reservists protested lack of pay, and anti-government demonstrations were well attended even in rural Milosevic strongholds. Tonight, protesters marched listlessly, passing people in cafes who seemed uninterested in the goings-on.
"Rally? What rally?" asked Goran Matic, a cabinet minister in Milosevic's government. "This was an attempt of a rally. It only shows definitely and forever that the policy supported and financed by NATO countries has been defeated."
The results were a blow to Alliance for Change, a coalition led by political activist Zoran Djindjic. Djindjic has been battling Vuk Draskovic, who heads the Serbian Renewal Movement, for leadership in the fight against Milosevic.
The two have differed over the strategy for unseating the government. Djindjic wants Milosevic's immediate resignation, followed by an interim government before new elections. Draskovic favors early elections that would eliminate the need for an interim government.
In recent weeks, analysts here argued that unless the rivalry between the two is resolved, street protests would quickly lose fervor. Draskovic and his followers boycotted today's protests. Draskovic had threatened to boycott the August demonstration in Belgrade, but showed up after gauging the size of the crowd and deciding it was prudent to make an appearance.
Djindjic put on a brave face. "Even if 5 million people had shown up, it would not have finished the job. It's only the beginning and it's now or never," he told reporters. In a dig at Draskovic, he added, "For those waiting, I don't know what they're waiting for."
Djindjic called on followers to hold daily protests. The Alliance for Change also plans strikes and sit-ins, and student groups also plan demonstrations.
Draskovic supporters struck an uncompromising stance. "As we expected, the rally didn't succeed. Their idea didn't succeed," said Ognjen Pribicevic, an adviser to Draskovic, a former government minister who was ousted by Milosevic during the NATO air campaign.
In Belgrade's Republic Square, under a light rain, protesters shouted "Slobo, Go!" and "Let's go on the attack!" In conversation, they expressed both a desperation for change and skepticism that it would occur.
"I'm here because it's my civic and patriotic duty. I'm here to bring meaning to my life and my children. We're living like rats because of his criminal activities," said Zorana Suvakovic, 48, an unlikely protester. She is a journalist at the government newspaper, Politika.
"I think 10 million people would have to come to get rid of him, and maybe that wouldn't even help."
Jelena Vudukovic, 47, a clerk at a tourist agency, said people fear demonstrations might lead to violence. "People are afraid to show dissatisfaction. We don't want blood on the streets," he said.
Miroslav Bejovic, 36, a telegraph office worker said that after August he promised himself never to come to an anti-government rally again. He showed up tonight, reasoning that protest is an "existential question."
"But I've lost faith."
Few police were on the street in Belgrade, although plainclothes men reported to each other on the mood of the crowd through walkie-talkies.
In Novi Sad, to the theme song from "Star Wars," politicians promised to storm the local parliament building. But after heated speeches filled with attacks on Milosevic as a criminal and liar, the march on the parliament building petered out in silence while plainclothes police watched nervously from inside.
CAPTION: A protester in Belgrade puts his tongue through a hole in a picture of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.