Courtesy of Newsday (online);  October 6, 2000.


Yugoslavia’s Kostunica declares himself president

by  ROY GUTMAN Washington Bureau

Athens -- In a national uprising of stunning speed and breadth, opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic seized control of the capital, Belgrade, and other major cities yesterday and claimed to have ousted the despotic 13- year regime. Vojislav Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer who defeated Milosevic in elections 11 days ago, declared himself the new president.

"Good evening, liberated Serbia,” Kostunica, 56, proclaimed last night to a cheering crowd of about a quarter million in front of the parliament building, which protesters had seized earlier in the day. "I am now president. Milosevic has fled his home. Serbia has risen.” About 9 p.m. there (3 p.m. EDT), the official Tanjug news agency began referring to him as "Elected President Kostunica.”

Kostunica asked his audience to remain on the streets until dawn, in case of a counterattack by the military. He also called for a rally in the capital today.

But when supporters chanted for Milosevic's arrest, Kostunica said: "He doesn't need to be arrested. He arrested himself a long time ago.”

Milosevic gave no sign he had stepped down, but it was unclear, after a day of humiliating setbacks for his police and military, if he was capable of mounting a counterattack. Last night an independent Serbian news agency reported that several Russian-built aircraft departed a military airfield north of Belgrade and headed south to an unknown destination. Shortly after midnight, opposition leader Zoran Djindjic said Milosevic was in an eastern town, Bor, "surrounded by his closest associates... and I suppose that he may be preparing a coup."

Later, opposition sources said Milosevic, protected by troops, was in a bunker in the village of Beljanica, 25 miles west of Bor, which is close to the Romanian and Bulgarian borders.

In Washington, President Bill Clinton promised to lift economic sanctions as soon as the regime change was confirmed. "The people of Serbia have spoken with their ballot; they have spoken on the street,” Clinton said. "I hope the hour is near when their voices will be heard and we can welcome them to democracy, to Europe and to the world.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain urged Milosevic to announce his resignation "before any more lives are lost, before there is any more destruction.”

And Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the day's tumultuous events reminded her of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989.

Kostunica had predicted yesterday would be the day he would remove Milosevic, but the speed with which his prediction came about astonished his backers and most outside observers. It appeared the country had simply decided it would not tolerate another day of Milosevic. Adding steam to the public fury was a bizarre ruling of Milosevic's hand-picked Constitutional Court, which annulled the results of the election, apparently because of demonstrated fraud by the Milosevic government, but ruled he could stay in office and delay a re-run until the end of his constitutional term next July.

As the ruling became known, tens of thousands of Yugoslavs from the major cities descended upon Belgrade in enormous convoys of cars and buses. They also took their own bulldozers and used them to smash through police barricades on the major roads, then joined a crowd that swelled to an estimated half million. Yesterday afternoon, shortly after the 3 p.m. deadline Kostunica had set for Milosevic's resignation, the crowd stormed the federal parliament building in central Belgrade. Police equipped with riot gear fired volleys of tear gas at the crowds outside the building. The area cleared briefly, but then protesters kept coming back and invading the building. Using a rear entrance, police reinforcements arrived and again tear-gassed the crowds, but protesters set several police cars on fire and stormed the building again, and eventually police gave up. One wing of the parliament was set on fire.

The mob then moved to the state radio and television office, equipped with a bulldozer, which they used to break in the entrance. Soon it was on fire as well, and three floors were destroyed. Early in the evening, a convoy of 15 military police vehicles headed into Belgrade, but with the assistance of Gen. Momcilo Perisic, the former military chief of staff who has joined the opposition, demonstrators persuaded the troops to give up about a mile from the parliament, and they joined the crowd.

Throughout the country, crowds of Milosevic opponents took control of the major towns, the highways and institutions of power.

If anything signaled the change in Milosevic's fortunes it was the takeover of the national news media, which he had used ruthlessly as the mouthpiece of his regime. The first news medium to be "liberated” was the B92 radio station, an independent operation that Milosevic had seized in the last year. Dragan Hadziantic, the editor of Politika, a once-independent daily that became the regime's official newspaper eight years ago, was seen fleeing his newspaper in an ambulance. Neighbors reported that his house was dark and there was no sign of the security detail that had protected him.

Staff members of the tabloid Vecernje Novosti, who went on strike Wednesday, "liberated” the newspaper building and took charge. Editor-in-chief Dusan Cukic and his close management associates fled the site.

The most remarkable transformation occurred at Tanjug, the national news agency that had functioned for more than a decade as Milosevic's personal mouthpiece. Last night about 9 p.m., Tanjug announced it was "now with the people of this country” and henceforth would stick to principles of professional journalism in its reporting. The self-styled "journalists of liberated Tanjug” proceeded to announce the change of regime.

"Elected President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Vojislav Kostunica told tonight a crowd of several hundred thousand people in central Belgrade that he is proud that the people of Serbia had shown such confidence and elected him the president,” Tanjug said.

Just before midnight, Kostunica appeared on the state television network and answered questions, looking relaxed and comfortable in a role that would have been hard to imagine him in just weeks ago.


October 5, 2000

Yugoslavia Chronology


Key events in Yugoslav election crisis:

•  Sept. 24 -- For first time, citizens of Yugoslav federation -- Serbia and Montenegro -- vote directly for president.

•  Sept. 25 -- Supporters of challenger Vojislav Kostunica declare victory over President Solobodan Milosevic, citing reports from own poll watchers.

•  Sept. 26 -- Election commission releases data saying Kostunica led voting but runoff needed.

•  Sept. 27 -- 200,000 people gather in Belgrade to support opposition's claim of electoral triumph, biggest protest ever against Milosevic.

•  Sept. 28 -- Milosevic announces he will take part in Oct. 8 runoff election while opposition threatens general strike.

•  Sept. 29 -- Tens of thousands heed opposition calls for nationwide strike, blocking roads and shutting shops, movie theaters, mines.

•  Sept. 30 -- Milosevic turns down offer of Russian mediation and declares Yugoslavs themselves "will decide our fate.” Oct. 1 -- Encouraged by cheering crowds, 70 trucks block key highway in Cacak as opposition forces campaign for widening strike.

•  Oct. 2 -- Milosevic calls opponents puppets of West as wave of unrest sweeps country.

•  Oct. 3 -- Government orders arrest of some strike leaders.

•  Oct. 4 -- Police retreat from attempt to break strike at key coal mine. Yugoslavia's highest court invalidates parts of presidential election, further angering opposition.

•  Oct. 5 -- Huge mobs rampage through Belgrade, driving security forces from streets and seizing parliament, TV network, police stations. Milosevic's whereabouts unknown.




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