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Serb Leader's Soft Tactics Show Weakness, Strength

Although elected and popular, Milosevic can't crush protests

For three long weeks, Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic has been besieged by carnival-like protests in the streets of his country's capital, Belgrade. And many observers have thought Mr. Milosevic - who has the reputation of a master tactician, someone who plays the long game and who doesn't bend easily under the pressure of events - would ultimately prevail over the opposition.

But Western diplomats who've seen him at close quarters during this unfolding crisis paint a very different picture. The cancellation of November election results - which would have put the opposition in control of many Serbian cities - was a terrible miscalculation, they say. Milosevic didn't expect the huge street protests.

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"He's a frightened rabbit caught in the glare of a car's headlights," says one diplomat. Another says Milosevic remains an old-style Communist apparatchik, slow to react to events, isolated from the true situation by a clique of advisers.

Whatever the truth of this, there is one uncomfortable fact for the opposition and those on the international stage who rush to condemn Milosevic: He was directly elected and has a democratic mandate.

Even after the recent criticism, a poll in a Belgrade newspaper found he is still Serbia's most popular politician.

But that popularity could sink if, as promised, some of the country's powerful labor unions lend their political heft to the protests. Although if the unions stay out, it is unclear how long the opposition can keep its crowds large.

Adding to its imperative, the opposition claimed yesterday the Supreme Court had decided not to reinstate last month's election results. The opposition vowed to step up protests.

One of the leaders of the three-party opposition coalition, Vuk Draskovic, says he fears Milosevic is now prepared to use the police and Army to break up the protests.

But Kati Marton, head of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists - and wife of former US Bosnian envoy Richard Holbrooke - says Milosevic has assured her in weekend talks that force will not be used.

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The swing vote: blue-collar workers

Whether he keeps that promise could depend on whether the labor unions join the protest - and even further isolate him. At the moment, Milosevic still appears to have blue-collar support.

Individual workers have taken part in the protests, but have not come out in large numbers.

That has worked as a brake on the protests, even though they already are the biggest against Milosevic since he came to power in 1987.

Dragan Milovanovic, president of the Association of Free and Independent Trade Unions, says the union planned to start organized protests. "We will probably start on Monday," he said in a brief interview.

The association claims 600,000 members throughout Serbia. Many of Serbia's factories are idle, and hundreds of thousands of workers are on paid leave because of a lack of raw materials and other failings of the economy.

Milosevic has shown little interest in breaking up the state-run economy and privatizing the factories. Average wages are often no more than the equivalent of $100 per month.

But the risks of striking are big for workers. Because the government provides housing, education, health care, and other essentials to most workers, they risk losing more than just their salary by joining the protests.

Meanwhile, opposition support is concentrated in the cities among the young and the middle class.

It is not yet a national movement. It is doubtful, too, if the coalition - with its long history of internal bickering - could form a stable government if it ever did come to power.

Could the opposition really govern?

The most charismatic of the coalition leaders is Vuk Draskovic, a poet, who can captivate a crowd with his lyrical oratory. But he is still seen as very much a nationalist at heart and makes, critics say, inconsistent decisions on policy.

Another figure, Zoran Djindjic, has emerged as the strategic maestro. Although Mr. Djindjic has embraced the ultranationalist Bosnian Serbs in the past, he is also seen as a political pragmatist.

His favorite political saying is, "Those who seek honesty should go to church" - and supporters say he would be able to seek out the safe middle ground between nationalism and liberalism. He might become the opposition leader who challenges Milosevic in elections next year.

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