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Serbia: In Nis, Workers Are Poor And Angry

Nis, Yugoslavia 16 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The local branch of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party was so sure of victory in the Nov. 17 municipal elections in this southern industrial city, that it arranged for a local radio station, Bel Ami, to broadcast election returns live.

But when results showed the opposition coalition called Zajedno ("Together") winning at least 35 of the 70 seats being contested, the live broadcast was abruptly terminated. By midnight that night, hundreds of opposition supporters who had heard the first results gathered outside the coalition headquarters to celebrate.

By the next morning, joy turned to disbelief and then to anger when Milosevic arranged to have the results annulled. Opposition supporters in their thousands turned out to demand reinstatement of their victory -- and that action in Nis, Serbia's second-largest city, was the spark for demonstrations that have lasted a month and have spread to 20 cities in Serbia, including the capital, Belgrade.

"I was very surprised and very angry at the theft," says Slobodan Dinic, a 46-year-old Nis textile worker, who had come downtown to celebrate after listening to Radio Bel Ami. He said people in Nis are the most dissatisfied citizens in Serbia because the economy here, which is based on heavy industry, has been devastated by Socialist mismanagement and by sanctions brought on by Serbia's role in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "Then they stole our votes and all this united people to come out into the open, onto the streets," Dinic said.

The huge demonstrations in Belgrade have attracted the most attention worldwide, because the capital is where foreign journalists congregate. But there is a big difference between the protests in the capital, and here in Nis, which until recent years was a Communist -- then Socialist -- stronghold.

All the demonstrations are peaceful, but the daily Zajedno march through the streets of Belgrade attracts mostly middle-class people, intellectuals and students. In Nis, the crowd is mostly workers, even if many of them hold a job in theory only. Hundreds of thousands of workers in the country are on what is called paid leave, receiving a small pittance in pay, since their factories are idle. And whereas the demonstrators in Belgrade are cheerful and good-natured, in Nis they're really angry.

Predrag Velickovic, a 45-year-old worker who says he shows up at his job every day even though he hasn't been paid since January, has taken part in the Nis demonstrations since they started. "We won't stop until we get rid of Milosevic. He is the top criminal in Serbia," Velickovic said.

Opposition leaders say much of the anger stems from the fact that the electoral fraud was so obvious here. They cite cases where dead people voted, where ballots were distributed to voters pre-marked for Socialist candidates, and one instance where a man was caught stuffing 26 pro-Socialist ballots into a ballot box.

Anger at Milosevic was also fueled by the corrupt, arrogant behavior of the local Socialist Party boss, Mile Ilic, whom Milosevic fired earlier this month in an effort to appease protesters in Nis. Branislav Jovanovic, a local leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement within the Zajedno opposition coalition, freely admits that "half of our success is due to the fact that people see an alternative in Zajedno, and the other half is the result of the primitive behavior of the Socialist Party headed by Mile Ilic."

Yesterday, Zajedno leaders in Nis got some unexpected good news. In what many interpret as a sign that Milosevic may be weakening, the local court ruled that Zajedno's original victory in Nis stands, with control of 41 seats on the 70-seat council. Some opposition leaders suspect that Milosevic may be willing to cede control of Nis city council, the second city, in a bid to keep Belgrade, where the suspect that Milosevic may be willing to cede control of Nis city council, the second city, in a bid to keep Belgrade, where the electoral commission also said the opposition won.

But with demonstrations now going on in 20 cities, local leaders in Nis say they will not give up until results are recognized in all 15 key cities the opposition claims to have won. Says Zoran Zivkovic, vice-president of the Democratic Party in Nis (part of the Zajedno coalition): "We already have an agreement with our citizens to celebrate New Year's Eve protesting in the square."

For many poverty-stricken citizens of Nis, Zivkovic says, it will be the only celebration they can afford. As he puts it, "They have no food and no money for celebrations at home. All they have left is hope for the elections."