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Thousands of teachers block Serbian government building

February 17, 1997

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Thousands of angry teachers blocked a street in front of the Serbian Parliament today, and a partial transport strike stranded commuters in the capital.

Serbia’s democratic opposition has suspended its street demonstrations, at least temporarily. But President Slobodan Milosevic is facing new protests _ this time with economic demands.

Teachers from 1,800 of 2,100 elementary and high schools in Serbia have been on strike for more than two weeks to demand back pay and an increase in their $150 average monthly salaries. Transport workers are also demanding overdue salaries and better working conditions.

By recognizing opposition electoral victories in the capital, Belgrade, and 13 other major towns, Milosevic last weekend largely defused three months of demonstrations against his rule. But economic hardship is bringing new challenges.

``We’ve had enough. We are starving while the regime squanders money on the police force,″ said Sofija Siradovic, a 35-year-old high school literature teacher. The 5,000 teachers protesting in front of the Parliament, dressed in worn clothes, exemplified Serbia’s impoverished school system.

Serbia’s economy is devastated by years of mismanagement and international sanctions imposed to punish Milosevic for fomenting wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Factories are idle, and meager salaries are often delayed for months.

Workers held strikes last spring and summer, but they quieted down after only a few weeks. Months of political protests have weakened Milosevic, and new strikes by workers _ who have largely stayed clear of the political turmoil _ could seriously challenge his rule.

The teachers are angered by a deal Serbian Premier Mirko Marjanovic struck with the state-controlled teachers’ union today to raise their real wages by 10 percent. The teachers, who want a 60-percent raise, say the agreement was made in the absence of their legitimate representatives.

Transport workers cut the number of buses in Belgrade by one-fourth in a warning to the government. They threatened to start a full strike if their back pay for the past several months does not come by Tuesday.

``We are forced to do this, we haven’t been paid for months,″ said Dragoljub Stosic, head of an independent transport workers’ union. Belgrade streets were jammed as commuters resorted to private cars to get to work, while others waited in vain at bus stops across the city.

Other workers, including employees of a state-run television station, planned their own protests for later in the day. And students took their demonstrations into the 88th day, demanding the ouster of the Belgrade University rector, a pro-Milosevic hard-liner.

On Saturday, opposition leaders told their supporters that daily rallies would end but would resume if Milosevic does not loosen his tight grip on state media by March 9.

The date will be the sixth anniversary of the first big anti-Milosevic protest, which focused on his abuse of state media that glorify his policies and blast opponents.

The top leaders of the opposition coalition Zajedno, or Together, have good chances in crucial presidential and parliamentary elections that are scheduled for later this year.

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