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Milosevic's man churns out lies in the country

Serbia's political ferment is starting to spread to rural backwaters, writes Steve Crawshaw in Smederevska Palanka
"People here don't see opposition parties in the same way as in the West. We are all Serbs. Milosevic is closer to the people than the other leaders. Our political attitudes are closer to ordinary workers and peasants."

Branko Sretenovic, 48-year-old boss of the Serbian Socialist Party in the little town of Smederevska Palanka, seems confident that President Slobodan Milosevic will keep things looking rosy: "He's a very peaceful man."

Belgrade has been the focus of events in Serbia in recent months, with huge demonstrations that have put the regime under pressure as never before, demanding the recognition of opposition election victories across the country. This week, riot police beat up demonstrators in the central city of of Kragujevac.

But the future of Serbia will be decided not only in Belgrade and the other big cities, but in places such as Smederevska Palanka, an unexceptional town of 20,000 inhabitants, sustained by one large factory and farming in the countryside.

Sitting under a large oil painting of President Milosevic, Mr Sretenovic declares everything is under control in Smederevska Palanka. The town has had some protests -- "50 to 100 people a day". But, he said, the Socialist Party had won the recent elections. Twenty-seven seats went to the Socialists and 22 to the Zajedno opposition alliance. And was there any dispute over the figures, as there has been elsewhere in Serbia? None at all, Mr Sretenovic said.

Interesting, then, that the demonstrations turn out to get 1,000 people a day, not 50, and sometimes several thousand, according to many in the town. (Petar Zivanovic, the local correspondent for Radio Belgrade, offered radio reports on the protests but was told what he could do with the idea. The nationwide pattern of protests is officially invisible.)

Zajedno insists it defeated the Socialists with 26 to 23 seats, an opposition victory proclaimed on angry posters all around the town, and which has been upheld by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). When I return to ask Mr Sretenovic why he told such cheerful lies about "undisputed figures", he is (not surprisingly) lost for an answer. "May I offer you a drink?" he finally asks.

On the streets of Smederevska Palanka, there is little sign of the universal support for Mr Milosevic that Mr Sretenovic claims to detect. Petar Mirkovic, a dentist, says: "We're fed up with this government. It's too hardline. At the start I supported Milosevic. But it became obvious he's an orthodox Communist." Dejan Dabovic, 21, a night guard, believes that "Milosevic is terrible for our country". Dejan has not been paid for several months.

Most people in the town are either out of work, or theoretically in work but rarely paid. Even those who are paid have little to celebrate: pounds 60 is a typical monthly wage. Not all have lost faith. Dragan, a farmer, insists: "We have no better man than Milosevic. He's a good man, he wants to save us." None the less, now the wars in Bosnia and Croatia are over, there is little to bind this embittered community to its ruler.

Petar Priradovic, a supporter of Zajedno, says Mr Milosevic will not let go easily: "Communists don't give up power without blood. Milosevic wants to do that."

Even Mr Sretenovic is less loyal than he might once have been. Asked if Serbia is lucky to have Mr Milosevic, there is a long pause. "At the moment there's no other leader." And will the President be seen positively by historians? Mr Sretenovic laughs nervously. "I can't judge. Only time will tell."

Belgrade (Reuter) - Serbian Socialist hardliners and opposition leaders from Kragujevac struck a deal yesterday over the control of local media to avert more bloody clashes in the city. However, minutes later, the main board of the ruling Socialist Party (SPS) led by Mr Milosevic, slammed the opposition Zajedno coalition for "destabilising" the country.