Serbs stay on the march to hasten reform

Thousands of Serbian demonstrators, their anger undimmed by presidential promises to respect the opposition's local election victories, marched through Belgrade yesterday, demanding proof that political reform is on the way. Despite President Slobodan Milosevic's promise that his government will respect the results of 14 town councils won by Zajedno, the opposition coalition, on 17 November, the protesters are cautious about claiming victory.

Zoran Djindjic, one of three Zajedno leaders, is not expecting to take control of Belgrade city hall in the near future. "If it happens, that's good, but if it doesn't, it's not a tragedy," he said casually, before addressing thousands of supporters gathered in Republic Square under the watchful gaze of the riot police. "We are continuing our protest, in any case."

Victory in the municipal elections took Zajedno by surprise, but 79 days of demonstrations have revealed a depth of economic and political despair, hidden during the years of Socialist rule, which extends far beyond Zajedno voters.

The tens of thousands of students who marched through the city yesterday want the rector of Belgrade University fired and other institutional reforms, as well as the implementation of the election results. In Serbia, the students are respected as the nation's hope for the future, so their protests cannot be easily ignored or repressed. "We will not stop until they fulfil all our demands," said Marija Desivojevic, a computer science student. "He [Milosevic] is world famous for playing games, and we don't want to be fooled again. All 14 city councils need to meet for a session, and then we'll know he has recognised the elections."

Her scepticism was echoed by Zajedno supporters attending yesterday's rally. "Milosevic is lying, as he has every time until now," said Stanoje Antonic, a pensioner. "There is an old Balkan saying: 'No one lies as much as a Turk'. But no Turk could lie as much as Milosevic."

"This is an example. He has police on the street," said his friend, a retired army major, Berislav Stanojlovic, pointing at the ranks of special police blocking the main road. The protests would continue, they said. "The minimum is that they should recognise the election results and open the radio and television to all political parties, because we from the opposition have no access," Mr Antonic added.

State television news pumps out propaganda so blatant that the 7.30pm evening news is drowned out every night by the noise of people whistling and banging pots and pans. Zajedno also wants reform of Serbia's electoral law, as presidential and parliamentary elections are expected to take place this year.

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