Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Basketball Revolution?

Thousands of demonstrators have called for Slobodan Milosevic's resignation in what has always been a bastion of support for the Yugoslav President.
By Bojan Toncic

If the head of steam which is currently building in southern Serbia eventually brings down Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, his ouster may go down in history as the basketball revolution.


The 20,000 protestors who gathered on Monday in Leskovac, a town in southern Serbia of only 70,000 people, urging their president to resign, did so in response to a statement read out over local television during the break between two halves of a crucial European championship match involving the national team in France on Friday.


While viewers were waiting for the second half to start, Ivan Novakovic, a tape editor at the station, barged into the studio to broadcast a recorded 20-minute statement. In it, he listed the offences committed by the authorities--including sending the town's young men into a war they could not win--and urged locals to take their grievances onto the streets on 5 July and to overthrow the district administrator, Zivojin Stefanovic.


The basketball fans--a large proportion of the population in this sports-mad country--were stunned. And although the local authorities issued their own statement that same evening in which they described Novakovic's unscheduled intervention as a "classic enemy act whose aim was to destabilise the current state of affairs", the die was cast.


Whereas before the war in Kosovo, such a stunt would probably have been remembered as a bit of harmless fun, now it has galvanised a deeply frustrated population.


In recent weeks since the end of the NATO bombing campaign, the mood in Leskovac has been sombre. The town lies just 40 km from the Kosovo border and 100 km from Pristina. Soldiers returning from the front have shown symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and appear depressed, probably as a result of the crimes committed against Kosovar Albanians, the killing and burning of houses, in which they participated either actively or passively. Many appear on the edge of a nervous breakdown.


According to Dobroslav Nesic, president of a human rights group in Leskovac, paramilitaries loyal to the warlord Frenki Simatovic, notorious for the crimes committed under his command, cruise the town. Drunk soldiers prowl the streets, picking fights and firing in the air. People are afraid to let their children out of the house.


Members of soldiers' families, who only now can hear what really happened in Kosovo, are bitter. Having consistently voted for him at every election over the past nine years, they now believe Milosevic has cheated them.


Before the NATO bombing campaign and before several hundred young men from Leskovac were sent to fight in Kosovo, the town had been one of the strongest bastions of support for the Milosevic and his ruling Socialist Party. Today the town's people are counting their dead and calculating the material damage. As they do this, their frustration grows.


The casualty statistics still have not been officially reported. However, the Yugoslav Army gave the Serbian Orthodox Church a list of 57 names of the dead, each with an explanation of the circumstances of death. These included "killed by NATO", "killed by the Kosovo Liberation Army", "suicide", "death by illness" and "death by natural causes".


Among the killed are a 20-year-old and several men whose deaths have left two or three children without a father.


People in Leskovac now say that they took on NATO because of the stupidity of their authorities and that the price that they have paid has been too high. Many of the demobilised soldiers are yet to receive any salary from the military and their families have been left without any means to make a living.


Because of a shortage of raw materials and power, all the town's factories are closed, and there is not even any seasonal building work which has traditionally helped industrial workers get by. Families live in fear of winter because they have heard forecasts of massive power cuts and hyper inflation.


The opposition Democratic Party of Leskovac recently published a pamphlet accusing Milosevic of creating "ever more Serb graves and ever less Serb territory." Subsequently, two party activists were taken in by police for questioning; the party's local president Sinisa Peric has received several threatening phone calls; and over the weekend, the message "warning-traitors" was left carved on the doors of the party headquarters.


The local authorities have attempted to defuse the situation by organising receptions for reservists and promising that the families of the dead soldiers will receive flats, and that their children will receive grants for their schooling. They have also been looking at ways to clamp down on all potentially hostile reporting. Opposition activists say that a purge of journalists at Leskovac television is imminent.


Since almost all independent media in Serbia have been crushed in recent months, opposition activists in Leskovac have found another way of getting information out. Posters have begun appearing on walls naming politicians and company directors who have embezzled money-and sometimes even noting the number of the Budapest bank account where they have allegedly stashed their ill-gotten gains.


Having given Milosevic almost unconditional support for the past decade, the south of Serbia is now waking up to the consequences of this decision. Sober reality appears a nightmare.


Bojan Toncic is a regular contributor to IWPR from Belgrade.