Serbia is liberated, Milosevic disappears

A long-suffering people celebrates the apparent end of the regime. But where has their dictator gone?


Laura Rozen
October 6, 2000 6:00AM (UTC)

As smoke rose from the federal Parliament building late Thursday night, a blessed silence replaced the decade of droning lies coming from Radio TV Serbia. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs had tested Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's last pillars of power and found them crumbling. After 13 years of stagnation, poverty, corruption, war and hopelessness, Serbia grasped Thursday at a more hopeful future.

"Good evening, liberated Serbia!" is how Vojislav Kostunica put it. The man whose victory over Milosevic in elections 11 days ago set off a revolution addressed a crowd of tens of thousands of cheering, ecstatic Serbs from the steps of the Parliament building in Belgrade.

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The crowd's ecstatic response accompanied relief that the insurrection had been largely bloodless, thanks to a turnaround by government forces. Once-feared special anti-terrorist police units, who had been lobbing tear gas at protesters trying to seize the TV station, stripped off their helmets and surrendered to the crowds. Some hugged demonstrators.

However, two people were reported killed during the crowd's attempts to seize the TV station, including one young woman who fell off an armored vehicle that demonstrators had climbed up on.

At Belgrade's main police station on Majke Jevrosime Street, sympathetic demonstrators gave their sweaters and coats to policemen trying to avoid the revenge of the crowds by slipping out the back. The army, too, turned its back on Milosevic. Troops who had been sent to murder Slovenians, Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovars seeking liberation from Milosevic's rule stayed in their barracks Thursday, as their fellow Serbs sought the same liberty.

The man who had commanded all of these instruments of power so brutally remained as enigmatic and secretive in defeat as he had in power. Milosevic seemed to have been toppled, but his silence Thursday deprived Serbia -- and the world -- of the certain knowledge that they could fully rejoice: Is he really gone?

Media reported that three Antonov 26 military airplanes took off from Batajnica military airport at 8:20 p.m. Belgrade time heading south. Rumors are circulating that Milosevic has retreated to fortified barracks near the Romanian border.

But it is still unclear whether Milosevic and his family have left the country, and which country might have accepted them. Western governments' careful statements on the matter suggested that a possible exit strategy for Milosevic may have been agreed in secret.

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U.S. national security advisor Sandy Berger told the BBC, "We have no reason to believe Milosevic is not in Belgrade." When the reporter said, "Then, Mr. Milosevic is in Serbia," Berger repeated his earlier statement -- that the U.S. has no knowledge that would indicate that Milosevic is elsewhere. Details are sure to emerge over the coming days.

But opposition leader Zoran Djindjic warned early Friday morning that Milosevic was in his fortified barracks near Bor, close to the Serbian border with Romania and Bulgaria. Milosevic "may be preparing a coup," Djindjic told Independent Radio B292. "That would be very bad if he pushed people further into conflicts."

Despite the uncertainty of Milosevic's whereabouts or plans, Serbs rejoiced with street celebrations late into the night. Convinced they had toppled him, they reveled in the newly wrested control of their nation's destiny. For many Serbs, it was an intensely sweet -- and entirely new -- experience. A lifetime's worth of Communism, propaganda, war and repression has made many deeply cynical about their ability to influence important political events in their country.

"I cannot believe what's happening today," said Milan Potrebic, a cafe owner in Belgrade, by telephone early Friday. "I've waited for this for 10 years. I didn't think I would ever see this day."

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The turning point in the revolution may have come a day earlier, at the Kolubara coal mines, 40 miles south of Belgrade. Thousands of ordinary Serbs from all over the country came on foot, tractors and cars to throw their support to 7,500 striking coal miners, who had been surrounded by 300 Serbian riot police. Three old men on a tractor burrowed through cordons, forcing the police to retreat. Hundreds of supporters then surged through, joining the strikers and proclaiming victory, as the police melted away. "This is the end of him," a striking miner, Milanko Bulatovic, told the New York Times. "Milosevic cannot do anything to us now."

"The bastard is gone!" Gojko Radibratovic, an air traffic controller from Belgrade, e-mailed Wednesday.

That growing self-empowerment fueled events Thursday.

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"The value of Milosevic is worth less than a single drop of blood," opposition leader Dragor Hiber said early Thursday by telephone. "We want to finish him, but peacefully. And I think that the police are now on our sides. The police are trying to look as if they are following orders but they are not."

Demonstrators braved dreadful tension and fear Thursday morning anticipating what Milosevic would do to stop them. Choking on tear gas as they moved through the capital, they gradually became more fearless as they stood their ground and then overtook the government institutions that had come to symbolize Milosevic's theft of their state and their lives.

After protesters had seized the federal Parliament, they gained control of Belgrade's main television station, taking it off the air.

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Soon after, the state-controlled Yugoslav news wire agency, Tanjug -- which was until Thursday a major mouthpiece for Milosevic -- put up the white flag. "From this moment, Tanjug informs the Yugoslav public that it is with the people of the country," an agency statement said. The statement was signed "Journalists of liberated Tanjug." It also referred to Kostunica as "the president-elect of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."

Similarly, the Milosevic-controlled newspaper, Politika, had this message on its Web site Thursday: "Srbija je slobodna! Serbia is free!"

Cafe owner Potrebic described what a sweet shock it was to buy the first edition of the state-run newspaper Politika on Friday, its headlines proclaiming Kostunica Yugoslavia's president. Politika had been a fiercely hard-line propaganda vehicle for Milosevic, portraying Kostunica and the opposition as traitors.

"I am afraid to go to sleep," said Serif Turgut, a Turkish journalist who has covered Milosevic's wars in Bosnia and Kosovo for the past six years, from Belgrade early Friday. "I am afraid I will wake up and it will have been a dream."

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Addressing tens of thousands of cheering supporters Thursday evening before he convened the first post-Milosevic session of the Yugoslav Parliament, Kostunica told those assembled he was proud of them.

"Our great and beautiful Serbia has risen to get rid of one man, Slobodan Milosevic. Serbia is at a standstill until one man leaves. When he leaves, Serbia will be on the move again, the Serbs will be on the move again," he said.

As the world watched, its attention riveted to the revolution toppling the last remaining dictatorship in Europe, Kostunica told crowds of cheering supporters, "What we are doing today is making history."

And then he went to work.

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Laura Rozen

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

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