Serbian denial

As anti-Milosevic protests continue, Serbia stands on the brink of civil war.

Published July 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Fueled by public outrage at Serbia's humiliating loss of Kosovo and the
destruction of its industrial economy by NATO bombs, Serbia appears to be either
in the early stages of a revolution that will topple Yugoslav president Slobodan
Milosevic, or spiraling into a situation that could rapidly degenerate into
civil war. Street protests have erupted in tough industrial towns that formerly
served as the staunchest supporters of Milosevic's neo-Communist Socialist Party
of Serbia -- towns now crippled in the wake of the airstrikes. Many of the
protesters have been unpaid Yugoslav army reservists just back from Kosovo, who have yet to be disarmed, and who have found that their families have not had enough to eat,
and that Serbia lost Kosovo just the same.

"What Serbia is experiencing now is like an ancient Greek drama," said Zarko
Korac, a Belgrade psychology professor known for his liberal views. "There is
going to be a confrontation between angry citizens and the government. There will
be a bloody confrontation. We cannot exclude the possibility of a civil war."

Anti-Milosevic protests in Serbia are nothing new. In the winter of 1996-97,
pro-democracy reformer Zoran Djindjic and Serbian nationalist Vuk Draskovic put
aside their rivalry to lead a series of massive daily street
that regularly brought hundreds of thousands of people to the
streets of Belgrade and smaller Serbian cities. Their movement -- which they led together with Vesna Pesic, who headed the Serb Civic Alliance, a party known for its anti-war
views -- was called "Zajedno," or "Together"; it was formed to protest Milosevic's
overturning of local elections, which showed opposition victories in 14 cities.

Throughout the three months of protest, the Zajedno daily street demonstrations
had a carnival atmosphere. MTV was among the media outlets on hand to film the
protests as Gypsy bands played and vendors sold popcorn, sodas and whistles to
demonstrators. Through it all, protesters played cat and mouse with the Serbian
police -- girls put flowers in their guns, while pensioners scolded individual Serbian
police in riot gear for threatening the well-being of their own people.

(It is difficult to believe now, but back in '96-'97, Zajedno demonstrators carried
German and American flags at the street protests -- symbols of the protestors'
desire to be part of Europe and the West. That attitude has changed since NATO
spent two months bombing the Serbian capital.)

But some Serbia watchers see signs that the protests this summer are more
powerful -- and more volatile -- than earlier ones, despite the fragmentation of the
political opposition. "The dissatisfaction of people with this regime is more
powerful than three years ago, no doubt," Korac said.

While the street protests have tapped into a deep well of discontent among the
Serbian public, they might not lead to Milosevic's fall. In a show of force
Friday, Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic -- head of the 3rd Army Corps, which fought in Kosovo --
reaffirmed the military's support of Milosevic. "The Yugoslav army will ... give its
unconditional support to the state institutions and their legally elected
representatives, from the lowest officials to the president of the republic," he

"The fact that people are dissatisfied with the Milosevic regime does not
necessarily mean the regime is going to be changed," Korac said. "One reason is [that]
this regime has nowhere to go. Milosevic and his close associates have been
indicted for war crimes. The fact that they have nowhere to go gives Milosevic
and his cronies an additional reason to cling to power. Instead of them being in
jail, all of Serbia is in jail."

While protesting Serbs share bitterness at Milosevic for losing Kosovo and for
the country's crippled post-war economy, the Yugoslav leader's opponents are
crippled by internal differences and political rivalries.

"After Milosevic's capitulation in Kosovo," wrote veteran
Serbian political analyst Bratislav Grubacic on Friday, "the
Serbian opposition has a great chance of grabbing power. [It's] now or never. The fact
that the country is on the verge of total economic collapse only plays into its
hands. However, rifts within the Serbian opposition have appeared once again."

Grubacic, who publishes the VIP daily news report, explains these rifts that might allow Milosevic to ride out the current wave of protests as the opposition again destroys itself.

Jealousies between Serbia's two leading opposition political figures -- Djindjic
and Draskovic -- are intense and personal. Djindjic heads the Alliance for
Change, a coalition of pro-democracy parties. A political science professor who
lived in Germany, Djindjic spent the three months of the NATO airstrikes in the
smaller, more liberal Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, trying to avoid getting
knocked off by a hard-line Serbian assassin.

Draskovic, the dark-bearded, wild-looking head of the Serbian Renewal Party,
shocked opposition supporters earlier this year by joining the Milosevic
government as deputy prime minister. (He was fired from the post during the
airstrikes for speaking out against Milosevic.) Of the entire political
opposition only Draskovic controls a television station, Belgrade's Studio B.

At the end of the winter of Zajedno's protests, Milosevic yielded, and gave the
14 towns back their election results. Djindjic became mayor of Belgrade, and
Draskovic prepared himself to run in presidential elections later that year. But
then the rivalry between the two became so intense that Djindjic lost the mayoral post in
Belgrade, and called for Zajedno supporters to boycott the
elections Draskovic was campaigning in. Both lost, and Serbia was more than ever
under Milosevic's control.

The fact that three months of daily street protests and a united political
opposition failed then to crush Milosevic makes some analysts skeptical that the
smaller, angrier and more fragmented protests this summer can achieve what
Zajedno could not -- the ousting of Milosevic.

"There is very deep discontent with Milosevic. But the grass-roots opposition is
at this point probably not ready to harness that discontent in a useful way,"
suggested Dejan Anastasijevic, a political analyst and journalist with the
independent Belgrade weekly Vreme. "The opposition can shout against Milosevic on
the streets all they want. But beyond the protests and civil disobedience, the
Serbian opposition should also try to build institutions to replace Milosevic, to
replace the current corrupt political structure. This is still a very young

According to Sonja Biserko, one of Serbia's leading human rights activists, who
fled for Vienna after the NATO airstrikes, Serbian citizens have not reckoned
with their own responsibility for the policies of extreme nationalism that
permitted atrocities to be committed against the Kosovo Albanians. She says that
despite Milosevic's control of Serbian state television and all the lies that are
broadcast, Serbs know what happened in Kosovo. But they are still in serious
denial. The Serbs are not protesting atrocities committed in their
name, but rather their own misery and poor standard of living, and the loss of Kosovo.

"So far, there has not been any real sobering up," Biserko said by telephone this week from
the headquarters of the International Helsinki Federation in Vienna "except maybe the Kosovo Serbs, who know what happened in Kosovo and who is responsible."

Biserko has called for a "de-Nazification" of Serbian society, which she said would force
Serbs to confront the atrocities committed by Serbian forces -- not just in Kosovo, but also earlier in Croatia and Bosnia. But so far, none of the Serbian opposition has
said what the Serbs did to Albanians in Kosovo was wrong; rather, they say
Milosevic's policies led to Serbia losing Kosovo.

Ironically, Serbs may be the next victim of Serbian violence, warns journalist Anastasijevic.

"Serbia will be Milosevic's next victim," Anastasijevic said. "All these
paramilitaries and nasty people who withdrew from Kosovo -- and they are really
nasty people -- are now in Serbia. And during the past several years covering
these wars, I have actually met some of these people. And I can tell you, that
most of them had one thing in common: They are not ethnically biased. They didn't
hate Muslims or Croats or Albanians. They are just killers with a license to
kill. And they are ready to kill and rob and loot anyone, provided the bosses pay
and there are no consequences."

"Milosevic is playing his favorite game," he adds. "To cause conflict and then
impose himself as a peacemaker after the blood has spilled, as he did in Croatia,
Bosnia and Kosovo with a great degree of success. But his playground has shrunk
a bit. And the only place he can do it now is in Serbia proper."

Anastasijevic's colleague, Nenad Stefanovic, also a writer at Vreme, had the same
thought as he was leaving a recent protest in the city of Prokuplje.

"This is the first night I thought there could be a civil war," Stefanovic said
by cell phone, driving back from the Prokuplje rally to Belgrade. "This rally
showed there are certain capacities for civil war among the Serbs, and not such
negligible capacities. Because the tensions are getting higher and higher."

"This is just warming up for a very hot end of summer," Stefanovic said. "Come
September and October, the standard of living in Serbia will be even worse,
people will be trying to store food for the winter, kids will be going back to
school, and the crisis will get worse. This country will be more and more

"It's very difficult to predict what will happen in six months," Stefanovic
added. "I think we can make no plans longer than tomorrow's lunch."

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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