Milosevic digs in as strikes build

Tuesday, the Yugoslav leader sent out Army and police officers to crack down on nationwide strikes and protests.

In Belgrade and city after city across the industrial heartland - including President Slobodan Milosevic's hometown of Pozarevac - the trolley-bus bells and the rumble of traffic have been replaced by drumbeats of protest.

Thousands of coal miners have dropped their picks, prompting the government to impose power cuts across the country. Factory workers and farmers have added their voices to the chorus for change. And even state-controlled media workers have walked off the job. "This time is it.... We can't go on like this," says student Milan Nikolic, as students nearly shut down the capital yesterday.

Anti-Milosevic demonstrations are nothing new. And it's not yet clear whether the strikes will force Milosevic to step down. Yesterday, he appeared to resort to tactics he's successfully employed in the past, like sending out the Army's chief of staff and police officers to quash the demonstrators. But the difference this time - and the deep threat

to Milosevic's power base, analysts say - is that many who once provided unquestioned loyalty are taking up the call for democratic change.

Popular protests during 13 years of tough Milosevic rule - marked by four wars and nearly a decade of international sanctions - have in the past ended in clouds of tear gas and severe truncheon beatings by loyal police units. In the latest crisis, Army and police forces have for the most part let the demonstrators alone.

But foreign and local analysts alike say the victory of opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica in Sept. 24 presidential elections has energized opponents of the regime like never before.

"For the first time, people have a sense that they are all together, and on the same side against the regime," says Stojan Cerovic, a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, and a former Belgrade columnist. "It's new, and might really grow into something impressive. There is something very strong, something mythical when coal miners strike. It reminds people of the 19th century, and of Poland's democracy born in the shipyards."

Mr. Kostunica's name will appear on the ballot of a second round of voting due Sunday. But the opposition leader says vote tallies from the first round show he won an outright victory. He refuses to take part in a runoff against Milosevic, who claims the vote was close enough to warrant one.

Instead, he called for a civil disobedience campaign to force Milosevic from office. "I don't like to use the word revolution, but what is happening now is a revolution - a peaceful, nonviolent, wise, civilized, quiet, and smart democratic revolution," Kostunica said on Monday.

Despite a slow, rain-swept start on Monday, the strike has seen the anti-Milosevic opposition - united behind one leader for the first time in years - grow in unprecedented ways. "This protest is activating people who have previously watched from the sidelines," says Slobodan Cvejic, a Belgrade sociologist.

Some 4,500 miners stopped work at the Kostolac mine in eastern Serbia Sunday, and another 4,000 have struck at Serbia's largest coal mine, Kolubara, south of Belgrade. Farmers and bus drivers blocked roadways with tractors and buses. Crowds scuffled - at times good naturedly - with police officers trying to remove their license plates. In some cases, protesters responded by attempting to remove police-car plates.

But Milosevic seems to be testing the opposition's strength, and a crackdown is still possible. In a rare television appearance Monday, he warned in a 20-minute speech that success of the Western-backed opposition would bring war and a loss of national identity.

"Yugoslavia would inevitably break up," Milosevic said. "Our policy guarantees peace, while theirs' [guarantees] clashes and hostility." Yugoslavia risked being "occupied by foreign forces," he said.

Despite estimates that many among the armed forces voted against Milosevic, the thinking among military commanders was unclear. One Belgrade daily reported that the head of a special police unit was transferred from the capital because he would not deal harshly with demonstrators.

But yesterday, Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Nebojsa Pavkovic turned up at the Kolubara coal mine and ordered the striking miners back to work. Some police officers seemed more active yesterday as well. They prevented about 500 people gathered on a highway near the northern town of Novi Sad from reimposing a roadblock. And in the southern industrial town of Kragujevac, they stopped protesters setting out on a protest drive to Belgrade.

"Strikes are not enough [to unseat Milosevic], says Radha Kumar, a Balkans specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "So much depends on the Army and security police. If they begin to see that Milosevic's days are numbered, then they will step out of the picture and ... he will have to go."

But among the most surprising developments for the opposition are spontaneous strikes by the state-controlled media. Erupting almost by the hour, journalists are demanding objective reporting on the events shaking the country.

The opposition physically took over government-controlled TV in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia's second largest city. In one of several similar cases, the entire 150-member newsroom at Belgrade's Studio B television station walked out Monday.

"We can't sit in that building and pretend we don't see the crowds on the street below," says journalist Jadranka Jankovic. "We were tired of being ashamed in front of our friends and family," the computer staff of Vecernje Novosti, Yugoslavia's largest daily, said in a statement.

But in another sign that the strike has spread far beyond traditional antigovernment segments of society, the 100,000-member Council of Trade Unions - an organization that has always been loyal to the regime - says it will join the strike tomorrow unless Milosevic acknowledges defeat.

"This crisis presents Milosevic with a simple question: Do I want to be a dictator? Because that's his only option if he wants to remain in power," says Slobodan Antonic, a Belgrade political science professor. "For Milosevic to remain in power would require far more repression than he is used to dealing with."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.