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

Belgraders Reflect On Revolution

Belgraders struggle to take in the enormity of a revolution that has transformed their lives.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

As street cleaners cleared mountains of trash, torn political posters and fallen autumn leaves, Belgraders spent their first weekend in 13 years without Slobodan Milosevic in power, in a mood of unusual relaxation.

"We shall clean the city morally and materially," Milan St. Protic, the new mayor of Belgrade, promised, as he ordered a clean-up after last Thursday's street clashes and a week-long stoppage of utility services prompted by Milosevic's attempt to steal the elections.

The streets and squares are alive, especially Knez Mihajlova street, the main promenading area in downtown Belgrade, where the street vendors, chased away during the last months of the Milosevic regime, are back.

Three days after the final act of protest, people are still wearing its symbols: stickers saying "He is finished", the slogans of support for new Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, and buttons with fallen leaves symbolising Milosevic.

"In three years that I have been working, this has never happened," said Milos, who sells music CDs on the streets. "People have never spent as much money on discs as they did last weekend."

"I believe music is the way for them to explain themselves and their surroundings. For the first time they have more hope than fear," he explained. "Before, they would simply buy something and leave, now they want to talk and joke."

The street vendors have also taken over production of paraphernalia with the Otpor Resistance movement symbol, and people are snapping them up as souvenirs. Only several days ago, you risked police detention for wearing such things in public.

Four young men, with crew cuts and jackets buttoned up - the fashion of dubious businessmen during the Milosevic's era - sit at a restaurant table. All four were blindly loyal to the Milosevic regime, which provided them with easy profits. Now, all four have Otpor buttons on their lapels.

"Everyone is Otpor today. I should be happy, but I know that it's the end of our Otpor," said 20-year-old student Jelena, concluding that the "epic time" of her life is over.

For days now, the entire city has been reliving last Thursday's demonstrations which forced Milosevic to step down.

"When I saw that everything was over and that we were passing through the police like through young cheese, I stopped for a moment, and wondered why we had waited so long? Why hadn't we done that a long time ago?" said Milan Radenovic, a 35-year-old secondary school teacher.

"When I saw that everything was over, I felt the emptiness for a moment, "admitted Rade Stanic, a 34-year-old unemployed journalist.

"I then wanted to go to Dedinje (a Belgrade suburb where Milosevic lives), and to grab him by the throat and tell him, "And now, give me back ten years of my life."

"We are overjoyed!" said Jovan Mitrov, a 55-year-old worker at the Tractor Factory in Novi Belgrade, passing by with his wife. "Maybe we shall never live better, but at least I am sure that I will never again wake up in war," added his wife.

The long-term opponents of the Milosevic regime are less euphoric about the gains of the heady days of last week, fearing that problems still lie ahead.

"Only those who have been opposing the regime for a short time can rejoice. Their joy is complete since their prayers were fulfilled so soon," Rade Stanic explained. "I have thought many times over these 13 years that God had abandoned us forever."

The celebrations over Milosevic's fall are not universal. Amid the rejoicing, the press was silent about the death of retired colonel Miroslav Tomasek, an SPS activist who killed himself in his flat in New Belgrade.

When Milosevic was forced to recognise Kostunica's victory on Friday, Tomasek took his official handgun and shot himself in the head in front of his entire family: wife, son, daughter-in-law and two young granddaughters.

In a village in Vojvodina, populated after the Second World War by

Serbs from Bosnia who were moved there by decree, there was almost a

confrontation between its elderly supporters of Milosevic and their children who demonstrated in the streets for Kostunica.

"Incredible: under the influence of the RTS ( Radio-Television Serbia, the most aggressive arm of Milosevic's propaganda machine), our fathers declared us traitors and foreign mercenaries", says Milan, a 25-year-old law student from the village.

The political upheaval was not without its humorous side. In a southern Serbian village, a 78-old woman, used to getting all her news from RTS, was surprised on Friday after Milosevic's fall to see on her television screen one of the leaders of the Democratic Opposition, Zoran Djindjic, branded by Milosevic's propaganda machine as an American mercenary.

She immediately called her grandson in Belgrade and told him with great concern that the Americans had occupied the capital of Serbia. She ordered him to return immediately with his family to the safety of their village.

Many fear that the long-term economic and social damage caused by the Milosevic regime will not be easily undone.

Ivan Kolar, a 40-year-old industrial worker in the Belgrade suburb of Rakovica, who has been jobless for a year now, doubts that his generation will ever again be able to live normally.

"I voted for Milosevic because I will lose my only source of income if the economy normalises," said Ivan, who has been supporting his family of four by selling smuggled petrol in the street.

"I cannot imagine a state in which taxes are regularly paid, instead of people cheating and stealing from each other," he said. "But I went to the demonstrations for Kostunica because I do not want my children to be selling petrol in the streets one day."

"Regardless of how much we may hate him, it will be very difficult to get rid of the influence of Milosevic."

Though they were almost all pleased at his fall, Milosevic's decision to remain in Serbia and continue in politics has divided Belgraders once again.

Rade Stanic fears democracy is under threat as long as Milosevic remains in the country, "I'd give him everything he is asking for as long as he goes as far away as possible. "But he does not support sending Milosevic to The Hague, "since that would be a trial of Serbia."

Jelena is also against extradition, but for completely different reasons, "If he is tried at The Hague, he will be tried because he wronged the world, and not us. The world is not suffering from the Milosevic disease, we are."

She believes Milosevic should be tried in Belgrade to help Serbs "confront a decade of their own lives."

Tired after the celebrations and the euphoria, Belgrade is starting its first working week without Milosevic. But half the working-age population have lost their jobs during his regime. The majority of them, like Rade Stanic, believe the reckoning must come before economic recovery, as this is "the only thing that can save Serbia from the return of Milosevic or someone similar."

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor

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