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Serbia: Workers Cower And Serbia's Neighbors Speak Out

Prague, 8 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - More than seven weeks after the annulment of opposition victories in local elections, the daily mass street demonstrations against President Slobodan Milosevic's methods continue unabated in Belgrade and other Serbian cities and towns.

Milosevic's attempt last month to gain the support of the peasants backfired when the rural residents, who largely depend on information provided by the government-controlled media that systematically ignored the protests, appeared shocked when it finally faced the magnitude of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. The incident in which one rural supporter of the government shot a pro-democracy activist in the head two weeks ago and then waved his weapon to reporters, put a speedy end to any pro-government activism within that group.

The army, poorly paid and still smarting from its emasculation during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, has apparently decided to stay out of the current crisis. Two days ago, army chief General Momcilo Perisic told a delegation of students that his troops would not intervene to halt the protests.

Milosevic's police forces have remained loyal. Uniformed riot police have largely succeeded in containing the demonstrations to selected areas, while plainclothes officers have occasionally moved to beat protesters as the marches dispersed. The government has paid up back wages to the police forces to ensure continued loyalty.

But the cards to Milosevic's future may ultimately lay with the workers. The majority of the workers have shunned the protests, largely out of fear of losing jobs in a situation of looming poverty. Last month the average wage was worth no more than 20 percent of what it had been six years ago. With the latest drop in value of the dinar reaching nearly 50 percent, wages are now just ten percent of their pre-war value. A recent law gives Serbian employers considerable authority to fire troublesome employees.

Last week's landmark statement by the Serbian Orthodox synod of bishops supported the demonstrators and indirectly criticized Milosevic. The Church had supported the president in the past. Its criticism has been seen by many observers as a politically significant turnaround of a major public institution.

Montenegro, the "other" republic in the rump-Yugoslav federation, has also expressed frustration with the situation in Belgrade. The Montengrin opposition has expressed solidarity and its activists attended rallies in Belgrade.

In an unusual move, Montenegrin parliamentary speaker Svetozar Markovic has singled out Milosevic's ultra-left-wing wife, Mirjana, for criticism. In Markovic's words, "Montenegro should not and will not depend on a woman who has lost all touch with reality." He said Montenegro "will not tolerate communist dictatorship and Serbia's international humiliation."

The Bosnian Serb authorities, long critical of Milosevic for letting them down in the final weeks of the war and at the Dayton talks, have become increasingly supportive of the anti-regime protests in Serbia.

Bosnian Serb Foreign Minister Aleksa Buha, acting chairman of the ruling Serb Democratic Party, expressed this concern in a special Christmas message over the danger of bloodshed erupting, in what he called, "Serbia, the mother country."

"Regardless of what the authorities think of the Zajedno (Together) coalition politically, the voice of the people is the voice of God," he said.

He called on the "current authorities in Serbia" to recognize the results of the local elections immediately. Buha expressed support for what he called the dignified behavior of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators throughout Serbia.

Albanian President Sali Berisha was the first leader of a neighboring state to come out in support of the protesters. This was largely ignored in Serbia where the majority of citizens take a dim view of anything Albanian. True, Berisha's statement of support reflected his own hopes that changes in Belgrade would result in improving the plight of some two million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and elsewhere in southern Serbia and Montenegro. But it was a sign of support for protesters, nonetheless.

Bulgaria also voiced concern, albeit unofficially. Opposition leaders there offered their support by sending a representative to Belgrade to address an opposition rally on December 24. Early the following morning, a bomb exploded in front of the Yugoslav consulate in Sofia, causing no damage or injuries but sparking a particularly sharp denunciation from Belgrade. No one has claimed responsibility. But the protests in Belgrade seem to have become something of a model for mounting recent anti-government demonstrations in Sofia and Plovdiv.

The report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe urging Milosevic to accept the poll results and the response by the Serbian government, conceding that the opposition won some of the disputed local election contests, appears to have provided Romania with a pretext to comment on the situation in Serbia.

Romanian President Emil Constantinescu issued a statement yesterday saying that full implementation of the OSCE's recommendations offers a chance to resolve the crisis in Serbia. The statement said the domestic situation can be diffused and a dialog between the regime and the opposition established if the Serbian authorities accept the outcome of the November 17 elections. Constantinescu said that any delays in resolving the situation would only lead to greater political and social costs.

Serbia's three other neighbors: Hungary, Macedonia and Croatia so far have remained silent.

Hungary's interest seems to have been largely limited to the fate of the Hungarian minority in Serbia's northern Vojvodina province. An OSCE delegation led by former Spanish Prime Minister Felip Gonzalez last month met leaders of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (UVM) to discuss allegations that Serbian authorities committed election fraud against UVM candidates in Subotica.

Macedonia, hit last month by trade union and student protests in Skopje and concerned about the security of its northern border with Serbia, has been silent.

Croatia was rocked by major anti-government protests in Zagreb in November at the time when ailing President Franjo Tudjman was receiving treatment in the United States. The protesters opposed the government's attempt to suppress an independent radio station. The situation returned to "normal" after Tudjman returned. There has been no clear reaction to the situation in Belgrade.