Milosevic offers no hope to protesters

Belgrade - President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia yesterday wished his people a happy New Year, promising reforms but making no reference to demands by the opposition and the West that he reverse election fraud.

Hours after his speech, thousands in Belgrade launched a New Year celebration that added another protest to the weeks of street demonstrations demanding that he fully embrace democracy.

"The coming year will be a year of reforms - major ownership and structural changes which should make possible an affirmation of all motivating elements in a market economy," he said in a statement broadcast on state television.

President Milosevic only obliquely referred to the political crisis that began after his ruling socialists reversed local election results which awarded control of 15 of the biggest towns in Serbia, including Belgrade, to the opposition.

"I think we can justly say that we have used this year well, even very well, having in mind the ... internal obstructions we have experienced, especially in the past few months," he said.

The fraud has sparked 44 days of mass demonstrations in Belgrade and dozens of other towns by students and opposition supporters demanding respect for democracy.

A report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recommends that Mr Milosevic fully accept the opposition victories. The President's deliberate snub poured cold water over expectations that the issue could be resolved in the near future.

European Union diplomats who had met the Yugoslav deputy Foreign Minister earlier in the day said that the Serbian government may be ready to act on the OSCE recommendations, but were cautious over its commitment.

"While [the deputy Foreign Minister] could not confirm the government would accept all the recommendations, he declared that it was their intention to ensure that the will of the people ... be fully respected," an EU press statement said.

A Western diplomatic source said cautiously: "We're not sure if this represents a major breakthrough, but it moves things in the right direction."

The delegation was representing the EU in a move aimed at stepping up international pressure on President Milosevic, spearheaded by the United States, to accept the findings of the OSCE report.

The opposition Zajedno (Together) coalition planned a huge street party with alarm clocks and a cacophony of bells it said would be tolling for Milosevic on the stroke of midnight telling the communist-turned-socialist that his time was running out.

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