Belgrade, Serbia: Early Elections Call As Tens Of Thousands March For Change: UPDATED

5 Feb

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Belgrade on Saturday for a major opposition rally calling for the government to call early elections or risk new protests in April.

Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the Serbian progressive party (SNS) attends a mass protest Enlarge photo

Some 70,000 people gathered for the rally in front of the Serbian parliament in central Belgrade, an AFP correspondent said. Police estimates put the figure at 55,000.

“I know you are dissatisfied, filled with resentment. We are many here today, so many that no one can stop us,” populist Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the nationalist Serbian Progress Party (SNS) told the crowd.

“I am not asking (the ruling party) to step down, elections will take care of things… Give us two months to let them call early elections,” he asked his supporters to chants of “We want elections!”

If new elections are not called by April “you will find me here again on the streets and you can join me” for new protests, Nikolic vowed.

He said the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt had sent a message to rulers to listen to their people.

“Shouldn’t we send a message to Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic and (President Boris) Tadic to listen to their people?” he asked.

Parliamentary elections are next scheduled in Serbia for May 2012. Nikolic’s SNS is hoping to cash in on growing discontent as Serbia struggles with rising prices, high inflation and high unemployment.

Many protesters came from Serbia’s legions of the older unemployed and were bussed in from outside of the capital.

“It’s our misery that brings us here. We want change, elections, we want things to be better for us,” 53-year-old Andjelka Gvero told AFP.

Nada, an-out-of-work saleswoman from Novi Sad who would not give her last name, said she felt abandoned by the current pro-European government.

“Nobody takes care of us, the citizens. Our businesses go bankrupt, we are unemployed. Any change is good,” she said.

Despite police fears that football hooligans would start riots at the rally, the protest passed peacefully and ended without any incidents reported.

Some 4,200 police officers were deployed to monitor the protests and the SNS also provided its own security services.

Last October football hooligans protesting the first Gay Pride parade in Serbia in almost 10 years clashed violently with police. The riots left 150 people injured, mainly people officers, and caused millions of euros (dollars) in damage.

Serbia was hard hit by the global economic crisis and is still struggling with high inflation and unemployment, fuelling social unrest.

According to official figures, the inflation rate reached 10.3 percent in 2010, one of the highest in Europe. The average monthly salary was about 390 euros (535 dollars) per month in December.

However economists warn that figure is skewed by high salaries in the big cities and that a majority of the country’s 7.5 million people live on a monthly income of between 80 and 120 euros.

The government in January decided to raise prices on controlled items like oil, sugar, flour, coffee, milk, fuel, meat, heating and public transport, adding to popular discontent.

A general view shows supporters of Serbian opposition during a mass protest Enlarge photo

NEWS UPDATE:

People waving Serbian flags crowd a square in front of the General Assembly building during an anti-government rally in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Fe
 AP – People waving Serbian flags crowd a square in front of the General Assembly building during an anti-government …

 
By DUSAN STOJANOVIC, Associated Press Dusan Stojanovic, Associated Press :

BELGRADE, Serbia – Tens of thousands of nationalist supporters rallied against Serbia’s pro-Western government on Saturday, demanding early elections amid the Balkan country’s deepening economic crisis.

About 10,000 police officers gathered near the rally in front of the state parliament in downtown Belgrade to prevent it from turning violent, as similar protests by right-wing protesters have in the past.

The former allies of the late autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic want Serbia’s government to schedule early elections because of the country’s rising poverty and unemployment and falling living standards. They also accuse the government of corruption.

The nationalists are promising economic recovery, higher salaries and new jobs, if they come to power. They have risen in popularity amid Serbia’s economic turmoil triggered by the global recession and the slow pace of the country’s integration into the European Union — the government’s main political goal.

“For 10 years, Serbia has lived under a corrupt and incapable government,” Serbian Progressive Party leader Tomislav Nikolic told the rally, as the crowd chanted “Thieves! Thieves!” and “Changes! Changes!”

“We will save Serbia when we take over,” he said. “No one can stop us.”

Opposition leaders addressing the crowd — estimated by police at about 55,000 — threatened to blockade the capital if their demands to move parliamentary elections forward from 2012 are not met within the next two months.

The spokeswoman for ruling Democratic Party, Jelena Trivan, said there will be no early elections despite the protest.

“If they have any concrete suggestions for the resolution of the crisis, the government is willing to talk,” she said. “But, early elections are held when the government loses a majority in the parliament, which is not the case.”

Nikolic’s party which organized the rally said afterward that the size of the gathering showed that “people want elections, a better life and a more responsible and capable government.”

It said that if authorities don’t respond to the call for the early elections, “even more people will gather” in the capital in April and remain protesting until their demands are met.

“This is the last warning to the government,” said another opposition leader, Velimir Ilic. “We don’t want to do it like in Egypt or Tunisia. We just want elections.”

Milosevic, who died in 2006 during his genocide trial at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, was ousted in 2000 after massive street protests in Belgrade led by officials from the current Serbian government.

“This is the start of a counterrevolution,” said Milos Joksimovic, a 35-year-old mechanical engineer who took part in the anti-Milosevic demonstrations at the same spot in the capital in October 2000. He spoke as he watched Saturday’s rally from a distance.

“They are becoming very strong, and it’s scary,” he said.

After the rally, police detained about 20 football fans who were chanting anti-government slogans.

___

Jovana Gec contributed to this report.

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