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Bulgaria/Serbia: Unrest Grips Balkan Cities

Prague, 28 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Towns and cities across the Balkan peninsula have recently become the focal points for mass protest demonstrations by people whose patience and/or financial resources have been exhausted by government policies.

The immediate causes that have triggered these protests differ from country to country. They include the failure of pyramid schemes in Albania, the economic collapse in Bulgaria and an election swindle in Serbia.

Reports of demonstrations across Serbia appear to have inspired Bulgarian and Albanian protesters to stand up to the authorities. But the root causes are strikingly similar, focusing on an expanding gulf between rich and poor within an almost stagnant political system.

Throughout the region, the old communist nomenklatura has successfully adjusted to the post-communist era by retaining control over the economy and, wherever possible, political power as well. Former communist officials have tended to �privatize� state-owned property through schemes designed to keep the property in their hands by either selling at preferred prices or simply transferring ownership or control to politically reliable managers, regardless of their ability to manage or finance the facilities.

Many a party and a state official has become immensely rich but the masses of ordinary people have frequently found their savings wasted away either by inflation or get-rich quick officially sponsored or tolerated schemes.

It is striking that the past weeks of protests in Serbia, Bulgaria and now Albania have not been limited to the capital cities. Protests have erupted almost everywhere.

In Bulgaria and Serbia, the widespread protests have included diverse social groups: young and old, students and intellectuals, pensioners and unemployed. In Serbia industrial workers seemed to abstain, largely in fear of losing increasingly scarce jobs, while agricultural workers seemed to oppose the protests -- largely because of lack of information from the government-controlled media.

The situation in Bulgaria remains still fluid, though the ruling socialists seem to have lost control of traditional regional bastions of power. Bulgarian workers have been in the streets, threatening to shut down large industrial facilities such as the Kremikovtsi steel works. Marches and candlelight vigils have been held in small towns once considered to be "red fortresses."

The Orthodox Church, traditionally allied with governments, has become recently active in the protests in both Bulgaria and Serbia, and it did it not only as a participant but often as an organizer of protests. Patriarch Pavle led more than 100,000 protesters in a Saint Sava Day procession through Belgrade yesterday.

The protests have been relatively peaceful. Violence in Belgrade has been selective and appears to have been timed to ensure minimum news media coverage abroad. The two most serious incidents occurred on December 24, Christmas Eve in the West, and January 20, the day Bill Clinton was inaugurated as U. S. president. But this may change any time.

Albania is the latest in a long list of countries, including rump-Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Russia, where large numbers of people have succumbed to the pyramid schemes, the chimera of 100% monthly interest rates. The inevitable collapse of the schemes has led to anger and frustration among the hundreds of thousands who, having naively invested their money failed to withdraw before the schemes crashed or were frozen by the authorities.

In Albania, mass demonstrations over the collapse of the schemes during the past two weeks have shaken the leadership. During the last weekend protesters in Vllora took Foreign Minister Tritan Shehu hostage for several hours when he tried to negotiate with them.

Rioters on Friday set fire to the town hall in Lushnje in an echo of anti-regime protests five years ago. Two days ago crowds shattered windows at Tirana's city hall.

Paradoxically, the Albanian unrest has been fomented and at times led by the renamed communist party, the Socialists. They have been using tactics reminiscent of those used by the anti-Communist opposition in 1990-92.

The Socialists appear to perceive the collapse of the pyramid schemes as a tool to regain control. They are accusing the authorities of targeting their leaders for beatings in the last few days by what they term "government thugs." The socialist daily Zeri i Popullit reported today that a member of the Socialist Party's presidium, Ndrek Legisi, is in a coma in a Tirana hospital after having been beaten last night by four unidentified persons who shouted "anti-socialist abuse." President Sali Berisha has become a target of the protests.

There is no sign that the protests demonstrations will end any time soon. Indeed, they may even become more violent in the days to come.