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With Jokes, Serb Protesters Prevailing in 'Ironic Revolution'

She was bold as well as beautiful: Belgrade's Miss Student Protest '97 had to strut her stuff not on the catwalk, but between ranks of baton-wielding police in full riot gear. The antigovernment beauty pageant was held during one particularly tense confrontation between police and protesters. After 11 weeks, the demonstrators forced recognition of opposition victories in the local elections not just by outlasting the authorities - but also by outwitting them.

Led by student demonstrators, the protesters seemed to come up with a new gimmick every day to keep their spirits up and people on the streets. In the face of this, the government of President Slobodan Milosevic vacillated between hints of compromise and shrill denunciation, backed up with the use of force by the police.

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Face-to-face with the cordon of riot squads, some women students took to kissing policemen. They voted for the most handsome officer. These tactics caught police off guard and made the use of force more difficult.

Students hurled disinfectant at the Serbian parliament when the official explanation for its closure was an infestation of mosquitoes - in the depths of winter. They brought Dostoyevsky to read to police. "This is the whole spirit of our protest," says the student spokesman Dusn Vasiljevic. "We have to do this to prevent violence, because if there is violence, we don't stand a chance."

This was the "ironic revolution," and the protesters' favorite weapons were not rocks or barricades, but jokes.

One protest joke has Mr. Milosevic, US President Clinton, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin trapped on a plane that's about to crash. There is one parachute. The three of them vote for who gets it, and Milosevic wins, jumping to safety. "I wouldn't mind," Mr. Clinton says as the plane goes down, "but where did he get the other 99 votes?" Protesters also tell how the national soccer team lost 2-0 to Spain - but the result was reversed by the Serbian Supreme Court.

The opposition printed Milosevic's phone number so people could make their views known to him directly.

A cacophony of sound filled the air in Belgrade at 7:30 every night - an attempt by opposition supporters to drown out what they call the lies of official TV. As the demonstrations continued, numbers on the streets fell from the original 100,000, but the protest diversified. Opposition leaders ordered car protests, turning Belgrade into a huge traffic jam. They organized mini-demonstrations around the capital, with people converging on the center in an attempt to beat the official ban on marching.

But it was this new tactic that led, this week, to some of the worst violence yet. Opposition leaders tried to lead a crowd across the main bridge linking old and new parts of Belgrade. For the first time, the police used water cannons and deployed officers carrying automatic weapons. Eighty were injured.

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But a day later, Milosevic announced his climbdown, ordering the government to pass legislations recognizing all the disputed opposition victories. After first ignoring the protest, then attempting to break it, Milosevic had finally given in. Some commentators see this as the triumph of moderates over hard-liners in the governing coalition; others reason that after months of indecision Milosevic had decided the cost of intransigence was just too high.

In a letter to the government, Milosevic said: "The disputes over some local elections, especially in Belgrade, have caused so much damage to our country both at the domestic and at the international level, and it is high time we resolved this problem in the highest institutions of our Republic - in the government and parliament."

Belgrade political analyst Milan Protic says the passage of a bill through parliament would avoid the need for any investigation into how the Socialists attempted to steal the election. "Milosevic's proposal for ending the crisis is a way to avoid naming who is responsible for violence against peaceful demonstrators and, even more, who abused the courts to rob the elections," Mr. Protic says.

Hopes have been raised and dashed many times in the past 11 weeks, and opposition officials say demonstrations will continue at least until the Serbian parliament has voted on the bill, probably in a week. The opposition will try to build on its apparent success in local polls to try to oust Milosevic in national elections later this year. Milosevic has shown himself a great survivor in the past, and no one yet is writing him off. Whatever happens, it is clear that political life in Serbia has been utterly changed.

Some want the protests to continue, especially until the virtual media monopoly enjoyed by the Socialists is broken. "It's good that we are winning," says one of the demonstrators, summing up the mood. "But I will miss all this. I will remember this energy and beauty all my life."

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