Serbs Mark NATO Attack Anniversary
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Several thousand Serbs, many waving posters of President Slobodan Milosevic, rallied across Yugoslavia on Friday to mark the first anniversary of the start of the NATO air campaign.
Turnout, however, was far lower than the 100,000 expected by authorities, and for many Milosevic’s claims of victory rang hollow in a country where conditions have only declined since the severe damage from the airstrikes.
``What are you celebrating?″ a driver caught in a traffic jam shouted at the runners participating in a race held for the occasion. ``You better run from this miserable country, rather than for Milosevic!″
Opposition parties and many Belgrade residents said the celebrations, which included the marathon race past the ruins of buildings targeted in the bombing, were inappropriate _ even bizarre.
``The defeats can be celebrated only by those who have not had enough of the death and misfortune of this poor nation,″ said the leading opposition Serbian Renewal party.
About 5,000 people, mostly government supporters, attended a state-sponsored rally in Belgrade to mark March 24, 1999 _ the date NATO began 78 days of airstrikes aimed at ending Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Similar rallies were held throughout the country.
Some demonstrators at a Belgrade rally and rock ‘n’ roll concert carried pictures of Milosevic, while others held banners reading: ``Slobo, You Are Chosen By God To Defend the Serbs.″ Pictures of Gen. Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander and a U.N. court war crimes suspect, were also defiantly displayed.
Yet the mood among participants was subdued and lacked the energy of similar protests held at the same place daily during the NATO bombing campaign.
Top government officials laid flowers and wreaths on the ruins, including the former Chinese Embassy hit by a bomb in what NATO said was an accident.
Traffic in downtown Belgrade was blocked during the festivities, triggering angry reactions from drivers. School students and workers were given the day off in an attempt to swell pro-Milosevic crowds.
At a separate rally in Belgrade, organized by the state-run trade union, its president Tomislav Banovic told NATO to ``go home, and peacefully leave our land.″
Zoran Djindjic, another opposition leader, said that instead of protesting low salaries in Yugoslavia _ which amount to no more than $50 and ``which workers in the West can earn in an hour″ _ the state trade union is ``celebrating ‘the victory’ against NATO.″
``The regime has proclaimed the start of the bombing as its brightest moment, while ordinary people consider it a nightmare,″ Djindjic said. ``That says enough about the nature of this regime.″
Despite public disaffection, Milosevic’s grip on power remains unshaken a year after the bombing campaign destroyed all of the country’s oil refineries and crippled several key bridges, factories and homes.
Yugoslavia’s divided opposition has failed to mount a serious challenge to his rule or to respond to a growing crackdown on dissent and economic downfall.
Only some 100 yards from the state rally on Belgrade’s Republic Square, an anti-Milosevic student group _ Otpor, or Resistance, distributed leaflets calling people to ``resist the regime.″
``This is not a system, this is a disease,″ said one of the leaflets. ``Bite the system, long live the resistance.″
The NATO bombing campaign forced Milosevic to withdraw his forces and hand Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province, over to NATO peacekeepers and U.N. administrators.
The peacekeepers now find themselves struggling to end reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians against the province’s dwindling Serb community.
On the Net: Yugoslav government site: http://www.juga.com/
University College London School of Slavoic and East European Studies site: http://www.ssees.ac.uk/yugoslav.htm