Yugoslav Miners Push for Change

By Brian Murphy, Associated Press, Saturday 4 November 2000, 12:40 PM ET

MEDOSEVAC, Yugoslavia (AP)—Deep in the black coal pits, the dented front-end loader used to bury Slobodan Milosevic's regime is back at work. On its sharp-toothed shovel are scrawled messages of hope for the new Yugoslav leadership.

There is also another slogan now used by Milosevic opponents: We're watching you.

It's a warning heard around the Kolubara mines, where strikers used the front-end loader to ram through police blockades last month in the uprising that delivered the final blow to Milosevic's rule.

The roughneck miners—as much a symbol of the resistance as the dented front-end loader—are now training their gaze on Milosevic's successor, President Vojislav Kostunica. Over the clatter of worn-out machinery, they talk about his promises to lure foreign investment. Between coughs from swirling coal, they wonder when they will see better wages and working conditions.

It was amazing what we did. I cannot pretend we are not proud. But pride is only for the soul. We need so much more, said Milenko Stanisic, a machinist who relies on cannibalized parts and pure ingenuity to keep the 33-foot digging wheel churning on a mammoth German-built coal harvester.

The vast open pit complex, about 30 miles southwest of Belgrade, supplies the nation's main power plants and could serve as a good compass to track Kostunica's success at steering the country on a new course.

There are the tangible challenges of reversing years of neglect at the mine. Then there's a more subtle but equally vital necessity: persuading the miners to keep supporting the pro-democracy forces in the crucial early stages.

We are not politicians. We work out here. We just want to see the same thing from Kostunica—lots of work to fix the country, said Stanisic.

The mine is a limping giant—one of the few major enterprises to keep going through eight years of anti-Milosevic sanctions that have drained fuel and gas supplies to dangerously low levels. But there is no option to let Kolubara go the way of others. A shutdown or strike would be devastating.

Rusting machinery sits on coal heaps with no parts for repairs because of trade sanctions and no way to raise the money to buy them on the black market. Miners trudge three miles to work in pitch darkness because flashlights are too costly.

The coal fields are expected to last for another 30 years. The facility, however, is showing signs of collapsing much sooner without new investment.

We have patience. We learned patience. Ten years under Milosevic was like 100 years in another country. But now Milosevic is gone and we're tired of waiting. There will come a time when we say, ‘Where are all the good things we fought for?’ said a mine manager, Zoran Lucic, who pulled the switch to halt the conveyors and start the strike by the 7,000 miners.

The workers' revolt was unprecedented in a nation with no history of sustained labor militancy. But now that it has been uncorked, its casts a shadow over the new political terrain. Kostunica, in particular, has been careful to pay homage to the miners.

Less than a week after Milosevic fell, the new president visited the mine. Without you, it is a big question whether any of this would have been possible, Kostunica told miners and their families.

Now, some miners are raising questions of their own. How long will they remain on a salaries averaging about $60 a month, which barely buys one good winter jacket? Is Kostunica strong and crafty enough to keep the Milosevic and his remaining political allies at bay?

We are keeping a close eye on everything, said Dragan Sijan, a shift chief at the mine. We have learned a lesson: We can take to the streets. I hope Mr. Kostunica has also learned something. He should know that he cannot ignore the people.

Another miner, Radoslav Negic, raised his fist in an imitation of the symbol of the pro-democracy group Otpor, or Resistance.

We did our duty against Milosevic when it counted. We don't want to be called heroes. We just want a normal country, a normal life, he said.

The next big thing will be Dec. 23 parliamentary elections in Serbia, the main republic in the Yugoslav federation along with the smaller Montenegro.

While Kostunica is president of the Yugoslav federation, most of Serbia's economic and industrial policies are set by its own administration. For the miners, the question is whether the election will sweep out Milosevic's last cronies and cement the rule of the Kostunica camp.

The workers' crisis committee running the mine forced three former government officials, all Milosevic appointees, to resign last month.

We want a complete reform of the country. Kostunica knows this. We showed him by going on strike and standing up to Milosevic's police, said Negic. We can do it again if we feel it's necessary for the country.