BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - As escorts go, you couldn't do better than Magic.
His powerful, blocky frame is no small advantage given the task at hand. Between me and my objective, Zoran Djindjic, leader of the Serbian Democratic Party, are 50,000 tightly packed supporters. This is to say nothing of the wall of bodyguards who surround the makeshift podium from which he is addressing the crowd, or the other 150,000 people from whom there is no room in the Square of the Republic.
"Follow me, Micha," Magic says, launching his powerful body into the crowd. He is a variation of a Canadian icon: Al Waxman with muscles. With fireworks bursting over our heads, we begin the half hour of pushing and shoving that will take us to the back of the stage where an interview can be arranged. As we get closer, Magic falls in behind me, guiding me by the shoulders through the last 50 yards. "Pomeri se," he says. "Make room."
Unable to pronounce his real name, CNN gave Magic his nickname during the Bosnian war, and it stuck. Trained as a special forces officer by the British and the Russians, he served as a colonel in the Bosnian-Serb army. He still keeps the yellowed newspaper clipping celebrating his daring helicopter rescue of 150 Bosnian-Serb soldiers. "Ten helicopters, no casualties, a great victory." He still knows how to overcome obstacles. Djindjic is suddenly in front of us winding up his speech. Somehow we have sliced through.
I notice a curious detail. The platform where the four leaders of the "Together" democratic movement are standing is built over and entirely around a small car. A child sits inside. As the politicians whip up the crowd with taunts against the dictator Milosevic, the boy methodically cleans the window with a toy squeegee. He goes about his task mirthlessly, filling in the time until the din from the adult world finally subsides. Our eyes meet and he offers a slow, tired smile. This is not his first night as a window-washer.
"Your cards Micha," Magic says. "They need to know who you are." He hands them to a tall student in John Lennon glasses who passes them along the line. Through many hands, they finally ascent to the stage. Djindjic turns around briefly and nods in our direction. He has a high-voltage smile. It is a night for running North American look-alikes. The SDP leader is a dead ringer for Boston Bruin star Raymond Borque, without the battle scars.
The interview confirmed, we skirt the crowd and head toward SDP headquarters. Djindjic has another engagement to keep, so there's time to stop at a gypsy stall for a snack of roasted chesnuts. The vendor's face is the color of cured tobacco leaves, his fingers stained and crooked. He presses on the chestnuts with a flat spoon to crack their shells, releasing their fragrance into the soft, night air.
In the offices of the SDP, the man of the hour is in great demand and we are kept waiting for half an hour. The room is filled with smoke, bedraggled journalists, and students pumped up on the high octane of youth and historic doings. Black is the color of choice this year in Belgrade and I ask one brooding young man if he's afraid of going to jail. "If they catch me, I get ten years. If we lose, we get fifty more years of communism."
Djindjic's office is spare and smoke-filled, and he fields questions with the instant responses of a man who has not yet governed. For Milosevic, he says, the time for using force has come and gone.
Perhaps in the first five days, before the country knew what was happening, before the arrival of the international press, he could have used the tanks. Now, everyone knows that he stole the 43 municipal districts that contain 60% of Serbia's population, and he can't stop them from saying it.
"We have exposed the main principle of Mr. Milosevic. He must have 100% of the power. If he gives up just 1% of it to the opposition, it would mean the end of his entire system. His balloon is very, very big, but just one touch from a needle and it will blow up. We are that needle."
It's hard to disagree. Thanks to the mass protests, Milosevic has been forced to acknowledge electoral defeat in two districts, including Nis in southern Serbia. Protesting students were also able to extract a promise from him to have European authorities investigate electoral irregularities in 12 other districts. And now, Momir Bulatovic, president of the neighboring Republic of Montenegro, has openly called on Milosevic to acknowledge defeat in the municipal elections. Though not broken, his parliamentary coalition is beginning to crack.
Still, it is no mean feat to put 300,000 people in the street every day, with the dictator making so many small but strategic compromises. Djindjic laughs when I ask him how long he can keep his people on the march.
"For one day longer than Milosevic can ignore us!"
Springing to his feet, Djindjic rushes to the huge French window as a roar comes up from the street below. The marchers offerthe three-fingered salute, train their flashlights on their leader, and blow their whistles. Wearing a broad smile, he waves to them with all the majesty of a head of state. He will go far.
Djindjic gives us autographed postcards of himself and bids us goodnight. It is a tight squeeze for Magic and me to fit into the tiny elevator. Back outside, Belgrade is as crazy as before, Pamplona without the bulls. Magic doesn't want to meey any plainclothes police, so we go through the alley and come out on a quiet side of the square.
Ravens are sipping rainwater that has collected between the cobblestones. Like Yonge Street pigeons and Serbia's embryonic democracy movement, they have no fear.
Michael Harris, The Sun's national affairs columnist appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.
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