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Serb Lawmakers Validate Opposition Ballot Victories

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Local elections won by opponents of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic were officially recognized Tuesday by the Serbian parliament, virtually securing opposition rule in Belgrade and 13 other disputed cities.

“Get ready for a huge party,” said Zarko Korac, an opposition member of parliament. “There will soon be a couple hundred thousand people celebrating in the streets of Belgrade.”

Judicial and election officials loyal to Milosevic had annulled many of the surprising November results, setting off weeks of popular revolt in dozens of cities and emboldening domestic and international critics of the Serbian president’s autocratic rule.

The boisterous street rallies continued Tuesday night even as the ruling Socialist Party retreated into a marathon parliamentary session, voting with near unanimity to reinstate the opposition victories, as promised by Milosevic last week.

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“There are a lot of reasons people have been protesting in the streets, and election robbery is just one of them,” said Zoran Djindjic, a leader of the opposition Zajedno, or Together, coalition. “But one reason is the same for everyone: bad government. Bad government united the anger of Serbia.”

The scene for Milosevic’s embarrassing capitulation was carefully chosen: Tuesday’s special meeting of parliament was intended as a showy display of Serbian democracy for a world skeptical of Milosevic’s every move. Even foreign journalists, rarely permitted in the austere legislative building, were free to roam the corridors, film the proceedings and watch the debate on closed-circuit television.

In introducing the elections law, Socialist Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic characterized the decision to allow the opposition victories as an act of patriotism, not a desperate gasp for political survival, as Milosevic’s opponents have portrayed it.

“The state’s interest in improving relations between our country and the . . . international community is far more significant than any election dispute,” Marjanovic told lawmakers. “Adopting this law will confirm that the interest of the state and citizen must always be above narrow party interests.”

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Marjanovic also used the occasion to publicly ridicule the tens of thousands of demonstrators who have blocked streets, made noise and generally made his life miserable here in Belgrade--the capital of both Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia, which also includes Montenegro. One such protest--organized by lawyers--filled the sidewalks outside parliament during Tuesday’s session.

“These demonstrations damaged the peace and tranquillity of citizens as well as the basic and vital functions of everyday life,” he said. “Although they tried to hide their true intentions . . . their violence and crudity became clear later.”

The new law recognizes the local election results as endorsed in December by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an outside monitoring group.

An OSCE mission, headed by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, sided with most opposition claims of election fraud and called on Milosevic to “implement the will of the citizens.”

Two Belgrade districts claimed by the opposition, including well-to-do New Belgrade, are in neither the OSCE report nor the new statute.

Opposition leaders have already taken office in four of the disputed 14 cities, as well as five districts of Belgrade. Under a complex timetable set out in the new law, power in the remaining contested municipalities could be handed over as early as this weekend or as late as the end of the month.

Zajedno leaders pledged to an enthusiastic but still cautious crowd in central Belgrade that daily protests will continue at least until the new city councils are seated.

“Although we won a victory today, our job is not over,” said Vesna Pesic, one of the coalition’s three leaders. “This is only the first round in our battle, and we have to continue until the final victory.”

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Djindjic, who will become the new mayor of Belgrade, moved to lay the foundation for other challenges to Milosevic’s grip on power.

The main focus of opposition efforts, he said, will be to gain access to state-controlled television in advance of parliamentary elections in the fall.

In his report to the OSCE, Gonzalez listed media reforms as essential to ensuring that a “diversity of opinions” is respected in Serbia.

“If the election robbery is annulled, other reasons remain to be angry,” Djindjic told the late-night crowd. “We don’t have to give speeches every day, but we are going to walk until we break the stronghold on television, until they begin fundamental changes in this society.”

Although Tuesday ultimately went according to script, the showcase parliamentary session envisioned by the Socialists unraveled late in the day.

Members of the Serbian Radical Party, a hard-line nationalist group aligned with neither Milosevic nor the opposition, used the occasion to blast the Serbian leader and the new law, which the party considers unconstitutional.

Lawmaker after lawmaker accused Milosevic of buckling to international pressure by introducing the legislation and condemned Zajedno’s leaders for accepting “a shameful and illegal solution” that exonerates the perpetrators of fraud.

“This law means that now the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic is institutionalized,” said Tomislav Nikolic, one of the Radical Party leaders.

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The Radicals were so thorough in their criticism that the elections law vote was delayed for hours.

The Socialists were so uninterested in the debate that many of them left the chamber and took to drinking whiskey, vodka and brandy in the corridor.


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