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Serbia’s triumphant opposition takes office in Belgrade

February 22, 1997

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ After protesting in the streets for three months, members of Serbia’s opposition moved Friday into City Hall, electing their leader as Belgrade’s first non-Communist mayor in 52 years.

Then they headed back to the streets Friday night for a huge, all-night party to celebrate their success at wearing down President Slobodan Milosevic, who had tried to prevent them from taking power.

The opposition won local elections Nov. 17 in Belgrade and 13 other cities and towns, but Milosevic-controlled courts annulled the results. After weeks of daily protests and international pressure, Milosevic conceded he had lost the towns.

In its first meeting Friday, the new Belgrade local assembly elected Zoran Djindjic, one of the opposition’s three leaders, as mayor. Belgrade is the capital of Serbia, which with tiny Montenegro makes up Yugoslavia.

Djindjic (pronounced JIN’-jitch) said his movement had more challenges ahead _ an empty treasury and obstruction by the central government. But the 44-year-old German-educated scholar said he would prevail.

``Democracy is sometimes painful, but with patience and tolerance, the will of the majority is bound to win,″ he said.

In a sign of the troubles he likely will face, the inaugural session of the assembly repeatedly was disrupted by ultranationalist deputies who questioned procedures and made speeches insulting Djindjic.

Djindjic prevailed by a vote of 68-24, with 16 abstentions, one spoiled ballot and one absence. The breakdown roughly reflected the distribution of assembly seats between the opposition coalition, Milosevic’s Socialist Party and ultranationalists.

The United States praised the vote, but warned it was only the first step in Serbia’s transition toward democracy. ``We welcome it as an important move in the right direction,″ said State Department spokesman Glyn Davies.

During the debate, the Socialists tried to adapt to their new role as a minority in city government and sat quietly through the disruptions. Socialist deputy Zivko Aleksic said that ``the people have expressed their electoral will, but we’ll see how long (the opposition-led government) will last. They’ll have a lot of problems.″

The capital’s funds have been depleted and most tax revenues go to Milosevic’s central Serbian government.

Djindjic charged that the Serbian government, ``in which democratic forces are not in the majority ... is doing everything to punish Belgraders for the way they voted and to make life difficult for the city.″

Tens of thousands of people filled the streets for the celebration Friday night, which began with rock-climbers scaling City Hall to remove the Communist star on top.

``I’m so excited, I can barely speak,″ said Svetlana Putnikovic, 42. ``This symbol never belonged to our city. We should replace it once and for all.″

The crowd moved off toward Republic Square, the center of Belgrade’s three-month-long protests, for more celebrations. Streams of pedestrians poured over the bridges leading into downtown. Some rode on the hoods of cars waving flags, and others hung out car windows flashing victory signs.

Carrying the copper star, Djindjic addressed the crowd, about 100,000-strong.

``We’ll take it to the Museum of the (Communist) Revolution, where it belongs,″ he said.

The next struggle will be for control of the media, which the Serbian president uses to prop up his power. Milosevic’s Socialists made a last-minute effort Thursday to ensure influence in Studio B radio and TV, which are to fall under control of the new administration. They signed a permanent contract with 13 employees, making it difficult to fire them.

Djindjic announced Friday that his government had appointed a board of directors for Studio B television, headed by a top aide to another opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic.

The new mayor pledged not to use the television station as a mouthpiece for his government. Hours after he was elected, Studio B television aired a brief interview with the telegenic Djindjic. ``Belgrade needs independent media, many more than it has now,″ he said.

Djindjic promised to reduce the costs of running Belgrade and to root out corruption, saying city officials would publicly disclose the worth of their private property both at the beginning and the end of their terms.

His party and the other two that jointly make up the opposition, meanwhile, were preparing for national elections later this year. They agreed Thursday to strengthen their loose coalition by forming joint bodies to prepare for the campaign.

If the opposition wins, Djindjic almost certainly will be its choice for premier.

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