Protests Weaken Regime In Belgrade

By Argiris Malapanis, The Militant, Vol.61 no.4, 27 January 1997

In a sign of weakening of the Stalinist regime, the government-controlled electoral commissions in the capital Belgrade and Nis, Serbia's second largest city, announced January 14 that opposition victories in earlier municipal elections in those cities should be respected.

The regime of Socialist Party chief Slobodan Milosevic annulled results of the November 17 ballot, when the opposition coalition called Zajedno (Together) claimed it won majorities in 14 of the Yugoslav republic's 19 largest cities. An unprecedented wave of daily protests against this antidemocratic move erupted immediately in Belgrade and 30 other cities.

The demonstrations, led by Zajedno and students at Belgrade University, have not subsided despite official restrictions on street protests, deployment of thousands of riot police in the Serbian capital, and a number of violent assaults on protesters and reporters by cops at the end of 1996 that led to the death of one marcher. The protests have entered their ninth week. One of the biggest antigovernment crowds, nearly 300,000 people, gathered in central Belgrade on January 13, partly to celebrate the Serbian New Year.

The state-controlled media had announced January 8 the government was ready to concede the election in Nis. The electoral commission in that industrial center, where the protests began, subsequently balked at Belgrade's promise to give in Nis. The January 14 decision is a new indication that the ruling Socialist Party may be preparing larger concessions in exchange for retaining control of federal power. This may include ceding the majority of the city council to Zajedno in Belgrade, with 20 percent of Serbia's population.

As we go to press, Milosevic has not announced whether the governing coalition, which includes the Yugoslav United Left run by Milosevic's wife Mirjana Markovic, will accept or appeal the electoral commission verdict in the republic's capital. The regime faced a January 16 deadline to make a decision.

The unyielding student marches, and the separate Zajedno protests, fueled in part by a deep economic crisis, have caused cracks even in the ranks of the Socialist Party. Two deputy prime ministers in the Milosevic government made public announcements on January 11 that the municipal election results should be respected. Nebojsa Covic, the mayor of Belgrade, who has been reportedly ready to hand over city hall to Zajedno leaders, has also called on the government to abide by the November 17 election. Covic was subsequently expelled from the Socialist Party.

The government of neighboring Montenegro, the Yugoslav republic allied with Belgrade, has temporarily suspended links to the Yugoslav government until a resolution is found to the crisis.

Top commanders of the Yugoslav army have also publicly stated their opposition to using the armed forces for any crackdown on the protesters. General Momcilo Perisic held a meeting on the issue with student leaders at Belgrade University January 6.

“Gen. Perisic underlined the Yugoslav army's special interest in seeing that all current problems are overcome within the legal institutions of the system in a manner deployed in democratic countries,” said an army statement after the meeting.

“We have found ourselves on the same side since both they and we demand that the constitution be observed,” said student leader Cedomir Jovanavic, one of the students who met with the army command. Dusan Vasiljevic, another student leader, told the press that Perisic had promised “no repeat of 1991,” when the government deployed tanks in the streets to quell student-led protests against the Belgrade-initiated war in Bosnia.

The government of Greece, which has been a close ally of Milosevic for the last half decade, has also called on Belgrade to honor the November 17 ballot.

Washington and other imperialist powers—which maintain an occupation force of 60,000 NATO troops in the Yugoslav workers state, mostly in Bosnia—have continued their push to exploit the situation and install a more openly pro- imperialist regime in Belgrade. U.S. assistant secretary of state John Kornblum said Washington has drawn an “action plan” for Serbia, which includes a possible unilateral freeze on trade deals and diplomatic relations and aid to opposition groups. Two U.S. Senators, Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, addressed a Zajedno rally of 20,000 in Belgrade January 15.