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Serbian workers angry, but reluctant to join anti-government protests

December 9, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Their anger and poverty are great. Fear of losing the little they have is even greater. Because of that, workers have yet to join protests against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

The demonstrations entered their fourth week Monday, with more than 100,000 students and sympathizers rallying against the annulment of a Nov. 17 opposition election victory. Dissident leaders announced a boycott of Tuesday’s opening session of a new federal parliament.

The anti-government protesters also vented their fury at the arrest and beating of a young demonstrator, one of 40 detained by authorities in the past week.

Dejan Bulatovic was arrested after a demonstration in which he perched on a jeep near an effigy of Milosevic dressed in a prison outfit. His mother, Ljiljana, said the 21-year-old, who suffers from asthma, had his nose broken during interrogation.

The demonstrations represent the most serious challenge to the autocratic Serbian president since he came to power in 1987. Workers’ participation is crucial because they may be the only force that can seriously shake Milosevic.

But efforts by independent union leaders to organize a general strike thus far have been met with a timid response.

Several hundred people gathered at Belgrade’s IMT engine and tractor factory to demand better living and working conditions. But they refused to leave the factory gates for a planned march Monday to the Serbian government building.

Union leaders said workers were afraid of losing their jobs and minimal salaries.

``The fear is immense,″ Dragoljub Matic, an independent union official said. ``This is the first time that we can’t get workers to walk out of the factories.″

In shabby clothes, hardship etched in their faces, most of the workers refused to talk to reporters. Some even hid their faces from cameras.

Others said they feared being used as tools in a political struggle. Unlike the protesters who jam downtown streets every day, they say their demands are purely economic.

``We are here because we have nothing to eat. We don’t care about politics,″ said Zarko Jokic, a 47-year-old father of two who earns $50 a month.

``I’m willing to go to the rallies ... but I don’t want to be led around like a sheep,″ added Djordje Bozanic.

The workers accuse the government of squandering vast sums of money, destroying the economy and reducing people’s daily existence to a bare minimum.

Sanctions imposed to punish Milosevic’s role in instigating war in Croatia and Bosnia as well as economic mismanagement have sent the economy into a deep nosedive. Milosevic has shown no interest in ending state control of the economy.

Out of 4,500 employees, only about 1,000 still have their jobs at the IMT factory. The rest are on paid leave. Many workers across Serbia got by under sanctions with small-time smuggling, and now are involved in selling cigarettes on the street or other activities.

That makes it hard for union leaders to organize them.

``No one knows where they are,″ said Milan Nikolic, head of the metalworkers’ section of the Independence trade union organization.

The demonstrations in Belgrade have been mostly peaceful, and Milosevic has taken little action to stop them, apparently hoping they would fizzle out by themselves.

But his politically powerful wife, Mirjana Markovic, spoke out Monday, echoing the state-run media’s criticism of the protesters. ``Brutality on the streets is not the way to solve economic and social questions,″ she said on Serbian TV.

The police beating of the protester was a sign that Milosevic was trying to frighten his opponents.

Bulatovic’s mother told independent radio station B 92 that she visited her son in prison. She said his nose was broken, and he told her he had a pistol barrel stuck into his mouth during the interrogation.

She said he was beaten and was lying naked, shivering, in front of a window left open to the cold winter air. Authorities said Bulatovic would be taken to the hospital. Lawyer Nikola Barovic said he had been told he would be allowed to visit his client Tuesday.

About 30,000 students protested the police action. Later, about 100,000 opposition party supporters marched in downtown Belgrade.

The United States condemned the beating of Bulatovic and said renewed economic sanctions against Milosevic’s government were possible.

``Milosevic’s position at the present time is self-defeating and he should recognize the importance of accepting the election results,″ Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in Brussels.

Opposition leader Zoran Djindjic called for negotiations, but said Milosevic first had to accept the election results and the independent media, which he briefly shut down last week before relenting.

``This political crisis can be solved ultimately only by the fall of this regime, and temporarily only if we reach a political agreement (on) how to prepare the legal change of the regime,″ Djindjic said.

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