Anti-Milosevic hotbed suffers with all the rest

Weary residents of Novi Sad want to know why they've suffered bombing, sanctions


Friday, February 25, 2000

Novi Sad, Yugoslavia -- The opposition mayor of Yugoslavia's second-largest city has a one-word message for Canada and other Western countries: Help!

Steven Vrbaski of Novi Sad points out that his riverside city is a hotbed of opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the authoritarian nationalist whom Western countries are trying to unseat.

Yet the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing campaign brought the city of 400,000 to its knees last year, and Western economic sanctions are keeping it down.

"How does the West expect us to fight Milosevic if they don't help us?" asked Mr. Vrbaski, a rough-hewn man with a grey brush cut.

When a visitor pointed out that the sanctions are intended to hurt Mr. Milosevic, not ordinary Yugoslavs, he exploded: "If someone says that to me again, I'm going to quit this job for good."

Sanctions have put more than half the region's population out of work, he said, while Mr. Milosevic and his cronies have enriched themselves through smuggling and the black market.

If Novi Sad is going to keep up its struggle against the Milosevic regime, he added, it needs Western help to rebuild.

Many residents say the same. People here are still shaking their heads in angry disbelief at the pummelling they took during the conflict over Kosovo.

An ethnically mixed city of Serbs, Croats, Hungarians and many others, Novi Sad has never been very sympathetic to Mr. Milosevic's stubborn Serb nationalism. The ugly ethnic struggle in Kosovo is at the opposite end of the country and a world away from the life of most people here.

Voters have consistently elected opposition figures to represent them, and only six of the 70 representatives in the city assembly belong to Mr. Milosevic's Socialist party.

Yet Novi Sad was bombed as heavily as any Serbian stronghold last spring. Bombs and missiles fell on the city on all but three days of the 78-day NATO campaign. Fourteen people were killed and 400 families were left homeless.

NATO bombs set fire to the city's oil refinery and caused $500-million worth of damage. NATO graphite bombs knocked out the power supply and plunged the city into darkness. And, in the early days of the war, NATO bombs destroyed the pride of Novi Sad: the three bridges that span the Danube River and link the city's two sides.

Now, residents tell a bitter joke: "We are the city that suffered most." In Serbia, most is the word for bridge.

People say they simply cannot understand why a city so removed from the war and so hostile to Mr. Milosevic was hit so hard.

"They bombed us for two or three times a day until the sky was black," said Dorde Latincic, a railway tour guide. "What did we do to deserve this?"

Residents are just as confused about the sanctions. Western governments have placed an economic cordon around Yugoslavia, and they refuse either to lift it or to help Yugoslavia repair its war damage while Mr. Milosevic remains in power.

Part of the strategy seems to be to make Yugoslavs so miserable that they will turn against the internationally reviled Serb leader.

That makes no sense to Mr. Vrbaski, the mayor. "I want Milosevic to go too, but he has all the power -- the TV, the army, the police. How can we fight him?"

Novi Sad opposition leader Nenad Canak, president of the League of Social Democrats, said the sanctions have actually made Mr. Milosevic stronger by giving him a foreign enemy. Just as Cuba's Fidel Castro blames the U.S. embargo for Cuba's economic troubles, Mr. Milosevic can blame the West for Yugoslavia's economic stagnation.

In the meantime, Mr. Milosevic and his friends grow rich. Smuggled goods are everywhere in Novi Sad. Despite the sanctions, smuggled gasoline can be had for less than what it costs across the border in Hungary.

The trouble is not finding goods but finding money to buy them. After 10 years of sanctions against Yugoslavia, the average wage in Novi Sad is less than $70 a month. Mornings often find old-age pensioners lining up in the cold to buy cheap state-subsidized milk.

The sanctions have also kept Novi Sad divided and the Danube closed. The tangled wreckage of the three bridges still lies in the river's muddy water, blocking all traffic on the major artery.

The government has built a temporary pontoon bridge, so residents no longer need to cross on crowded open barges.

But boats cannot travel up or down the river until new bridges are built. Western countries have refused to rebuild what they destroyed, although they are willing to help clear the wreckage.

Meanwhile, the city and federal governments are feuding over which should rebuild the best-loved city bridge, the Varadin, which stood in the centre of this picturesque but run-down city. Both want to do it -- and take the political credit. The result: no bridge for now.

Europe now seems to understand the perverse effects of its policy. It has moved to focus its sanctions on Mr. Milosevic and his associates, while lifting a ban on air travel to Yugoslavia. The European Union is also moving ahead with a plan to ship oil to opposition-held cities such as Novi Sad. And the city has already received European food, clothing and other essentials.

But the mayor calls it too little, too late.

"We don't need children's shoes. We don't need charity," he said. "We just want normal co-operation."

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