Rage against the regime

Meet the new faces of the Serbian opposition.

Published October 12, 1999 5:20PM (EDT)

Czech dissident Milan Kundera once wrote that there is no love greater than that experienced by someone who is closely monitored by a secret police agent. No one watches him so closely, interrogates him with such insistent questions, pays him such attention.

One feels a whiff of that sort of attentive love in Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, where one can find consolation in the fact that phones are tapped, e-mail is read and meetings with political activists monitored. Secret police mingled in with a crowd of a few hundred of Belgrade's intelligentsia Monday night, gathered at the Center for Cultural Decontamination for a ceremony to mark the six-month anniversary of the assassination of independent Serbian editor Slavko Curuvija, shot outside his apartment building when returning from an Easter Sunday walk with his wife Branka.

Among the journalists, artists, writers, professors and secret police was leading opposition politician Zoran Djindjic, as well as his wife and four bodyguards. Djindjic, a German-educated philosophy professor who leads Serbia's Alliance for Change coalition of opposition parties, has good reason to travel with the well-armed and broad-shouldered security guards. Last week, his leading opposition rival Vuk Draskovic narrowly missed being killed in a car accident that took the lives of four close associates. Draskovic, along with most of the capital, considers the incident an assassination attempt by the Milosevic regime (and several details of the accident -- including the fact that in this repressive police state, the police say they have no record of who owns the truck which hit Draskovic's car, and have failed to find the driver -- are very suspicious).

Like the ceremony marking Curuvija's murder, the presumed assassination attempt against Draskovic may prove to be the opportunity Serbia's political opposition desperately needs to reinvigorate its exhausted efforts to oust Milosevic. Over the past few days, street protests in the capital have dwindled to fewer than 10,000 people -- far fewer than the hundreds of thousands of people who regularly turned out to protest the regime in the winter of 1996-1997. The number of street protesters dropped precipitously after dozens of demonstrators were severely beaten by riot police last week.

Draskovic's restoked rage against the regime, together with the dwindling street protests, have together served as a catalyst to unite Serbia's divided political opposition behind the idea of demanding early elections. A final meeting scheduled for Thursday is expected to produce a list of 10 conditions for internationally monitored early elections for the Serbian parliament. After that, the opposition will demand a round-table meeting with the Milosevic regime to negotiate for early elections.

Draskovic's fury at the regime in which he once served as deputy prime minister has driven him closer to the weaker opposition political parties whose supporters are already on the streets. He is expected to decide this week if he will call his tens of thousands of rowdier supporters onto the streets to join in the protests. Even though many political analysts here consider Draskovic a political opportunist who was even willing to join forces with Milosevic to serve his need for power, they acknowledge his support is crucial if the opposition movement is to gain a critical mass. A recent poll shows Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Party to have the single largest constituency among all political parties in the country, leading even Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, and the far-right nationalist Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj. In addition, Draskovic controls Belgrade's only independent television station, Studio B, which has provided the only local TV coverage of the anti-government protests on its news broadcasts, and on Saturday aired a long-interview with his long-time opposition rival Djindjic.

As Serbia's political opposition devises a more concrete, even legalistic strategy of using elections as a vehicle for ousting Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader seems to be increasingly relying on mobster tactics to maintain power.

"This regime acts more like a mafia than a state," said one pro-democracy activist who asked not to be identified. "The reason Curuvija and Draskovic were targeted for assassination attempts was because they were insiders who betrayed Milosevic. And that Milosevic cannot forgive."

The surface normalcy of Belgrade, a faded but elegant city of 2 million people, is permeated by an atmosphere of intimidation and the suggestion of potential violence. The regime's power to intimidate is enhanced by the Machiavellian selectivity of its repression, its semi-totalitarian nature, its unpredictability. It's the kind of place where one instinctively starts to censor oneself when talking on the phone, where one is warned to delete files off hard drives, write only the most cryptic e-mail messages to activists so as not to endanger them, where people talk about having "problems" with the police, and everybody knows what they mean.

"I was visited by the police twice just this week," complained Slobodan Djinovic, a leader with the student activist group "Otpor" or Resistance. He and other student activists ducked out of the Curuvija memorial Monday night in order to avoid more encounters with the police mixed in with the crowd. "Never let them think you're friends with them," Djinovic advises. "Don't give them an opening. Just talk about wanting a lawyer present."

Srdjan Popovic, a student leader, and at 26, the youngest member of Belgrade's city parliament, talks passionately about wanting to change the culture of fear which stifles Serbian politics. He talks about a population that fears change will only bring something worse, and which has therefore consistently voted over the past decade for the status quo -- Milosevic.

"We want to generate the idea within individual people to resist," he said at a meeting Sunday at a cafe downstairs from Otpor's downtown offices. "We want to build a completely new political generation in Serbia."

Police beatings have driven some of Popovic's friends to stay away from the demonstrations for the past week.

"I asked one, 'Are you frightened?' And he said, 'No, it's just that walking and whistling aren't working for me. I'm waiting for something more radical. I am not Gandhi. I've got bruises, and somebody is going to pay for that,'" Popovic recounted.

Zarko Korac, a Belgrade University psychology professor who leads a coalition of democratic parties, spoke about fear, and the chilling effect it has on the opposition movement, at Curuvija's memorial service Monday night.

As Korac and I sit at a downtown cafe Monday afternoon, a man in a warm-up suit approaches him, spits on the ground, gives Korac a long look, and then walks on. It is a kind of threat.

"He doesn't like me," Korac says, as Belgraders stream by, past the antiquarian bookshops and delicatessens and kiosks that give an illusion of calm to this city charged with a sense of imminent violence.

By Laura Rozen

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

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