Power ebbs from Serb Socialists

Nobody has got married in Nis, Serbia's second city, since 17 November. No builder has been able to apply for planning permission, and no traffic fines have been enforced. Officially, no babies have been born, and even the dead have yet to have their names registered. The only municipal service still functioning is a counter for the payment of local taxes.

This grim industrial city near the Bulgarian border, where the massive anti-government pro-tests rocking Serbia first started two months ago, has ef- fectively ground to an administrative halt. The ruling Socialist Party may have refused to admit defeat in the local elections whose annulment sparked off the protests, but it has also given up any pretence that business is continuing as usual.

The large crowds that turn out in Nis's main square every afternoon before marching in procession around the centre, exude the confidence of people who sense they are on the brink of victory. President Slobodan Milosevic's notorious local overlord, Milija Ilijic, resigned a couple of weeks ago and his erstwhile underlings have buried themselves out of public view.

The ranks of riot police that lurk menacingly on street corners in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, are absent here. The opposition may not yet have the keys to the city hall, but it has full control of the streets and, more importantly, has won over the hearts and minds of much of the city's population.

Not only do the citizens turn out in their thousands each day to listen to local politicians, they also wave on the crowd from their high-rise apartment blocks, flicking their lights on and off in the twilight and dropping balloons down on to the streets. Local army commanders have made it known that they, too, are on the demonstrators' side.

"There is no doubt we are going to make it in the end. Not only did we win the elections, but the daily rallies have brought more and more people on to our side. It is only a matter of time," said Svonimir Budic, chief anaesthetist at Nis hospital and local head of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement.

The turnaround is remarkable in a city traditionally considered a Socialist stronghold, a Tito era industrial centre built under a 1940s Five Year Plan. Although there are plenty of reasons for the ruling party to be unpopular - notably the racketeering culture that has developed since war and international sanctions devastated the city's industries - the opposition did not expect to win the elections, and the Socialists certainly did not expect to lose.

Indeed, the ruling party was so foolishly confident that it arranged for a sympathetic local radio station to provide live coverage of the election results as they came in, sending out no fewer than 18 reporters with mobile phones to the various polling stations.

As a result, the Socialists unwittingly became the messengers of their own defeat.When the election results were annulled two days later, the people made for the streets immediately - 48 hours ahead of the students in Belgrade.

The Socialists have been rapidly losing their grip ever since. First, the courts urged the local electoral commission to recognise the true result (it did not). Then the riot police disappeared off the streets. Now the opposition has claimed that senior Socialists have admitted trying to rig the result through ballot-stuffing and that one of them, Mr Elijic's deputy, Branislav Todorovic, has offered to deal dirt on his colleagues in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

The local electoral commission, in concert with the Belgrade authorities, persists in refusing to acknowledge the opposition victory. Nis's mini- revolution has its limits, however. Barely six miles into the surrounding countryside, where the population has access only to the heavily-biased State media, the demonstrations inspire no sympathy. "The opposition is just hungry for power," one farmer said. "Milosevic is the man of the people, the one who will protect us. I know, I saw it on TV."

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