Strikers shake Serbian regime

Wednesday, May 1, 1991

By Peter Annear

PRAGUE — The Socialist Party government of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia bowed on April 17 to textile and metal workers' demands for wages they had not received for several months and a guaranteed minimum monthly wage of 3000 dinars (US$200) as well as lower tariffs on companies. The demands were presented to officials at a rally of 2000 workers in Belgrade.

The general strike of 700,000 workers was the biggest labour protest since World War II. Tanjug news agency said, "After talks with union representatives, the republic's government agreed to all the demands of the striking workers [at the rally]".

Tanjug said minimum wages from January and February would be paid by the end of April, a major tax law would be abolished and a new social security plan adopted.

The strike was a reflection of the growing discontent with the nationalist Milosevic government since it won elections last December. During the crisis of the last two years, Yugoslav inflation hit an annual 3000% in 1989 before falling to 120% in 1990.

Two people were killed in anti-government demonstrations in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia as well as Yugoslavia, and opposition to the Serbian leadership has risen among students and intellectuals.

The rather impotent Yugoslav prime minister Ante Markovic claims he will push ahead with reforms directed against inflation, foreign debt of almost US$18 billion, a more than 20% drop in industrial output and a US$4.6 billion trade deficit.

But the future of the reforms still hinges on the resolution of the national conflicts challenging the unity of the Yugoslav state. Nationalist leaderships were elected in all six of the federation's states during 1990. Croatia and Slovenia are demanding independence.

Yugoslavia's collective presidency of the six republican and the federal presidents decided in early April on a referendum in May, still to be authorised by the federal parliament, to choose whether the country should remain a federation or become a loose association of sovereign states.

Markovic claims Yugoslavia's economic reforms are ahead of those in other East European countries as his federation had redirected trade away from the collapsed Comecon trading bloc. Only 10% of trade still goes to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He wants closer ties with the European Community and has won moral support in a letter from US President George Bush, though the nationalist republics may not be impressed by such a recommendation.

Heading an EC delegation to Belgrade, Luxemburg's foreign minister Jacques Poos claimed the Community may cancel US$17 billion of Yugoslavia's debt to aid the Markovic free-market reforms.

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