Spirit of Belgrade protesters still strong
January 30, 1997
Web posted at: 8:00 p.m. EST (0100 GMT)
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Belgrade again Thursday in two large demonstrations that put to rest, at least for the moment, the notion that their enthusiasm is flagging.
An estimated 50,000 people whistled, chanted and sang as they wove their way through Belgrade toward Republic Square. Adding to the raucous atmosphere was the sound of residents beating on pots and pans from open windows.
Fireworks burst overhead in the square, and opposition politician Zoran Djindjic observed, "The number of people has not diminished in any way. Our objective is the democratization of Serbia, and anything less would be an insult to all these people."
Watching from the far end of the park was a phalanx of helmeted riot police, shields and truncheons in hand. Although there were no confrontations, the police stood shoulder-to-shoulder to prevent the protesters from heading into the government and business district.
For 75 days now, demonstrators have been in the streets demanding that the Socialist-run government reinstate opposition victories in 14 Serbian towns.
Investigators from the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found in December that the victories, which were annulled by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's ruling Socialists on grounds of "irregularities," had been won fairly.
The students and the opposition alliance Zajedno (Together) have found it difficult to persuade workers to join their demonstrations, however.
There is some comfort in a teachers' strike that has closed 600 schools, although the teachers seem less interested in political reform than in getting more money, better working conditions and educational reforms. Belgrade lawyers said Thursday they will strike until the opposition's election wins are accepted.
Earlier Thursday, 15,000 students marched to the train station where they urged rail workers to join them. Although many of the workers are sympathetic to the protesters' cause, few are willing to leave their jobs.
"We should join the demonstrators," said Vesna Bogdanovic, a train conductor.
She has not, she says, because she is raising two children on her monthly salary of $150. Most of her colleagues agree with the engineer on the noon train to Lapovo Thursday, who said from the cab of his orange locomotive that he didn't have time to discuss the protests. He had work to do.
While railway workers do not live handsomely and would like a better life, most of them are getting by. And that's more than many can say.
"It seems there is a fear that these changes will leave them even without this small pay," economist Pavle Petrovic said.
Yugoslav President Zoran Lilic, a close ally of Milosevic, broke ranks on Thursday. He said the opposition victories should be recognized "wherever the will of the people has won, and enable the opposition to constitute local government because it is in the interest of the stabilization of Serbia and also of Yugoslavia."
Lilic is largely a figurehead, however, and his duties are ceremonial. He made a similar remark early in the crisis and was ignored. Given another development Thursday, it is likely that this one will be, too.
The Yugoslav news agency Tanjug announced that the government has adopted a recommendation by the Education Ministry to withhold state funds from universities and schools because of demonstrations.
Belgrade University, which has been the source of much of
the dissent in the capital in recent weeks, has virtually
stopped functioning. If the government suspends payments, life will become difficult for those students, protesters and otherwise, who rely on state subsidies for room, board and other fees.
Finally, an international note: The U.S. State Department listed Serbia, along with Croatia and Bosnia, as major human rights offenders, especially when it comes to ethnic minorities.
Related sites:Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
© 1997 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.