Police Lines Crumble Before Miners

Police attempts to regain control of vital coal pits flounder in the face of mass protests

Police Lines Crumble Before Miners

Police attempts to regain control of vital coal pits flounder in the face of mass protests

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

"Serbia has arisen!" demonstrators at the Tamnava pit chanted, elated at their victory in forcing back police attempts to detain striking miners.

It was one of a series of police setbacks on Wednesday. Attempts to regain control of the Kolubara pit, 30 miles south of Belgrade, were thwarted by the sudden arrival of busloads of supporters. One bus even forced a police armoured car off the road.

Protestors are hailing Wednesday's events as "Serbia's Gdansk", a reference to the action by Polish shipbuilders in the 1980s which sounded the death-knell for that country's Communist regime.

As many as 300 lorries, buses and cars ferried supporters to the Tamnava mine on Wednesday where they formed a human blockade. Around 800 police officers armed with batons were forced to make a hasty retreat. By evening jubilant, singing crowds controlled the complex and the police were nowhere to be seen,

Another mining town, Kostolac, has been at a standstill for four days now, the town centre deserted. Around 6,000 workers from the local mine have joined 7,000 colleagues from the neighbouring Kolubara pit in strike action.

"For pit workers to down tools and lose their pay, a great injustice must be afoot," said Dusan Jovanovic, an opposition Democratic Party activist from Kostolac.

Serbia's coal miners, until quite recently among Milosevic's staunchest supporters, have turned their backs on the leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia. Here as in Tamnava local people have rallied behind the miners who say they will not give up their protest until Milosevic concedes electoral defeat.

When police ordered the miners to remove a barricade outside the village of Bratinac, bus loads of people turned up to reinforce the protesters. Even pupils from Belgrade High School 14, on a school trip to the area, joined the demonstration.

In other protests, strikers near Veliko Gradiste lay down on the road to prevent police using bulldozers to clear away their barricades.

Yugoslav army chief of staff General Nebojsa Pavkovic, accompanied by military police, visited miners at the Kolubara pit in the early hours of Tuesday morning, appealing to them to return to work. The mine supplies a nearby thermal power plant, which provides half of Serbia's electricity. The plant's output has already been halved.

The state power company has introduced power cuts, claiming coal supplies to electricity generating stations are critically low. But power supply workers are also now going on strike.

"The lights may go out in Serbia for several hours each night," said Aleksandar Leka Milosavljevic, an engineer at the Kostolac power plant, "but we've actually been in darkness for ten years now, ever since Slobodan Milosevic took power."

Miners' barricades made up of tractors, cars and heavy machinery block the entrances to the Drmno, Cirikovac and Klenovnik pits. Two lorries, twenty tractors and several cars block the road to Cirikovac mine.

The Kostolac strikers are in good spirits. A sound system has arrived, music is playing and local villagers have turned up with a huge copper pot of fish soup.

When asked how long they intend to man their positions, "Until victory," they respond laughing.

"They've been stealing from us for years," says Slavisa Miladinovic, a Kostolac worker. "We work for 70 German marks and our salaries are the highest in the Pozarevac municipality. What on earth do the others get? Slobodan Milosevic doesn't ask such questions."

The Drmno pit is like a ghost town. Out of 3,000 miners only seven have turned up for work. Armed security guards, very prominent before the strike, are nowhere to be seen.

One of only seven strike breakers to turn up at Kostolac accused the international community of precipitating the industrial turmoil. "They are to blame for all of this: NATO, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair," he said. "The people are naïve and now they trust them. I would take all those who refuse to come to work to court."

Besides demanding Kostunica be recognised as rightful president, the Kostolac miners want the director of the complex, Ljubisa Marinkovic, to resign.

Marinkovic, a local SPS official, was a candidate in the municipal elections. He lost to one of his employees, Slobodan Jovic, which greatly amuses the Kostolac protesters. "What kind of director is he when one of his workers beats him in the election?" scoffed one miner.

Jovic said he was put under considerable pressure to stand down on the eve of the election. Even a neighbour, a member of the SPS, came to advise him to withdraw.

"I then showed my neighbour my poor man's dinner, a cabbage. And I asked him: 'What are you eating today?'" said Jovic. "He left without a word after that."

Night is now falling in Kostolac. The strikers are still manning their barricades. The "Good Luck" neon sign on the water tower is invisible, dimmed by the nightly power cut.

Marko Ruzic is a Serbian journalist and regular IWPR contributor.

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