Milosevic gives concession to vote protesters

With his authority crumbling by the day, President Slobodan Milosevic last night made his first major concession to the pro-democracy protesters who have swarmed through the city streets of Serbia for the last seven weeks, choosing to recognise the opposition's victory in municipal elections in the country's second city, Nis.

The announcement, made without fanfare in the middle of the state-run television evening news, at first surprised and delighted opposition leaders who have spent the past few days running rings around riot police on the streets of Belgrade. It was received with mixed feelings in Nis itself, however, because the breakdown of seats that the government statement recommended to the local electoral commission did not tally with the opposition's own estimates.

The government statement awarded 37 city council seats to the opposition coalition Zajedno (Together), 32 to the ruling SPS and its hardline communist ally JUL, and two to the hardline nationalist Radical Party. But the opposition suggested that Zajedno had won 41 seats, the SPS and JUL 16 and the Radicals one seat. Twelve further seats remained uncertain because the ballot boxes were stolen in the confusion that followed the prospect of an opposition victory.

"Sometimes it is not good to win because the truth has still been betrayed," Zvonimir Budic, leader in Nis of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, said. "Now we are going to have big problems between the different members of our coalition because this decision is an unpleasant compromise."

Mr Budic said the opposition would continue its daily rallies until the true result, as adjudicated by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring team headed by Felipe Gonzalez which visited last December, was fully recognised.

The government announcement bore all the hallmarks of a typical Milosevic game of cat-and-mouse - giving ground because it was essential to do so, but creating as much confusion as possible among his enemies in the process.

Certainly, the surrender of Nis will not be enough to satisfy the opposition, or the student demonstrators, or the international community, all of whom have insisted on the OSCE recommendations being implemented in full. That means handing over control of 15 towns and cities to Zajedno, including Belgrade.

Until yesterday, the authorities had acknowledged the opposition's victory only in a handful of the smallest towns. Three were conceded in a letter written by the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, Milan Mulatinovic, to the OSCE last Friday, and a fourth was quietly acknowledged by the local electoral commission in Lapovo earlier this week.

Aside from the argument over figures in Nis, the real battle will now be focused on Belgrade, which Mr Milosevic would have the greatest of difficulty to give up. He will be hoping the Nis concession will ease the pressure of the demonstrations and make it easier for him to deploy his riot police, whose presence has been felt more keenly in the last two days. He has been consistently taken aback, however, by the determination of the protesters and the fight shows every indication of continuing.