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Yugoslavia: Serbia Suffers Power Failure Amid Political Change

Serbia is now undergoing one of the worst energy crises in its history. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports the crisis comes at a crucial moment, just as a new Serbian parliament and government are being formed after yesterday's announcement of the final results in Saturday's parliamentary elections.

Prague, 28 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The reasons for Serbia's power crisis are multiple, and they are natural as well as man-made.

Serbia has experienced insufficient rainfall for the past nine months, which has lowered water levels on the Danube, Drina and Sava rivers. Low water levels not only hamper hydropower output, but also affect production at thermal electric plants, where water is needed for cooling systems.

For more than 10 years before, Serbia undertook only minimal investment in energy infrastructure. It also provided cheap, subsidized electric power to its citizens, which hardly encouraged them to cut back consumption. Seventy-eight days of NATO air strikes that targeted Serbia's energy grid also took their toll last year.

Serbia now has to contend as well with Russia's displeasure over its unpaid energy bills. In addition, the reformists led by Vojislav Kostunica have recently ended Slobodan Milosevic's practice of illicitly tapping into the electric power supplies of neighboring countries by abusing the regional electricity grid.

All this has produced one of the worst energy crises in the republic's history, and the public is very angry. Yesterday (Wednesday), crowds blocked streets and tram lines in Belgrade to protest the scattered six-to-10-hour blackouts the authorities have instituted. Today (Thursday), two electricity-generating units at a key power plant remained off line for repairs, causing further blackouts and large traffic jams in Belgrade when traffic lights failed.

Some Serbs have resorted to the anti-Milosevic protest tactic of 1997-- banging pots and pans. Serbia's interior minister Bozo Prelevic has appealed to them to hold their protests in places, where as he put it, "the dignity and human rights of other people would not be endangered."

Serbia's Minister of Mining and Energy, Srboljub Antic, says the list of priority facilities -- including hospitals, waterworks, heating plants and food processing plants -- qualifying for a steady supply of electricity will now be further limited. But he notes the blackouts will be spread out evenly:

"Serbia won't be in total darkness, only a part will be reduced completely [at a given moment]".

The energy crisis comes as preparations are being made to form Serbia's first non-communist government since World War Two.

Official results of the December 23 Serbian parliamentary elections were announced yesterday, giving Yugoslav President Kostunica's coalition of 18 parties -- the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, or DOS -- almost 65 percent of the vote and 176 seats in the 250-member parliament. That is more than the two-thirds majority required to make constitutional changes.

Milosevic's Socialist Party got 14 percent and 37 seats, Vosislav Seselj's ultra-nationalist Radical Party won 9 percent of the vote and 23 seats, and another ultra-nationalist group, the Serbian Unity Party, won 5 percent and 14 seats.

Neither the neo-communist Party of the Yugoslav Left, led by Milosevic's wife Mirjana Markovic, nor Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Party managed to pass the 5 percent hurdle required to gain a seat in parliament. Voter turn-out was 58 percent.

The likely new prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, said last night that the new government will focus on the economy. Djindjic told businessmen at the Serbian Chamber of Commerce: "We want to be a medium-sized developed country, not a country with cheap manpower which will want to attract foreign capital at any cost, including 'dirty' technology. We do not want to be a working-class suburb of Europe."

Earlier, Djindjic told reporters that he expects no problems with Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, an indicted war criminal and close Milosevic associate.

"Yesterday [Milutinovic] declared he would respect DOS' results. He asked what is expected of him and fully agreed to recognize political reality and do what has to be done."

But Djindjic declined to say whether this means Milutinovic will resign or merely carry out the government's wishes. Although Milutinovic carries a lot of historical baggage from the Milosevic era, his early resignation could create problems for Kostunica.

Serbia must first resolve its future relationship with Montenegro. If the junior Yugoslav republic opts for separation, Kostunica will be out of a job as federal president, much as Mikhail Gorbachev was when the Soviet Union disbanded nine years ago. So, if Montenegro does go its own way, some Serb politicians expect Kostunica to run for President of the republic. Kostunica says this does not concern him for the moment.

Djindjic says further negotiations on Montenegro's status -- separation or integration in a new federation -- depend on what Montenegro itself decides.

"If they opt for a new federation, we assume that there will not be a split. It's got to be clear. We don't want to interfere in Montenegro's internal affairs. According to Montenegro's constitution, separation is a very complicated procedure. We expect the constitutional procedure to be respected."

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic visited Belgrade this week for the first time in two years. Djukanovic persuaded Kostunica to purge the Yugoslav military command which Milosevic had deployed in Montenegro -- especially General Milorad Obradovic, who commands the Yugoslav Second Army based in Montenegro, and Navy commander Admiral Milan Zec. Kostunica also agreed to disband a military police battalion deployed in Montenegro.