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While protesters march, another Belgrade scrambles for survival

December 10, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ In part of Belgrade, thousands of people rally daily in hope of forcing political change. In another part, thousands struggle just to survive.

The merchants of Belgrade’s huge outdoor market sell about everything: ``Babie″ dolls, cheap imitations of ``Barbie.″ Miracle ointments. Bolts and screws. Their jackets sport misspelled slogans like ``America _ Uinted States″ or the names of nonexisting sports teams: the Chicago Tigers or the Indiana Hawks.

Like the protesters, the market workers have grievances against Slobodan Milosevic, president of the Serb republic that makes up most of postwar Yugoslavia. Unlike the protesters, they doubt things can ever change.

They don’t want to hear, much less talk, about politics.

The opposition _ mostly intellectuals, students and urbanites _ is trying to build a movement strong enough to force Milosevic from power. It has yet to reach merchants, farmers and laborers, and it isn’t clear how it ever will.

On Tuesday, the usual 100,000 protesters jammed the center of Belgrade, in the fourth week of protests that started after Milosevic annulled Nov. 17 elections the opposition had won.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday turned down yet another appeal to reinstate the opposition’s victory. The Belgrade election commission, which appealed the annulment, gave up and certified the election results giving Milosevic’s Socialists a majority. Opposition legislators boycotted the inaugural session of the new Yugoslav parliament.

At the same time, Belgrade’s market was in full swing.

Native Belgraders mixed with Gypsies and Serb refugees _ reminders of the wars Milosevic instigated in Croatia and Bosnia. Among them were people like 48-year-old Mirjana Mandic, whose middle-class life has disintegrated.

Bundled in an orange hat and a multicolored fleece jacket, Mandic waited for customers for her belts. The market was jammed, but _ as usual _ sales were slow.

On an average day she makes about $10, her contribution toward supporting her husband and 13-year-old daughter. ``It’s miserly and demeaning,″ she said.

She once was a clerk for a machinery company in Belgrade. But when war started in 1991, her job ended because the company’s factories were in Yugoslav republics that seceded. She was put on paid leave of $60 a month.

Her husband was put on paid leave, too. He now does odd jobs. Between them, they bring in about $400 a month, far below prewar standards but pretty good for today.

Will things get better?

``Not with this government,″ she said. ``They took everything away from us.″

And yet Mandic has not joined the opposition, nor will she talk in detail about politics.

Many workers are afraid to protest, because they fear losing the little they have or because of the danger of outright repression. Many merchants are afraid to protest, too. The outdoor market is illegal but tolerated because it provides an outlet for commerce and income. Merchants know it could be closed any time.

Yugoslavia’s economy has been crippled by sanctions imposed as punishment for Milosevic’s instigation of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and by years of Communist mismanagement. More than half the industrial workers here are idle, and Milosevic has shown no interest in privatizing the economy.

The sanctions encouraged smuggling and small-scale trade. It seems that everyone has something to sell _ and many sell at the market.

Opposition leader Vuk Draskovic has urged the poor to join the movement to dump Milosevic. All they have to lose, he said Monday, is their miserable incomes.

Union organizers are trying to get workers to join the protests, too. But the very fact that laborers are idle _ and not gathered at workplaces _ makes them hard to locate and organize.

In addition, many workers are suspicious of the political opposition, because of its roots in the intelligentsia and because of its history of infighting and of changing platforms just to contradict Milosevic. Another influence is the state-controlled media, which has vilified the opposition for years.

One independent trade union leader, Milan Nikolic, said people are reluctant to join the protests because they are overwhelmed by recent turmoil, from the breakup of Yugoslavia to the loss of their jobs.

``People are trying to clarify for themselves what’s going on,″ Nikolic said.

Petar, a 65-year-old retiree who sells tools in the market, says he distrusts the opposition because he thinks it is controlled by Milosevic’s Socialists. Like many elderly, he has more faith in the students who also protest in Belgrade.

Petar, who would not give his last name, said he makes about $170 a month in the market, about the same amount as his pension. The money goes to support him and his wife, and their daughters, who have low salaries.

He says it will take years to change Serbia: ``But I won’t live to see it.″

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