The fearless strikers who finally turned the tide

The Miners' Revolt
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"Yesterday was a citizens' victory. It wasn't just important - it was unheard of." Dragan Pantic, a miner at Serbia's biggest mine, could hardly be accused of exaggeration.

"Yesterday was a citizens' victory. It wasn't just important - it was unheard of." Dragan Pantic, a miner at Serbia's biggest mine, could hardly be accused of exaggeration.

The Battle of Kolubara, in 1914 - named after the river that runs through the region - was a famous Serbian victory, when much stronger Austrian forces were defeated in seemingly impossible circumstances. The Battle of Kolubara of 2000, between Mr Milosevic's powerful police and the crowds who came to support striking miners, looks likely to be equally historic; the difference is, it was settled without a shot being fired.

Whatever happens in the days to come, the extraordinariness of Kolubara will remain. It was no exaggeration for one miner, Radisa Stojanovic, to declare, with reference to the Polish strikes who helped to end Communism in eastern Europe: "This is a second Gdansk."

The police looked into the violent abyss and stepped back. Police at the entrance gate, with apologetic smiles, regret that they cannot give permission for a foreign journalist to enter the mine; but a striking miner happily guides The Independent into the mine along an alternative route, waved through by a friendly guard.

Inside the mine, Slavica Ivanovic, who has worked here for 20 years, is categoric when asked if she thinks the end is near. "Of course he's finished. It's not a matter of what we think: he's simply finished." She says she feels as though she is already living in a different country. "We are all smiles. We breathe differently, now."

One of her colleagues explained why everything felt so different at Kolubara: "There has been a feeling of solidarity - and that's for the first time."

The police moved in to seize the mine on Wednesday, after it was occupied by thousands of strikers since last week, demanding that the election victory of Vojislav Kostunica should be recognised. But, when thousands of people turned up in solidarity with the miners, the police backed off from further confrontation; crowds broke through the police lines. Serbs showed their lack of fear; the police showed their lack of determination to enforce the regime's will.

The mine is still partly occupied by police, who wander around aimlessly: they do not expect anybody to attack them, nor do they themselves know how to run the mine. Outside the main entrance stand five buses full of police.

When I first arrive, I am asked to keep my notebook out of sight because of the danger of plainclothes policemen. Within minutes, however, it becomes clear that Mr Milosevic's informers are no longer regarded as a serious threat - except, perhaps, to themselves.

I am surrounded by those who wish to say their piece. When I ask for the names of those I am talking to, one miner cheerfully responds: "Why not? We're living in a free Europe now!"

Stevan Vracevic, a 31-year-old miner, argues: "He's got no more cards. He's used them all up. His only chance now is the army and the police - and most of them voted for Kostunica."

Mr Kostunica, the president-elect, was feted like a hero when he addressed the miners on Wednesday night. One man said admiringly: "He walked like a normal person." Ask if Mr Milosevic would dare to visit the mine, and you get a scornful laugh from the entire group. One man said: "He'd send the army and the tanks first - and then he'd come."