WHAT MANY Americans held against President Slobodan Milosevic is not what the people of Serbia are demonstrating against.
Americans never much minded that he was a Communist boss who monopolized power and crushed opposition at home. Their objection was to international conduct (assuming that Yugoslavia had broken up and that the various secessions were legitimate). His behavior was reminiscent of Germany's Adolf Hitler's aggression against smaller neighbors in the late 1930s and genocide against Jews and Gypsies in the 1940s.
This analogy was denounced by Milosevic apologists, but was propounded by many Americans including Madeleine Albright. They were appalled by Serbia's initially successful war of territorial aggrandizement against Croatia and utterly successful war to dismember Bosnia.
These wars were accompanied by slaughters of civilians and prisoners of war that were conducted on a scale and with a discipline suggestive of policy and chain of command, not ethnic hatred run amok.
The Serbs in Serbia did not hold any of this against Mr. Milosevic. Most did not believe it.
State television assured them the only aggression was Muslim and Croat against Serbs, and the only atrocities the work of mujahadeen bent on turning former Yugoslavia into Iran.
Most Serbs subscribed to the new nationalism as long as they did not have to fight or get bombed. They did not. Mr. Milosevic kept the wars out of Serbia.
He briefly allowed a free print press, which only the intelligentsia read and which exhibited freer speech than his fascistic counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, permitted in Croatia.
What finally got to the Serbs was the diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions imposed by a moralistic world. Industry shut down. Serbs were out of work and poor, preyed upon by gangsters.
To end the sanctions, Mr. Milosevic betrayed true-believing nationalists by abandoning territorial claims for which he had launched the wars.
Even so, Serbs gave the Socialist-Communist coalition of Mr. Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Marcovic, a majority in the November 3 parliamentary elections.
But two weeks later they gave thumping majorities in municipal elections to the opposition Zajedno ("Together"), an opportunistic coalition of liberal moderates and nationalist extremists.
In response, Mr. Milosevic ducked from sight and had tame judges annul the municipal elections. All hell then broke loose.
People with no day jobs hit the bricks, protesting in ever-larger numbers against the state television that would not report their demonstrations; against judges who stole the election; against the final suppression of the last medium reporting honestly, two radio stations; even against Mr. Milosevic.
The anti-Communist revolution of 1989 everywhere else had finally come to Serbia. Mr. Milosevic's judgment was not to suppress it as ruthlessly as he had smaller outbreaks earlier, but to let it blow over. His foreign minister promised the U.S. as much.
As the weekend arrived, nothing was petering out. Mr. Milosevic gave hints of backing down on the matters being protested. Whether he meant or did it in time were not clear.
With pressure growing to implement the Dayton accords, no one knew what would become of the peace, the suspended genocide, the war-crimes tribunals or the ill-timed Geneva talks on Balkan economic cooperation.
The Serbs marching against power and authority in Belgrade did not care. They had their own agenda, closer to home. And they were growing bolder.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/07/96