Unrest on the Road To `Greater Serbia'

Milosevic promises happier times, but unprecedented hardships spark strikes and bitterness among Serbs

LIKE a Dickensian spirit providing a glimpse of the future, the end of 1993 gave a frightening taste of the new hardships rump Yugoslavia faces as it struggles to cope with the costs of its wars of territorial expansion.

The last days of December were marred by strikes, power outages, and record-shattering hyperinflation.

Many workers went home without being paid their final salaries for December. Not that it really mattered given that the average monthly wage is now less than $2 and dropping. Many state workers received part of their wages in food.

The Milosevic regime announced last week that all citizens must now pay between 10 and 30 German marks (US$6 and $17) every time they leave the country. The measure is aimed at boosting the state's empty cash reserves by targeting the tens of thousands of people who eke out livings by buying food and fuel in bordering states to sell in rump Yugoslavia.

A series of strikes deepened the pre-New Year misery. A walkout by engineers stopped the entire rump Yugoslav railroad system, stranding thousands of passengers traveling to spend the New Year's holiday with friends and families.

``I hope Milosevic's villa in Cyprus burns down,'' spat a man at Belgrade's main station, giving voice to rumors of hidden foreign assets held by the Serbian strongman. Hundreds of irate passengers on Friday thronged the roadway outside the station in a spontaneous protest that blocked major city tram lines.

``Slap her!'' ``Run her over!'' screamed tram riders as they egged on three hulking policemen trying to clear the last protester from the tracks - a young woman clutching a sobbing child.

An elderly, red-faced matron decrying how everyone is suffering, bullied through the crowd to confront the woman. ``How much did Vuk pay you to use your child to block the trams,'' she shrilled, referring to Vuk Draskovic, Serbia's main opposition leader and a frequent target of attacks by Belgrade television controlled by President Slobodan Milosevic.

``I have to get home, too,'' retorted the young woman, her eyes brimming with tears.

The Milosevic regime blames miners who went on strike at a pit in central Serbia for causing a major electricity plant to shut down, causing power cuts in Belgrade throughout the following day and night. Workers stumbling home to dark, unheated houses through black streets were even more enraged to discover that a partial strike by bus drivers had further reduced a service already decimated from a lack of spare parts and fuel.

Miners' leaders claimed the strike was not responsible for the power outages, saying it was impossible for the idled generating plant to use up its coal reserves so quickly.

All of this was in addition to the multitude of hardships already being suffered by the 10 million people of the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro as a result of more than two years of war. Basic foods are no longer found in many shops. The prices of available goods are so high that some people cannot afford bread and meat, let alone fruit and vegetables that are now mostly sold only for German marks in the open markets.

Given the rising social and political tensions, the most obvious question is for how much longer the regime's nationalistic exhortations will pacify an entire society enduring hardships unknown even during the Nazi German occupation of World War II.

Mr. Milosevic, the chief helmsman of the policies that have led to Europe's worst bloodshed in almost 50 years, promised a brighter and prosperous 1994 in a televised New Year's Eve message.

But official concerns are clearly apparent in the increased police presence on the streets and high-profile reports by state-run television on the readiness of the Yugoslav Army, including a new riot-suppression contingent.

And, if there was any doubt that it means business, the regime arrested the leaders of the train engineers' strike.

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