BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- In an apparent breakthrough for opponents of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, a court has ordered opposition election victories to be restored in Serbia's second-largest city.
It was the first victory by the opposition after 28 days of massive street demonstrations against Milosevic, and it appeared to be an attempt by the Serbian leader to neutralize the protest movement challenging his regime.
A decision by the Milosevic-backed elections commission to annul municipal elections lost by his Socialist Party on Nov. 17 triggered the largest and longest series of anti-government rallies in Serbia in more than 50 years.
The ruling by the Milosevic-controlled court would give the Zajedno (Together) opposition coalition control of city government in Nis, a one-time Socialist stronghold and scene of the most blatant election fraud.
Zajedno officials said a copy of the ruling was delivered to their Nis office at 1 p.m. yesterday. Tens of thousands of demonstrators who had gathered yesterday in Belgrade's Republic Square greeted the ruling with chants of "Victory, victory."
Opposition leaders welcomed the reversal in Nis but said it was not enough to quiet their protest.
"What about the falsifying, what about torturing people? Who is going to be responsible for that?" Zoran Djindjic, an opposition leader, asked the crowd.
"These elections are not the only issue. [They expect] us to receive these results and go home to sleep? We've only just started to give rebirth to Serbia. If they think they can stop the volcano now, they are badly mistaken."
Analysts speculated that Milosevic may be trying to strike a deal in which the Socialists relinquish Nis but keep control of Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia.
That exchange is said to have been one of several offers on the table in indirect negotiations under way between the two sides. The opposition has so far pledged to fight for both cities, where it believes it won City Hall majorities.
The original election results in Nis gave 41 of 70 City Council seats to Zajedno. But the local Socialist-controlled Electoral Commission took 17 seats from Zajedno and added them to the Socialists' 20, clumsily doctoring vote tally sheets to back up the decision, according to monitors and diplomats.
Opposition politicians retained copies of the original tally sheets and presented these to the court.
"The difference between here and Belgrade is that this was the most obvious stealing," said Aleksandar Krstic, an official of the opposition Democratic Party in Nis.
Krstic suggested that it would have been impossible for the government to show the doctored records to an international delegation that Milosevic has invited to inspect election results.
Anticipation of a visit by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe may have forced the authorities to resolve the Nis results.
Nis, an industrial hub devastated by economic decline, was until recently the domain of Mile Ilic, a powerful Socialist Party chieftain who became one of the most corrupt officials in the Milosevic regime.
Ilic, who is said to have used his political office to enrich himself through city real estate deals, became the first casualty of the election troubles. Milosevic fired him earlier this month, apparently over the handling of the Nis elections.
The court order received yesterday must be put into effect within 10 days. It was not clear if the Socialists will try to appeal.
Also yesterday Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, one of three parties in the Zajedno coalition, met for two hours in Geneva with John Kornblum, an assistant secretary state, who voiced support for "the democratic process." Earlier this month, Kornblum canceled a meeting with Milosevic.
Pub Date: 12/16/96