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

Belgrade Protestors - 'Must Do Better Next Time'

A nationwide round of regular anti-regime protests got off to a wet and slightly disappointing start Tuesday: opposition leaders expect people in Belgrade to do better next time, but the protests are gaining strength in the regions.
By Milenko Vasovic

Belgrade could do better. That was how economist Mladjan Dinkic assessed Tuesday's opening day of protests against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Some 20,000 Belgraders joined the demonstration despite a burst of heavy rain that began at the same time as the event itself.


Two opposition blocs, the Alliance for Changes (SZP) and the Alliance of Democratic Parties (SDP) scheduled protests in 19 towns across Serbia on September 21. They say they will continue until three demands are met: the resignation of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic; the founding of a transitional government headed by former National Bank governor Dragoslav Avramovic; and the calling of free democratic elections.


Loudly greeted by Belgraders, Avramovic, the SZP's choice to head a future transitional government, called on the authorities to resign. He said Serbia was threatened with crippling inflation and a "big-time freeze" this winter. He proposes to assemble a team of experts to work on an economic programme, while the Democratic Centre, together with other opposition parties, is to work on the proposed transitional government's political programme.


Avramovic sought the support of the people and unity among the opposition parties, as this, he said, is the only way to create a transitional government that could lead the country out of the crisis.


"This now is the war of nerves," said Zoran Djindjic, leader of the Democratic Party. "Milosevic is now waiting to see how long we can persist. It ought to be said whether the people or Milosevic are strongest - Serbia or Milosevic?" Meanwhile protesters chanted 'We're going to Dedinje' - the part of Belgrade where Milosevic lives.


Other speakers remembered the thousands killed and wounded in wars waged and lost by Milosevic, the loss abroad of thousands of the country's best minds and the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have flocked to Serbia. There was also the danger of Montenegro's departure from all that is left of the former Yugoslav Federation. The Serbian province of Kosovo, it was said, will also go its own way unless the regime is changed.


Many speakers said the protest was a "last chance" for Serbia. If it fails, it will be difficult for Serbia to survive as a state, making the process of democratisation and joining the European Union almost impossible.


The followers of Vuk Draskovic and his Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) attended the Belgrade rally, though Draskovic did not address the crowd and did not join the protest. On the same day the protest in Serbia started, the SPO spokesman had called on the opposition to support its demand for electoral preconditions, reforms and freedom of the press, and only to launch protests if they are refused.


One can hear claims in Belgrade that the West is persuading Draskovic to join the SZP protests. Draskovic is holding local power in Belgrade thanks to a tacit coalition with Milosevic's Socialists. With his behaviour he is only helping the Serbian regime survive.


Bigger protest gatherings took place outside the capital, in Nis and Novi Sad. A threat to take over the Vojvodina regional parliament in Novi Sad did not come to pass. However the president of the League of Social-Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV), Nenad Canak, announced the creation of the People's Grand Council of Vojvodina, bringing together the opposition deputies from the republican, federal and provincial levels from the province.


Addressing more than 10,000 demonstrators, Canak declared "the end of the financial turnover with Belgrade". He also added that the regional authorities in Vojvodina are to demand for the resignation of all directors and editors-in-chief of the state-appointed media there.


Learning from past experience, the authorities did not set the police on the protestors. But, in Smederevo, a town on the Danube some forty kilometres from Belgrade, the police detained three organisers for not registering the holding of the rally. In Vrnjacka Banja, the police refused a request for permission to stage the rally, and the President of the Board of the Democratic Party (DS) was detained. The police authorities refused permission to protest organisers in the town of Bor.


The busloads of police were reported in central Belgrade, but not at the time of the rally. In many towns, and in Belgrade as well, the protests ended with a walk through the town, as was seen during the winter protests of 1996/7 when the regime was forced to admit the fraud in the local elections.


Public mock trials of the Serbian leadership were held in several towns. The "indictments" against Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic and vice-president Vojislav Seselj, accused them of "activity causing damage to their own people". Over the coming days, the protests will continue, and so will the "trials".


Workers did not join the protests in an organised manner, even though the Association of Free and Independent Unions announced a general strike. The strike failed thorough lack of support from other unions. but as a large number of workers in Serbia's collapsed industrial sector are on unpaid or paid forced vacations, so that it is difficult to organise a strike of any kind.


The relatively poor attendance at the rally, at least by Serbian standards, is no surprise. Most ordinary people would welcome a change of regime, but are still hesitant to act.


Citizens often tell the leaders of the parties and unions: "I am with you, but doubt that you can do anything'." Djindjic appealed to all to come and bring their friends and acquaintances, as the most important thing needed in Serbia is change.


Serbia currently occupying the bottom rung of the European scale of wages. When Milosevic became the President of Serbia in 1990, the average salary came to about 577 German marks, 148,000 cars were produced, and 331 kilometres of roads were built.


Within a few years Yugoslavia was enduring world record hyperinflation, a record 313,563 per cent in 1993. Now the average salary has fallen to under 90 marks, there is no tar even to patch up the holes in the roads, and the lines for the production of cars have been destroyed. Meanwhile crime and the death rate have risen and the number of policemen trebled to a current figure of about 150,000.


Milenko Vasovic is a regular IWPR contributor from Belgrade.