Serbia's feared riot police deploy silently like dark storm troopers, linking their shields together, streetlights glinting off rain-swept helmets, truncheons ready.
A mob of whistling and dancing pro-democracy protesters advances, with a counter assault driven by blaring rock music. Marchers file within inches of the wall of shields as they are turned back. But smiles flicker across the faces of some cops as they are called to join the protest.
In a brave display that dissipates more of the policemen's menace, some women go further: They brandish lipstick, painting riot shields with hearts and arrows like Valentines. One kisses the clear plastic shields, leaving the red imprints of her lips for the fidgeting troops to ponder.
"We will win, because they are with us," she says. Peering over the edge of one shield, she asks a charmed policeman who tries to hold back a smile: "You are, aren't you?"
Demonstrations against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic are creating a new dynamic between protesters and would-be head-cracking police.
Combined with assurances by the Yugoslav armed forces chief Jan. 6 that his soldiers would not intervene to prop up the regime, the growing familiarity with the police - one of Mr. Milosevic's last remaining power bases - raises fresh questions about the president's ability to crush demonstrators by force.
For 50 days running, tens of thousands of Serbs have rallied in the streets, calling for Milosevic's socialist government to recognize opposition victories in local elections in November. The largest demonstration so far took place Jan. 6, on the Serb Orthodox Church Christmas Eve, when tens of thousands defied a ban on street marches and clogged the mile-long stretch from Belgrade's Republic Square to the church where Patriarch Pavle gave midnight mass.
Swarming the church, they carried candles, the wind blowing drops of hot wax onto their hands. Many said they were praying for freedom.
A synod of bishops last week declared the church's support for protesters, so the number of chinks in Milosevic's political armor seems to be multiplying.