Kragujevac, Yugoslavia, 23 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Widespread despair at a local unemployment rate of 80 percent --and little prospect for a better future-- swept opposition Zajedno (Together) politicians to victory in this economic wasteland that was once the epitome of Communist industrial achievement.
But unlike some 14 other major cities where opposition victories in Nov. 17 municipal elections were annulled by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Zajedno win here was allowed to stand. A new mayor and new city council are scheduled to take office Dec. 24.
But they are under no illusion that they really have the power to change anything in a country where all the strings of power --both economic and political-- are held by Milosevic and his powerful ruling Socialist Party.
"It will be difficult to change things radically," admits Borivoje Radic, new head of the Kragujevac City Council.
As Radic put it: "Our victory has more of a symbolic meaning when you take into account the absolutism that exists on the highest level." The local government has no power, for example, over crucial areas like health, education or the vital economic reform that could bring local industry back to life.
Branislav Milosevic, executive director of the independent Belgrade newspaper "Nasa Borba," says power in Serbia is so centralized in the hands of the republican government that municipal governments have little real authority and even less money. "If you have power in Belgrade, you don't care what happens in Kragujevac," Milosevic says.
This may be part of the reason that President Milosevic let the opposition victory stand in this, Serbia's poorest city, 120 kilometers south of the capital, Belgrade. Another reason, say the new authorities in the city, is that Milosevic's Socialist party is particularly weak here, and the opposition is particularly strong. "Milosevic may have judged that this would be too big a bite for him, since this is the most opposition-oriented area in Serbia," New City Council head Radic explains.
Much of the opposition's strength stems from the economic devastation of Kragujevac, which was built up around the enormous Zastava arms and automobile complex, now largely idle. These days, new Mayor Veroljub Stevanovic told RFE/RL, not more than 20 percent of the city's citizens are actually working. Average income in the city is 400 dinars ($80) --or exactly half the Serbian average. Official government statistics show it takes more than five times that much money, or $440, to support a family of four at a basic level.
The mayor says government statistics also show that although Kragujevac is Serbia's fifth-largest city in terms of population (with 200,000 inhabitants), it ranks a miserable 180th among 190 cities, towns and villages in terms of living standards.
Even the city government is strapped for money, with an annual budget of only $20 million, small for a city of this size. But more limiting than money will be the power that President Milosevic wields.
As editor Milosevic says, municipal authorities in Kragujevac won't even be able to run the city buses if the Serbian government --and the enterprises it controls-- refuse to sell them gasoline.
This is why local Zajedno supporters turn out every day to put pressure President Milosevic to restore opposition victories in all cities, including Belgrade, the most important city of all. Kragujevac officials Radic and Stevanovic say that it's only when the opposition controls all of Serbia's major cities that local authorities will have any chance of wresting any real power from the republican government.
Stevanovic adds: "Of course we are aware that without a change of authorities in Serbia, there will not be much improvement for the citizens of all Serbia."
This sentiment is endorsed by the thousands of Zajedno supporters who have come out every day for more than a month to support citizens in other cities who were robbed of their electoral victory.
Petar Kostic, a 52-year-old university-educated worker at Zastava, explains the situation this way: "If they are not free, then we cannot be free either. If the most basic right to vote is taken away and spat upon, one feels humiliated from the bottom of one's heart."