Deference, Apathy Keep Many in Serbia Away From Protests

Steaming bowls of traditional Serbian bean stew are ladled out at a Red Cross kitchen in Serbia's capital, Belgrade. An elderly woman named Katarina waits patiently in line. Her meager state pension can't buy even basic necessities - and anyway it hasn't been paid for months.

Katarina's dire financial situation reflects that of many of the 100,000 Belgrade residents who've taken to the streets to criticize socialist President Slobodan Milosevic. But unlike them, she refuses to protest. And in this city of 2 million, she is in the majority.

Milosevic's waiting game

It is the unwillingness to protest that frustrates the opposition and bolsters Mr. Milosevic as he tries to quietly wait out the storm that has raged for the past three weeks.

"I don't blame our president," Katarina says. "There were sanctions. Things have been difficult for a long time." Like others dependent on charities like this Red Cross kitchen, she voted for Milosevic's socialist party in local elections, which the opposition says it won. The results were annulled by authorities, sparking the protests.

About 30,000 people in Serbia and the southern province of Montenegro get their only warm meals from soup kitchens, says a study for International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Yugoslav Red Cross.

"At least 75,000 people would be using soup kitchens if they could admit their own poverty," the Dnevni Telegraf newspaper reported recently, quoting the study.

The report estimates that some 3 million people - a third of the population - live in poverty in Serbia. Annual earnings were $3,000 in 1990, but are now estimated at $1,500. Unemployment is at least 50 percent, annual inflation is 100 percent.

But ordinary Serbs do not blame the governing socialists. It is the international community, the opposition - anyone but Milosevic.

The socialists' support holds up nationwide, while opposition successes in the local elections have been confined to the cities, where young, educated, and middle class people vote for them.

The opposition has tried, and failed, to get organized labor to join the mass demonstrations.

They organized a recent photo opportunity for the international media at a tractor factory in Belgrade where the independent trade unions were organizing a strike.

But it was an embarrassing flop. Only about 50 workers, out of more than 1,000 at the factory, arrived. They were outnumbered by journalists.

Union official Radisa Ristic was in despair, especially because wages in the factory had gone unpaid for five months.

"I really don't know why they don't come out," he said. "I don't understand it. Even after one month without wages they should be on strike. They are expecting the union to fix things with the government without doing anything themselves."

People's fear of losing jobs - or worse, of violent repression - as well as a deferential communist-era mentality that shies away from public dissent, have frustrated the opposition. Also, Milosevic's sudden repayment of overdue pensions and back wages has mollified some citizens.

The socialists' grip on the state media - which has a virtual monopoly in Serbia - has also held the opposition back.

Night after night, state television - which ignored the protests at first - describes the demonstrators as thugs and hooligans.

Highly selective shots play down the numbers of protesters and play up the small rowdy element. Asked their impression of protesters, ordinary Serbs often simply parrot the vitriolic TV commentary of the previous night.

Without other options, the opposition continues with the massive daily street demonstrations, though the size of its crowds isn't increasing.

World pressure growing

But while there is little growing support for the opposition at home, Milosevic is drawing increasing international criticism, especially from the United States.

At American urging, economic sanctions against Serbia are back on the agenda, though they are not very likely to be imposed because of French, British, and Russian opposition.

President Clinton said Tuesday that in Serbia "the voice of the people should be heard." And American Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned Milosevic that Serbia could not be ruled as an "unreformed dictatorship."

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