Every revolution has its moment of combustion. Yugoslavia's came on an autumn Wednesday in the persons of three elderly men on a tractor. Hundreds of Slobodan Milosevic's dreaded special police had swept down on the hard-bitten diggers at the Kolubara coal mine in Serbia's heartland who had first initiated popular resistance by refusing to work. Attempting to force out the 7,000 striking miners intent on crippling the country's electric grid, security troops surrounded the complex and blockaded a key bridge with police buses. But the workers stood fast, broadcast for help on radios and cell phones, and 20,000 pugnacious citizens converged on the mine. As they approached the barricaded bridge, those three old men plowed their tractor straight into the police blockade, shoving the buses aside and opening the way for thousands to break through as the security men melted away. Armed with the awesome revelation of its own strength, a grass-roots revolt had begun, and from then on nothing could stop it.
The next day that delirious display of people power was repeated over and over in the capital of Belgrade as hundreds of thousands of Serbs stormed the bastions of Milosevic's oppression and these too gave way. First the parliament building, seat of Milosevic's political apparat, went up in flames as protesters tossed Milosevic's doctored ballots out the windows. Then state television, main prop of the regime, went black as protesters broke in the front door while police fled out the back. Then the official news agency switched its allegiance to Vojislav Kostunica, the unassuming constitutional lawyer whose election Milosevic was trying to steal. Riot police doffed their helmets and threw down plastic shields to join the insurrectionist carnival. Army troops sat quietly in their barracks. By nightfall, Milosevic had nothing left to sustain his rule.
Years of pent-up frustration under Milosevic's blighting misrule had finally erupted in a tumultuous showdown, as each new success taught Serbs to see they had the power to change their future. The revolution ran at cyberspeed from the disputed election two weeks ago, ending victoriously in the dizzying events of one day. Just like that, the Serbs took back their country and belatedly joined the democratic tide that swept away the rest of Eastern Europe's communist tyrants a decade ago. The West gloried in the exit of the man who fueled savage European conflicts for a decade and cost his enemies so much money and blood.
It dawned even on the out-of-touch Milosevic that his people were ready to retire him. In an astonishing moment Friday night, the strongman who had ruled so long through his control of television stood stiffly before a camera he no longer owned, his jaw trembling slightly as he said he would step aside. He conceded electoral defeat and congratulated the man he "just learned" had outpolled him. But ever defiant, he warned he had no intention of bowing out altogether. After a "rest" spent visiting with his grandson Marko, he would be back to rebuild his Socialist Party of Serbia and resume an important role in the country's political life.