Miners take Milosevic to the edge of meltdown

Army chief pleads with coal strikers to lift blockade, but militants insist President must step down or face the consequences
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The Independent Online

A sense of a country on the verge of meltdown pervaded Serbia's most important coal mine yesterday. In the middle of the night, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, the chief of staff of the Yugoslav armed forces, came to visit Kolubara mine and pleaded in vain with the miners to return to work.

A sense of a country on the verge of meltdown pervaded Serbia's most important coal mine yesterday. In the middle of the night, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, the chief of staff of the Yugoslav armed forces, came to visit Kolubara mine and pleaded in vain with the miners to return to work.

There were threats, but one of the most powerful men in Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia was forced to offer blandishments, too, including increased salaries, as he pleaded for the army not to lose its electricity.

Zoran Cvetanovic, a member of the strike committee, said General Pavkovic's appearance in the early hours was a clear sign of Mr Milosevic's weakness. "We didn't expect Milosevic already to play his ace."

In Mr Milosevic's Yugoslavia, chiefs of staff are not used to pleading; they make threats, and make good on their threats. But times have changed. Now, a chief of staff must go out in the middle of the night to talk to the workers - and be rebuffed. To make things worse, after General Pavkovic's departure, Mr Milosevic's former chief of staff, Momcilo Perisic, entered the mine - to show solidarity with the miners.

They asked General Pavkovic to pass on to Mr Milosevic their fear of civil war. Mr Cvetanovic said: "He agreed to do that. The Yugoslav army is our army. It should not turn against the people." The mine, which employs 17,000, was tense after the visit, with animated meetings through the day, in advance of a police or army assault some feared.

But Mr Cvetanovic was confident an assault could do nothing to prevent the end of the regime. "If I wasn't convinced, I wouldn't risk my life," he said.

Branislav Pavlovic, 52, a miner, said he was sure Serbia was on the brink of enormous change. "We never had the courage to change our government, like other countries do. Many people are still frightened of bloodshed. But we must have change."

At different branches of the Kolubara mine, scattered across a wide area near Lazarevac, south of Belgrade, meetings continued all day, informing the strikers about latest developments, and what they should do next. Strikers at one branch claimed Mr Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party was trying to round up enough people to get the equipment going "to show it on RTS," Serbia's state television news, which has comically tried to pretend this week's general strike does not exist.

Slobodan Jacimovic, one of the mine directors, was said to have been suspended because of his refusal to put pressure on the strikers. A string of similar stories are told of loyalists defecting, including local police chiefs who refuse to carry out orders. Danas newspaper said police in Backa Palanka, north of Belgrade, had refused to dismantle a protesters' barricade. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that the miners at Kolubara have no intention of backing down.

Mr Milosevic is still eager to issue veiled or unveiled threats, as he did in a televised speech on Monday, talking of the danger of foreign invasion, and the danger if the opposition is allowed to win. "My conscience would not be clear if I did not tell my people about its fate," he warned. At Kolubara, few seem frightened by such threats. "There's a psychological war against us," one miner said. "But they won't succeed."

Clashes between police and protesters were reported. In the southern town of Vranje police dispersed 2,000 protesters, and opposition officials said dozens were arrested and sentenced to between 10 and 30 days in jail for taking part in the work stoppages and roadblocks.

But in many areas, police co-operation with the opposition has been - from Mr Milosevic's point of view - alarmingly neutral, even dangerously friendly. Reports from Uzice in south Serbia described how police cars were hooting in solidarity with the demonstrators. Such developments are, for Mr Milosevic, a nightmare.

The government warned of possible power cuts because of the strikes. But miners' leaders say there are enough reserves for more than a fortnight, and insist talk of power cuts is intended to turn people against the strike. In reality, it is almost certainly too late for that.

In many respects, the purpose of the strike is not to put economic pressure on the government, as would usually be the case, but merely to demonstrate that the support for the opposition, and the opposition's first-round victory in elections 10 days ago.

Despite mutually agreed return sheets, the government has refused to acknowledge the opposition victory.

And the leaders refuse to explain on what basis they reached the conclusion that they did not lose.

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