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Serbia: Opposition Leaders Say Democracy And Economy Fuel Protests

Washington, 13 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Two Serb opposition leaders have told U.S. policymakers that economic frustration and dreams of democracy are the forces driving people into the streets of Serbia's major cities day after day.

The vice president of Serbia's Democratic Party, Miodrag Perisic, said Thursday at a hearing in the U.S. Congress that "the primary issues on the streets of Belgrade and among the opposition leaders and parties, are democracy, very lofty values of western civilization and economic reform."

His message was similar in talks with U.S. Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff also Thursday.

The U.S. State Department said Tarnoff, who is the third highest ranking official in the State Department, met with Peresic to make the symbolic point that the United States supports the Serb opposition's basic demand for recognition of the November 17 municipal elections.

But Perisic said: "We are now protesting four weeks and the regime of president Slobodan Milosevic is still deaf and all lines of political communication are completely blocked."

He made the statement in testimony before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) as one of four witnesses offering insights on Serbia's political future.

The others were Branislav Canak, president of the Independence Confederation of trade unions in Serbia; Veran Matic, chief editor of the B92 independent radio station in Belgrade; and an American media expert on the Balkans, Obrad Kesic.

CSCE Chairman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) said he convened the hearing because of "a new sense of optimism" tempered by "a real concern that the current regime will...impose a major crackdown if it feels its power is threatened."

Smith said any use of force by the Milosevic regime would be certain to provoke action in the U.S. Congress.

He also observed that the protesters in the streets of Serbia's cities cover the political spectrum, including genuine democrats as well as nationalists and others.

"I want to stress," Smith said "that being an anti-communist does not automatically make one a democrat."

Canak said many workers in Serbia are jobless and fall easy prey to nationalistic exhortations.

"There are more people waiting for jobs than those working...more employed in the grey economy and on the black market than in the factories," he said.

Canak said that is why workers voted yes for change in the November elections and why "we are now together with students everyday on the streets of the major cities in Serbia, not supporting the (opposition) coalition but...creating a new Serbia."

The American expert, Obrad Kesic, said no matter what the outcome of the current protests, Milosevic's hold on absolute power has been broken and cannot be restored.

Kesic said most Serbs are sick of the poverty, corruption, inefficiency and authoritarianism of the government and that political discontent is so deep and widespread, it is only a matter of time before Milosevic goes.

He supported Perisic's position that the United States should continue pressure against the Serb government but not consider renewing international trade sanctions against Serbia.

Perisic said general sanctions would cause suffering to the people. Instead, he called for in his words "personal sanctions" against president Slobodan Milosevic and the inner circle of his chief ministers.

Perisic said Milosevic and other high officials have private assets and business interests in foreign countries that could be frozen by the international community.

Radio B92 chief Veran Matic said that when the station had to go off the air, it continued to put reports on the Internet. He urged the United States to help develop a better Internet capacity and to do more to develop independent media in Serbia.

Matic said the most pressing need is for an independent television station.