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Strike mars Milosevic anniversary

Kostunica, left, replaced Milosevic following the events of October 5, 2000
Kostunica, left, replaced Milosevic following the events of October 5, 2000  

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- A year after the popular revolution that forced the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from office, the Yugoslav authorities face new social unrest.

On Friday -- the anniversary of Milosevic's downfall -- miners who helped to bring about his removal were on the second day of a strike over wages.

Two strikes involving thousands of miners illustrate the deep economic and social problems facing the new Yugoslav authorities.

The industrial action began on Wednesday in the Kolubara open pit mine and by Thursday had spread to nearby Kostolac, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) southwest of Belgrade.

Honeymoon over for Kostunica  

The miners are also demanding an end to a freeze on wage increases imposed on state-owned companies and improved working conditions, said Zoran Vukovic, a strike leader in Kolubara.

"We'll remain on strike until the government fulfils our demands," Zdravko Vucetnic, another strike organiser, told the Beta news agency.

The two mines employ more than 10,000 miners.

Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic of Serbia, Yugoslavia's larger republic, branded the strikers' demands as "blackmail."

"We won't respond to blackmail," Djindjic said, adding "this is certainly a politically motivated strike."

Serbian Finance Minister Bozidar Djelic dismissed miners' demands on Thursday, saying that their monthly wages of about 17,000 dinars (about $260) were 75 percent higher than the average in the country.

The strike is almost a replay of the events that led up to October 5, 2000.

In the days before Milosevic was ousted, employees from Yugoslavia's two largest mines backed opposition calls for a nationwide protest over the president's refusal to accept his electoral defeat.

They went on strike, adding momentum to the civil disobedience campaign and subsequent popular unrest that led to Milosevic's removal and allowed Vojislav Kostunica to take office.

During the past 12 months, Western diplomats and analysts have praised Kostunica's efforts to reform the country.

Most spectacularly, the authorities arrested Milosevic in April after an armed siege at his villa and handed him over to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague two months later. He now awaits trial for crimes against humanity.

The ruling DOS alliance has also won plaudits for defusing an ethnic Albanian guerrilla insurgency in the Presevo Valley region of southern Serbia earlier this year, pledging equal rights for Albanians rather than using military might.

Belgrade has also returned to the international stage, welcomed into institutions, including financial organisations vital to reviving the economy, and won pledges of more than $1 billion in aid at a donors' conference in Brussels in June.

The DOS also trounced Milosevic's once mighty Socialists in a general election for Serbia in December, dealing a severe if not fatal blow to authoritarian nationalism.

Personal and media freedom has vastly increased.

Thousands protested in Belgrade calling for Milosevic's removal
Thousands protested in Belgrade calling for Milosevic's removal  

The reformers also say average real incomes have increased by 10 percent since they took power.

But, as the ongoing miners' strike shows, not all is well.

While the highly educated elite have seen their salaries rise, the purchasing power of many ordinary workers has declined as prices have been freed from artificial state controls.

Reuters reports that in a recent survey conducted in Serbia by the Mark Plan polling agency, 40.7 percent of respondents said their living standard was worse than a year ago, 43.8 percent said it was the same and only 10.6 percent said it had improved.

The Milosevic-appointed army chief of staff, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, remains in his post thanks to Kostunica, who has so far resisted calls from other DOS leaders for his dismissal.

Western diplomats have also been disappointed leaders have not tackled Serbia's bloody recent history more thoroughly.

The West and Serbia's neighbours see Serb nationalism as the prime cause of much of the Balkan violence of the past decade.

The DOS also stands accused of moving far too slowly in passing institutional reforms to dismantle an authoritarian state and replace it with modern democratic structures.

Many reforms have been slow because of disputes among the 18 parties in the DOS which it has emerged have little more in common other than an opposition to Milosevic.

The bloc still bears the name Democratic Opposition of Serbia from its anti-Milosevic roots.

Since last year, the DOS has split mainly into supporters of Djindjic and backers of the more conservative and moderately nationalist Kostunica.

"It's a hard life but we can breathe more easily," read the headline in the Vecernje Novosti daily on Thursday.


• Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

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