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Workers Hesitant to Join Protests Against Serbian President

December 10, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Their motives may differ, but independent union leaders hope workers soon will find a place in the mass demonstrations against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Workers, afraid of losing their jobs and minimal salaries, have been hesitant to join protesters who’ve vented their anger daily for three weeks in the most serious challenge to Milosevic since he came to power in 1987.

Marches through the capital streets have attracted up to 150,000 students and sympathizers calling for Milosevic’s resignation. The protesters have moved beyond their original demand _ that Milosevic honor the opposition victories in Nov. 17 local elections, results that later were overturned.

Opposition leaders planned a symbolic boycott of today’s first session of a new federal parliament, which represents Serbia and its only remaining partner in Yugoslavia, tiny Montenegro.

The United States has urged NATO allies to help pressure Milosevic to open a dialogue with opposition leaders and to recognize last month’s municipal elections. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, speaking in Brussels on Monday, threatened renewed sanctions unless Milosevic complies.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said the United States would continue ``turning up the flame″ on Milosevic.

``Clearly pressure works in Serbia, and we’ll just have to keep the pressure on and see what we can accomplish,″ he said.

Workers’ participation in the demonstrations 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 received a timid response.

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

The workers accuse the government of squandering vast sums of money, destroying the economy and reducing people’s daily existence to a bare minimum. Still, union leaders said workers were afraid of losing their jobs and incomes, however meager.

``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.″

Most of the workers refused to talk to reporters; 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.

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 nose dive.

``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 the equivalent of $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.

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