Protesting Belgrade Teachers Shift Attention to Economics

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Thousands of angry teachers blocked a street in front of the Serbian government building Monday, and a public transport warning strike stranded thousands of commuters in the capital.

While leaders of Serbia's democratic opposition put their street protests on hold, President Slobodan Milosevic faced a new wave of protest -- this time with economic demands.

Teachers from 1,800 of 2,100 elementary and high schools in Serbia have been on strike for more than two weeks to demand back pay and an increase in their $150 average monthly salaries. Transport workers are also demanding money owed them for the past several months, as well as better working conditions.

By handing over the capital, Belgrade, and 13 other major towns to the opposition, Milosevic last weekend managed to defuse the three-month political demonstrations against his rule. But he may now face social unrest.

"We've had enough. We are starving while the regime squanders money on the police force," said Sofija Siradovic, a 35-year-old high school literature teacher. The 5,000 teachers protesting in front of the parliament, dressed in worn clothes, were a picture of Serbia's impoverished and degraded academics.

The teachers are angered by a deal Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic struck with the state-controlled teachers' union Sunday to raise their real wages by 10 percent. The agreement, made without their real representatives present, only further infuriated teachers, who demanded that their own representatives negotiate a deal. Their original demand was a 60-percent raise.

Serbia's economy is devastated by years of mismanagement and international sanctions imposed to punish Milosevic for fomenting the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Factories are idle, and already low salaries in all sectors of economic life often are delayed for months.