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Serb Radio Stations Resume Broadcasts

By John Pomfret
The Washington Post
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia

The Serbian government, making conciliatory gestures in the face of mounting street protests, allowed two independent radio stations to resume broadcasts Thursday and signaled willingness to consider acknowledging the electoral victory of opposition parties in two of Yugoslavia's biggest cities.

The decisions marked the first signs of political flexibility from President Slobodan Milosevic and his government in 18 straight days of demonstrations and intense pressure from the United States and other Western governments for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. They came one day after the Clinton administration voiced determination to relay broadcasts from a silenced station via the Voice of America and made clear that Washington no longer considers the Serbian leader indispensable for peace in the Balkans.

In one sign of the conciliatory shift, Zivadin Jovanovic, an assistant foreign minister, declined to comment when asked if Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party had won the Nov. 17 election in the southern city of Nis. This cast doubt on a victory announced on state-run television two weeks ago and amounted to acknowledgment that the government is considering another outcome to the race.

A government official said the Socialist Party is considering ways to recognize the opposition's claims that it had won control of the southern city. Nis's mayor and Socialist Party boss, Mile Ilic, widely regarded as one of the most corrupt officials in Yugoslavia, announced Thursday night that he was resigning. Western officials said Ilic's party machine was guilty of widespread ballot box stuffing in Nis.

The government official added that Serbia's supreme court was meeting to consider another request by the opposition to recognize its election victory in the capital, Belgrade. Unlike the first case, which led to a Nov. 24 court ruling overturning the opposition victory, this request was backed by Belgrade's election commission.

"We are trying to find a way out," the official said. "The important thing is to stabilize the situation."

As more than 150,000 people massed on Belgrade's streets and another 25,000 boisterous protesters turned out in Nis, the government also announced measures designed to appease Yugoslavia's indignant middle class, the engine behind the unrest.

The reversal of Milosevic's hard-line stance just two days after his government banned the last two independent news stations in the capital marked a significant shift. Until Thursday night, Milosevic had appeared to be heading toward a confrontation with the five-party opposition coalition, Together, and the tens of thousands of protesters who have packed downtown Belgrade daily since Nov. 18.

The possibility of a violent end to the demonstrations appeared greatly diminished. What remained to be seen, however, is how far the Serbian strongman will go to satisfy opposition and Western calls on him to respect the results of the Nov. 17 municipal elections. The opposition claims it captured 15 of Serbia's 19 biggest cities.