2001: Steven Erlanger, The New York Times
1/28/2001
ASNE Staff
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Sunday, January 28, 2001
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting


Steven Erlanger

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Serbian strikers, joined by 20,000, face down police

October 4, 2000

KOLUBARA, Serbia, -- If the regime of Slobodan Milosevic breaks and Vojislav Kostunica takes office as Yugoslavia's president, it could be because of what happened at this gritty coal mine here today.

Hundreds of Interior Ministry policemen swooped in to break a protest strike at the Kolubara mine, which produces the coal for half of Serbia's electricity. The police ordered the workers, who have been on strike since Friday demanding Mr. Kostunica's inauguration as president, to leave.

But the strikers refused, calling for help. Confronted with up to 20,000 people pouring into the mine to defend the workers, some from as far away as the city of Cacak in central Serbia and Belgrade, the capital, 40 miles to the northeast, the police broke and stood aside.

One police commander said: "I'm fed up with this. After this, I'm throwing my hat away and going home. The police in Serbia are more democratic than you think."

The police watched as Mr. Kostunica himself arrived this evening, pushing through the crowd of miners and their families, to cheers and shouts of "President," coming closer to claiming the prize he says he won with an outright majority in elections on Sept. 24.

"I will be with you until we defend what we won on Sept. 24," Mr. Kostunica said. "Is there anything more honest than the miners of Kolubara rising to defend their votes?"

Some miners began to chant, some to cry. "I'm telling you, what you are doing here is not subversion," Mr. Kostunica shouted, his voice breaking up over the primitive sound system set up beside him on the steps of a single-story wooden office building. "You are defending the people's will, and those who step on the people's will and try to steal their votes are the ones committing subversion."

Mr. Kostunica has accused the government of stealing votes and faking the election results. He is appealing to Mr. Milosevic to recognize his defeat and step down to spare the country. The opposition is planning a huge rally in Belgrade on Thursday, which it hopes will be decisive and push Mr.Milosevic out.

On Tuesday, the Serbian government issued a stern warning to the organizers of this spreading strike, saying that they would be arrested for action that "threatens citizens' lives, disrupts normal functioning of traffic, prevents normal work of industry, schools, institutions and health facilities."

The government has accused the strikers here of subverting the national interest, and early Tuesday morning sent the country's top general, Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, to tell the workers to go back to work or face punishment. Blaming the miners, the government began power cuts all over Serbia on Tuesday, a reminder of last year's NATO bombing war over Kosovo. And a judge issued a warrant for the arrest of 11 strike leaders, plus two opposition politicians.

But the police failed to make the arrests today. Miners asserted they had behaved correctly and, said Dragan Micandinovic, an electrical engineer, with "a sense of shame." Mr. Micandinovic has remained here for three days except for two brief visits home to see his children.

"During the NATO war, we worked four shifts, including Sundays, and the government called us heroes," he said bitterly. "I was here and saw the missiles flying over my head. Now the government calls us enemies."

"But we are victims," he said. "Their victims."

Slavoljub Sajic, a mechanical engineer, said, "This is the heart of the protest, the heart of Serbia, and we're not leaving until Milosevic leaves."

The police hung back while Mr. Kostunica spoke, but did not immediately withdraw from the office buildings and other facilities they had occupied earlier in the day. Tonight, workers were negotiating with them about whether they would withdraw altogether, but expressed confidence that the police couldnot get the mine going again.

The police, in camouflage uniforms and riot gear, with helmets and batons, arrived about 11 a.m. when only about 100 workers were gathered.

"They came from all directions," Mr. Micandinovic said. "They threatened us and told us to leave or they would drag us out. It was very risky."

"There are a lot of people here now," he said. "But it was pretty risky this morning."

The police set up a cordon around the mine with roadblocks and moved into offices, talking with a strike committee and the management, who are supporting the workers.

But Mr. Micandinovic and others began to telephone opposition politicians in nearby Lazarevac, 30 miles south of Belgrade, and independent Radio Lazarevac spread the news. Relatives, workers and ordinary people began to come toward the mine, some dodging the police roadblocks by crossing fields and streams.

By early afternoon about 1,000 people were trapped behind a police roadblock on a bridge just outside the mine itself. Two opposition politicians, Vuk Obradovic, a former general, and Dragoljub Micunovic, negotiated with the police, to no avail.

"This shows the weakness of the regime," Mr. Micunovic said as he stood at the bridge. "They are faking this campaign of an electricity shortage to frighten people and make them suffer and blame it on the opposition."

The Kolubara coal mine is critical, he said. "Copper mines are on strike, too, but people can live without copper, not without electricity."

But the police were clearly unhappy with their orders, Mr. Micunovic said, adding, "Both sides are being very patient."

One young policeman, accepting some water, said quietly, "This is a mess." He stopped, then said, "Don't worry, everything will be all right."

A bus full of protesters moved slowly through the crowd and, almost gently, shoved aside a police van blocking the bridge. The crowd surged forward; the police moved aside, looking sheepish. Some protesters gave them apples and clapped them on their shoulders.

The mood on the long walk from the bridge to the strike headquarters was that of exhilaration, even as opposition leaders sped by in cars and buses. Then more cars moved by, with license plates from Cacak and other towns, full of people who had come to defend the mine. People shouted, "Cacak! Cacak!" and the slogan of the student resistance movement, "Otpor" ("He's finished").

Nadia Ruegg, who is married to a Swiss, told the police to let her through to see her brother, Aleksandar Nikitic. "When I asked the guy, ‘Do you have a brother?' he didn't answer," she said. "Then he told us, ‘We won't beat you.' And we told them, ‘Well, we won't beat you either.' "

In 1914, Kolubara was the site of one of the most famous Serbian victories, when the Serbs turned back the Austro-Hungarian Army. The "Kolubarska bitka," or "Kolubara battle," became part of nationalist folklore, and the famous writer and later, briefly, Yugoslav president, Dobrica Cosic, featured it in his novel, "Time of Death."

That part of the novel became a stage play in Belgrade in 1986, as Serbian nationalism was growing. At one point, the Serbs wait for ammunition from the French, but when it arrives it turns out to be the wrong caliber. As the soldiers start to wail and weep, the commander turns to the audience and says, "Don't cry, no one can do anything to us."

On the Kolubara coal field this evening, those words were echoed, unwittingly, by Milanko Bulatovic, a miner here for 26 years, who has been here every day of the strike from 6:30 in the morning until the evening.

"This is the end of him," he said. "This is the beginning of the new Serbia. Milosevic cannot do anything to us now."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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Yugoslavs claim Belgrade for new leader

October 5, 2000

BELGRADE, Serbia, -- As the federal Parliament burned and tear gas wafted through chaotic streets, vast throngs of Serbs wrested their capital and key levers of power away from Slobodan Milosevic today, bringing his 13-year reign to the edge of collapse.

Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition leader who claimed victory in the presidential election on Sept. 24, moved through an ecstatic crowd of several hundred thousand and proclaimed, "Good evening, dear liberated Serbia!"

The crowd shouted his name, and he shouted back: "Big, beautiful Serbia has risen up just so one man, Slobodan Milosevic, will leave."

Behind the crowds, smoke from the burning Parliament building mingled with the blacker smoke from the burning state television and radio center -- bombed by NATO during last year's war over Kosovo -- and tear gas, all set loose as hundreds of thousands of Serbs roamed through the city to demand the exit of a leader who had brought them years of ethnic conflict, isolation and international contempt.

The whereabouts of Mr. Milosevic and his family was unknown, though he was believed to be in Serbia. Two main pillars of his regime, the state news media and many of his police, were gone. But though the army stayed out of the fray, the chiefs of the security forces had yet to formally shift their allegiance to Mr. Kostunica, and Mr. Milosevic had not relinquished power.

While the Belgrade police did not take serious action against the protesters and many joined them, Mr. Milosevic's interior minister, Vlajko Stoiljkovic, refused to meet Mr. Kostunica's representatives, instead asking them, "What have you done to Belgrade?"

Opposition leaders, including Momcilo Perisic, the chief of staff whom Mr. Milosevic fired in October 1998, were reportedly talking to the army to persuade them to recognize Mr. Kostunica as president.

For the time being, there were no contacts between Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Kostunica. The opposition leader told the crowd not to march on Mr. Milosevic's home and office in Dedinje, a suburb, saying: "Answer their violence with nonviolence. Answer their lies with the truth."

As Mr. Kostunica tried to call the new federal Parliament and city government into session, the mood was boisterous, ecstatic and proud. "All of us have simply had enough," said Petr Radosavljevic, a mechanical engineer. "All we want is a normal country, where there is a future for young people."

Damir Strahinjic, 25, waving his arm over the crowd, said: "This should be enough to see the end of him. But you never know in this country, with this guy." His fears were echoed by a senior member of Mr. Kostunica's staff tonight, who said, "I'm thinking Milosevic has one more trick up his sleeve."

Earlier, Mr. Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party attacked the opposition for causing unrest and violence and vowed to fight back with "all means to secure peaceful life." But faced with an uprising that has spread throughout much of Serbia, Mr. Milosevic may have run out of moves. Party members were talking to opposition leaders and even human rights lawyers.

The United States and European governments threw their support behind Mr. Kostunica. In Washington, President Clinton declared: "The people of Serbia have made their opinion clear. They did it when they voted peacefully and quietly, and now they're doing it in the streets."

With the massive outpouring in the streets, major bastions of state power defected to Mr. Kostunica. The state news agency Tanjug began referring to him as "the elected president of Yugoslavia" in a report signed, "Journalists of Liberated Tanjug." The state newspaper Politika, founded in 1904 and deeply degraded under the Milosevic regime, went over to the opposition. And on state television, a new slide appeared: "This is the new Radio Television Serbia broadcasting."

At 11:30 tonight, Mr. Kostunica appeared on the "liberated" state television, urging reconciliation on a nation used to a steady diet of government propaganda.

Speaking of the burning buildings and clashes, Mr. Kostunica said: "We hope that these sad incidents are behind us. My first hours started with pleasure, that a vision of Serbia I had all these years hasstarted to be fulfilled." He promised that state television would remain "open to all views and all voices," including those of the coalition that has run this country.

He called for the lifting of international sanctions against Yugoslavia, which he said the European Union tonight promised him it would do as early as Monday. While he said "we cannot forget what some countries did to us last year during the NATO bombing, we can't live against the grain," and he promised normal relations with the world.

As thousands of people pressed into Belgrade from opposition strongholds, some were spoiling for a fight. They pushed aside police barricades on the roads to Belgrade, and some stripped police officers of their shields and weapons. Some were equipped with sticks and rocks, and they led the taking of the federal Parliament building, which was heavily guarded by police.

The building was soon on fire, its windows broken, and some demonstrators began to loot it for souvenirs, including chairs, hatracks and leather briefcases used by Parliament members. Portraits of Mr. Milosevic and ballot papers for the Sept. 24 elections were dumped from the second floor, all of them already circled to vote for Mr. Milosevic.

The police were lavish with their use of tear gas, which filled downtown Belgrade, but they did not charge the crowd. They used batons and stun grenades, but those who did were overwhelmed by the crowd, and some young men marched happily with their trophies: plastic police riot shields and helmets.

When crowds approached the back entrance of Radio Television Serbia, the police started to come out with their hands raised. The crowd greeted them with "plavi, plavi," or blue, the color of their uniforms, and gave them opposition badges.

As people entered the building, some workers came out the side, including television anchors and personalities like Staka Novakovic, Simo Gajin and Tanja Lenard, who is a senior member of the Yugoslav United Left party of Mr. Milosevic's wife. The crowd began to spit on them, and Ms. Lenard found refuge behind some garbage containers.

The crowd then looted the building.

There was a similar scene at a police station in nearby Majke Jevrosime Street. When the police left the building, some in the crowd gave them civilian clothes. But the building was then looted -- with weapons taken -- and was set afire with gasoline bombs.

In the skirmishing, at least one person died and 100 were injured today, according to independent radio B2-92, which also returned to its old frequency in Belgrade when its own headquarters were taken. The station had been seized by the government twice, and had been broadcasting by satellite. Belgrade Studio B television was also taken back from political control, and private stations affiliated with the Milosevic regime, like TV Palma and TV Pink, stopped broadcasting and put up slides that read, "This program is canceled because of the current situation in the country."

The day's vast uprising was the culmination of a campaign to defend Mr. Kostunica's victory in the presidential elections that Mr. Milosevic called in an effort to restore his own tattered legitimacy. It was a tactical mistake of the first order, because Serbs took the election as a referendum on Mr. Milosevic's 13 years of rule and misrule.

According to the opposition, Mr. Kostunica won at least 51.33 percent of the vote against four other candidates, an outright victory. But with electoral fraud, the Federal Election Commission reduced his percentage to just under 50 percent and called a runoff.

Mr. Kostunica called it theft and vowed that he would not accept a runoff for an election he had won. Strikes and protests on his behalf began to spread through Serbia this week.

The key moment may have come on Wednesday, when Mr. Milosevic's police failed to break a strike at a key coal mine in Kolubara. The workers, who had struck Friday to support Mr. Kostunica, refused to leave and called for help. Some 20,000 relatives and ordinary citizens from surrounding towns came to their aid, and the police let them go through, refusing to attack. Tonight, the police withdrew entirely from the mine.

Later Wednesday night, Tanjug reported that the highest court had ruled that the presidential election was invalid because of irregularities. But the court's judgment, supposed to be published today, did not come, and Mr. Kostunica made it clear tonight that it was simply too late to think about any compromise over the election with the authorities.

Images: Photos: The police, who chose in the end not to take serious action in Belgrade against protesters, fired tear gas yesterday in an early effort to disperse crowds in front of the Parliament building. (Zeljko Safar/Associated Press)(pg. A1); Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition leader, waving to crowd last night. (Reuters)(pg. A1); A member of Yugoslavia's secret police saluted opposition demonstrators yesterday as security forces turned against Slobodan Milosevic. (Associated Press); Against a backdrop of smoke from the Parliament building mingling with smoke from the TV and radio center in Belgrade, thousands of Serbs demanded that Slobodan Milosevic leave power. With the outpouring in the streets, important bastions of state power defected to the opposition. (Kamenko Pujic for The New York Times)(pg. A14)

Map of Belgrade shows the location of Parliament: Protesters converged on Parliament in Belgrade. Crowds confronted the government at sites like the TV center and a nearby police station.(pg. A14)

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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Milosevic concedes his defeat; Yugoslavs celebrate new era

October 6, 2000

BELGRADE, Serbia, -- Bowing to a vast popular revolt against him, a pale Slobodan Milosevic resigned tonight as Yugoslavia's president, ending 13 years of rule that have brought his country four wars, international isolation, a NATO bombing campaign and his own indictment on war crimes charges.

Vojislav Kostunica, a 56-year-old constitutional lawyer of quiet habits and a firm belief in a future for Yugoslavia as a normal country within Europe, is expected to be inaugurated as president on Saturday.

An already exuberant and chaotic Belgrade, celebrating its extraordinary day of revolution on Thursday, exploded with noise as the news of Mr. Milosevic's resignation, made in a short speech on television, quickly spread. Cars blasted their horns; people banged on pots and pans from balconies, blew whistles and danced in the street.

Mr. Milosevic appeared on television about 11:20 p.m. -- shortly after Mr. Kostunica announced, on a television phone-in program, that he had met Mr. Milosevic and the army chief of staff, Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, this evening, and that both had congratulated him on his election victory on Sept. 24.

The resignation deal was helped along by Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov of Russia, who met with Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Milosevic today. Mr. Ivanov was carrying assurances that if Mr. Milosevic gave up power now, the world would not press for his extradition to face war crimes charges in The Hague, senior Western officials said tonight.

"I've just received official information that Vojislav Kostunica won the elections," Mr. Milosevic said in his television address. "This decision was made by the body that was authorized to do so under the Constitution, and I consider that it has to be respected."

Mr. Milosevic spoke with a straight face after an extraordinary set of manipulations on his part -- of the Federal Election Commission and the highest court in the land -- to deny Mr. Kostunica outright victory.

Speaking of how important it is for political parties to strengthen themselves in opposition, Mr. Milosevic said he intended to continue as leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia after taking a break "to spend more time with my family, especially my grandson, Marko."

Despite his brave words, it is unlikely that the Socialist Party, with its own future to consider, will keep Mr. Milosevic as its leader for long. The remarks seemed part of a deal to save him a little bit of face.

There is deep resentment in this semi-reformed Communist Party -- Serbia's largest and best organized, in power since World War II -- of Mr. Milosevic's indulgence of his wife, Mirjana Markovic, who began her own party, the Yugoslav United Left. Ruling in coalition, the Socialists saw more and more of their positions, powers and benefits going to the United Left.

The reaction in Belgrade was immediate and loud.

Tanja Radovic, a 23-year-old student blowing her whistle furiously on Knez Mihailova Street, said: "He's gone. It's finally true. We had too much of him, it's enough. This is the end of him and all these thieves."

Dragana Kovac, 31, said: "I'm happy, and not just because of him, but because of her. He should have spent more time with his family starting 10 years ago."

Ilija Bobic said: "I wish all my family were alive to see this. My father used to say that the Communists would finish quickly. He was wrong, but it came true, finally."

Mr. Bobic stopped, then said: "We all know it won't be better quickly here. But now you can talk. You're not afraid of the phone, of being an enemy inside, of having to join the party to have a job."

The United States and Europe have promised a quick lifting of international sanctions against Yugoslavia, as well as aid, once Mr. Milosevic goes. The sanctions include a toothless oil embargo and a flight ban, currently suspended. But financial sanctions and a visa ban aimed at the Milosevic government are likely to remain in place for now.

The United States and Britain have urged that Mr. Milosevic be handed over to the war crimes tribunal, and continued to do so publicly today. But Mr. Kostunica, who considers the tribunal a political instrument of Washington and not a neutral legal body, has made it clear that he will not arrest Mr. Milosevic or extradite him.

Mr. Kostunica's vow was also intended to give Mr. Milosevic the security to leave office, so that an electoral concession did not have to mean, as Mr. Kostunica said, "a matter of life or death."

Foreign Minister Ivanov came here today to deliver a similar message, Western officials said tonight.

If Mr. Milosevic conceded and renounced power, even after the pillars of his rule collapsed this week, he and his family would be allowed to remain in Serbia, they said. But no Western country would say so publicly, given the United Nations tribunal's indictment.

Mr. Kostunica has pointed out that if democratic and international stability is at stake, the requirement to pursue those indicted is secondary under international law.

The collapse of Mr. Milosevic's position came soon after Mr. Ivanov met him this morning in Belgrade. This afternoon, the Constitutional Court suddenly issued its ruling approving Mr. Kostunica's appeal of the election results.

The official press agency Tanjug said on Wednesday night that the court had decided to annul the main part of the Sept. 24 presidential vote, implying a repeat of the election. But then the court said that in fact Mr. Kostunica had won the first round outright, with more than 50 percent of the vote, precisely as he has insisted. It was another example of Mr. Milosevic's manipulation, but this time to others' ends.

Then the speaker of the Serbian Parliament, Dragan Tomic, one of Mr. Milosevic's closest allies, announced that he would convene that body on Monday to recognize Mr. Kostunica's election as federal president. He addressed a letter to Mr. Kostunica this way: "To the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."

The election of Mr. Kostunica -- carried to power first by the votes of a majority of Serbs, and then by an uprising by even more of them -- will present difficulties and opportunities for Montenegro and Kosovo, both parts of Yugoslavia.

The Western-leaning president of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, will find himself offered a new deal within Yugoslavia that will be aimed at blunting the effort toward independence. That may quickly undermine Mr. Djukanovic's governing coalition in Montenegro, which contains parties firmly backing independence.

Mr. Djukanovic boycotted the federal elections, allowing Milosevic allies to win all of Montenegro's seats in the federal Parliament. Those allies are now likely to make a deal with Mr. Kostunica, abandoning Mr. Milosevic, and leaving Mr. Djukanovic in effect powerless in a Belgrade that could quickly become the center for democratic life in the Balkans.

Mr. Kostunica will also offer Kosovo a high degree of autonomy. While outside powers recognizes Yugoslav sovereignty over Kosovo, Mr. Milosevic was a perfect foil for Kosovo Albanian desires for independence, which have only grown stronger since NATO intervened on the Albanians' behalf in the 1999 bombing war.

Mr. Kostunica says he will live within United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, governing Kosovo, but will insist on the return of Serbs who fled during the war.

In his television appearance, Mr. Milosevic thanked those who voted for him and even those who voted against him, "because they lifted from my soul a heavy burden I have borne for 10 years," he said. He also said a time in opposition would be good for the left coalition, to allow them to purge those who got into the party "to feed some personal interest," an extraordinary comment for a leader who allowed a form of state-sanctioned mafia to develop.

"I congratulate Mr. Kostunica on his election victory and wish for all citizens of Yugoslavia great success during the new presidency," he concluded.

In his own television appearance, Mr. Kostunica described his meeting with Mr. Milosevic. "It was ordinary communication, and it's good that we met, because there was a lot of fear over the peaceful transfer of power, especially last night," Mr. Kostunica said.

"This is the first time for many years in this country that power has been transferred normally, in a civilized manner," he said.

And he said he pointed out a lesson to Mr. Milosevic: "I talked about how power, once lost, is not power lost forever. You can regain it. This is something that all my experience taught me. The other side couldn't even imagine something like this, but now the other side has accepted this, and it is getting used to this lesson."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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