Bringing down the Butcher of Belgrade

Serbian cops are standing back while strikers shut down Yugoslavia, but will Milosevic accept a bloodless defeat?

Published October 3, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Strikes across Yugoslavia on Monday blocked roads and bridges, stopped traffic and closed factories and coal mines. Opposition groups calling the strikes hope they will force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to step down.

So far, hopes are high that the strikes will remain peaceful -- and be successful. To date, Serbia's police have largely refrained from confrontations with protesters, calming fears that the embattled president could crack down. But with scheduled runoff elections less than a week away, it remains to be seen whether this will be a bloodless revolution, or whether it will fail to force Milosevic out.

Monday's events show just how much things have changed in Yugoslavia in a short time. Four months ago, Serbia's pro-democracy activists were wracked with despair. The opposition had failed to ignite large-scale public protests after Milosevic seized Serbia's last remaining independent television station in Belgrade. Activists didn't see a way out of Serbia's growing repressiveness. Now, following Milosevic's defeat in elections last week, they say everything's changed.

"I am so happy and optimistic," Marija, an activist with the student group Otpor (whose name means "resistance") said Friday from Belgrade. "In May, I was depressed and nervous. But now I am happy because finally something happened. And it happened legally, the voters of Serbia decided. And that is the most important thing. It marks a change in the consciousness of the people. I am very optimistic about that. The regime cannot last long anymore. And nothing will be the same anymore."

"This is definitely the end," Bojan Pinto, an independent Serbian journalist, e-mails Saturday from Belgrade, "though we are not so sure how long it's going to take."

Marija and Pinto are two of dozens of Serbs interviewed -- students, opposition activists, journalists, political analysts, middle-class professionals, diplomats -- who express that spine-tingling conviction: Finally, after 13 years of his catastrophic rule, the end of the era of Slobodan Milosevic is upon them.

"The political atmosphere has completely changed," scholar and writer Dusan Batakovic said by telephone from Belgrade Sunday. "It's only a matter of time until Milosevic steps down."

Euphoria has been in the air in Serbia in the week since opposition challenger Vojislav Kostunica beat Milosevic in Yugoslav presidential elections, unleashing a sense of liberation that seems to have taken hold. Serbs have long viewed the "Butcher of the Balkans" as almost all-powerful, but Milosevic's first-ever defeat at the polls has made Serbs see him as an emperor with no clothes, his essential vulnerability now exposed.

"These elections really showed how empty was Milosevic's power all this time," human rights activist Sonja Biserko said last week. "And the wisdom of the people is that they saw through it."

"The dominoes have started falling very, very quickly," said Nenad Stefanovic, a journalist with the independent Serbian magazine Vreme. "I think this is the end of the regime."

For now, however, Milosevic refuses to go. Although Milosevic concedes that Kostunica beat him at last week's elections, he says Kostunica beat him by a margin of 49 percent to 38 percent, and rejects the opposition's findings that Kostunica actually earned more than 50 percent of the votes cast. Milosevic has vowed to stand in a runoff Oct. 8 that the opposition insists it must boycott, because they contend Kostunica won outright in the first round of balloting.

The 18 opposition parties united behind Kostunica, known as the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), called for a series of nationwide strikes that began at 5 a.m. Monday. They hope to shut the country down -- and force Milosevic to leave office.

Events Monday showed the strike succeeding much more in the countryside than in Belgrade, with its 2 million residents and zero independent broadcast-media outlets.

"We want the strikes and the process of shutting Serbia down to happen quickly," opposition leader Zarko Korac said Sunday. "We don't have much time. We have to do everything before the second round, because otherwise Milosevic will go to the second round. After two days of strikes, the opposition will call on the people of Serbia to come to Belgrade for a huge rally."

In the meantime, opposition leaders were calling on city governments to organize the people in their neighborhoods to come out and physically block the government institutions that participated in the vote-rigging that gave Milosevic thin cover to call for a second round.

Western governments and the Serbian opposition have both turned to Moscow to help mediate Milosevic's departure from power. Over the weekend, Russian president Vladimir Putin sent two Russian foreign ministry officials to Belgrade to meet quietly with the opposition and with the regime, after Milosevic rejected Putin's offer to send Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov to mediate.

Opposition supporters are encouraged by what they say are growing signs that anti-Milosevic sentiment has spread from the educated and professional elites to the working classes. Truck drivers, coal and copper miners, the Pancevo oil refinery, universities, high schools, theaters, some food producers and the largest Serbian trade union were all vowing to take part in the strike.

Early Monday, police allowed hundreds of opposition supporters to bring food to 4,500 striking coal miners at Serbia's largest coal mine in Lazarevac. Later on Monday, police allowed Kostunica through to meet with the protesting miners who cheered him as their new "president."

Also significant is an avalanche of state-run news agencies now throwing their lot in with the opposition. Employees of regime-controlled television stations in Kragujevac and Novi Sad, and a daily newspaper in Belgrade, joined opposition protests over the weekend, demanding that they be allowed to broadcast news from the opposition's perspective too.

The widespread participation of workers and Serbia's industrial sector in Monday's strikes distinguishes these anti-Milosevic protests from those of the past. Also different and significant, according to opposition supporters, is growing evidence that Milosevic cannot necessarily count on the army and police to crack down on protesters.

The regime-dominated federal elections commission is reported to have halted vote counting last week after it became clear that an overwhelming majority of the 30,000 Yugoslav army conscripts had voted for the opposition. They also say there are signs that lower and middle rungs of the Serbian police force were sympathetic to the people who are on the streets demanding that Milosevic step down.

"Milosevic cannot count on the army supporting him," says scholar and writer Batakovic. "Most of the police will also do nothing ... And I think that even those paramilitaries who were until now very loyal to him will think twice before they resume any action. Because the atmosphere is overwhelmingly against Milosevic."

"We know the army will stay out of it," Srdja Popovic, an activist with Otpor, said Friday. "We have signs that some police are coming over to our side. Police in Krusevac came into Otpor's office last week and asked for Otpor buttons and pinned them on their uniforms. But we know that some police are still with the regime."

"Day by day, the chance of a police crackdown is getting more remote," said journalist Stefanovic. "Because it is very well known that the lower structures of the army and police are not ready for any adventures. Because those people live with us in our neighborhoods." Stefanovic realizes that some police might be willing to attack demonstrators if Milosevic gave the order, but, she adds, "It is getting more and more difficult for the regime to crack down."

To date, the opposition notes with relief, the police have refrained from beating protesters. In 1991, Milosevic used tanks to stifle opposition protests against him. Then, during three months of massive opposition protests in 1996-1997, Milosevic's riot police on several occasions savagely beat peaceful demonstrators protesting his overturning of local election results. Batakovic calls this week's anti-Milosevic revolution "velvet" -- so far.

But some observers warn that temperatures are rising, and that the opposition's strategy of street protests and strikes raises the risk of violence.

"The crisis is now growing. I don't know when it is going to culminate," political analyst Predrag Simic said Sunday. Simic has served as a foreign affairs advisor to Vuk Draskovic, an opposition leader whose party did poorly at last week's elections and who has since congratulated Kostunica on his victory. "The strike will be a test of the strength of the will and ability of the opposition to mobilize the biggest civic protest Serbia has ever seen."

"It is now clear [Milosevic's party] the Socialists are ready to continue until the bitter end," Stefanovic says. "The risk is higher with a boycott of the second round. And this is a very strong dilemma. If going to a second round is a precondition for us to avoid bloodshed, maybe that's the best solution." But he added that it would be risky to give in to Milosevic when there is such strong evidence that the opposition won a clear and solid victory. "You must not cheat the people who voted for you. They expressed their democratic will in elections. Kostunica knows he won, but by going to a second round, you again open the possibility that Milosevic will cheat you."

"Milosevic has showed many times that when he is in a desperate situation, he is very fast and smart," Stefanovic adds.

Sloboden Homen, an Otpor activist, warned Monday that the opposition's boycott of the second round of elections could prove a dangerous strategy. "Mr. Milosevic will do whatever he wants. After the second round of election, he will declare himself the legitimate president, and call on the use of force to quash protests," Homen said. "The loyalty of the police and army may swing back to him."

In a rare television address on Monday, Milosevic defiantly told the nation he has no plans to concede to the opposition. He blasted interference from Western governments, warned that his opponents' victory would lead to the breakup of Yugoslavia, the crumbling of the economy and foreign nations to overrun Serbia. Painting himself as a beseiged leader trying to keep the peace, Milosevic concluded, "My conscience would not be clear if I didn't tell the people what I think."

Some opposition supporters initially gloated at early signs of defections from Milosevic's inner circle and widespread rumors that important regime figures were fleeing the country. But Serbian analysts now concede that many officials close to the regime appear to be staying put.

Milosevic's son, Marko, is reported to have walked into opposition headquarters in the Milosevic family home town of Pozarevac on Sunday and told officials there that his father hadn't lost and that he, Marko, had no intention of fleeing Serbia. And Milosevic's hated but powerful wife, Mirjana Markovic, initially reported to have had a "nervous breakdown" upon learning her husband had lost the elections, appeared Thursday at a meeting of her political party, the Yugoslav United Left.

Still, some important Serbian figures formerly allied with Milosevic's Socialists appeared to be trying to better position themselves should the opposition come to power. Serbian finance minister Milan Beko, who is the director of one of Serbia's largest companies, the Zastava car and weapons manufacturer, resigned last week.

Even a high-profile television personality has joined public calls for Milosevic to resign. "We lost on the local level, and you lost on the presidential level," wrote Milorad Mandic, a former member of Milosevic's Socialist party, in an open letter. Mandic acts in a popular children's show on state-run television, a Serbian version of "Captain Kangaroo." "I know you are surrounded with liars, with people who are not able to do anything serious and some criminals. And they are lying to you that you won."

Batakovic says that even those figures who are staying loyal to Milosevic don't look very happy about it.

"When I see his people giving public announcements on state-dominated TV, they look like people who are attending a funeral. They all seem very worried," Batakovic said. "In his public appearances, Milosevic himself looks like a figure from Madame Tussaud's wax museum."

By Laura Rozen

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

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