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

Civil War Gets Off to a Flying Start

With the closure of its independent media, Serbia has moved a step closer to what even the most optimistic now see as unavoidable - civil war.
By Petar Lukovic

Serbia's pro-government media prepared the ground for the latest media crackdown. For days horror headlines screamed hysterically, "Punish the terrorists", "Terrorist leaders call for the destruction of our country", "NATO mercenaries", "Terrorist plan for bloody confrontation", and so on and so on....


And so the country owned by Slobodan Milosevic entered a new phase, real confrontation with the political opposition. Within 24 hours the president's loyal and numerous allies in the police had shut down all major independent electronic media.


Across Serbia activists from the student movement, Otpor, and members of opposition political parties were arrested. Trial after trial was announced as the country plunged into a de facto state of emergency. Amidst a total media blackout Serbia moved a step closer to what even the most optimistic now see as unavoidable - civil war.


But this was all to be expected. The regime is extremely nervous. The government is increasingly isolated in the world. War crimes accusations hang over the heads of cabinet members and especially over Slobodan Milosevic. The country is trapped in a spiraling cycle of poverty. A wage of 30 German marks a month is considered good money. Finally the Serbian opposition's latest offensive has pushed Milosevic to resort to violence, his only means of survival.


The government has fallen back on its favourite tactics - physical intimidation, bans, mass arrests and terror.


The catalyst for this showdown was rather bizarre. Last Saturday, May 13, one of Milosevic's key men in Vojvodina, Bosko Perosevic, was shot dead at the opening of the Novi Sad agricultural fair.


His killer, Milivoje Gutovic, was arrested at the scene. Gutovic and Perosevic, it transpires, were born in the same village, Ratkovo, and were next-door neighbours. It seems almost certain that the motive for the attack was personal. It is obvious that Perosevic was not killed for the same reasons as, for example, the Federal Minister of Defence Pavle Bulatovic (gunned down in a restaurant) or the Director of the Yugoslav Airlines Zika Petrovic (killed outside his home).


On the same day, however, the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, held a traditional rally at Ravna Gora, famous as a Chetnik base during World War Two. Shouts of "Rebellion! Rebellion!" were heard among the 50,000 strong crowd. Some rally-goers fired shots in the air. SPO leader Vuk Draskovic called on the demonstrators to "Save your ammunition."


The regime has opted to use the Perosevic killing as a pretext for a final confrontation with the "traitors, NATO-mercenaries, terrorists, Otpor, the opposition and independent media."


On May 15 the Federal Minster for Information Goran Matic announced the latest shocking news. An astonished public heard that the killer Gutovic was a supporter of the SPO and an Otpor activist! Late at night Gutovic is said to have plastered their fascist posters around Odzaci. Police claimed they found Otpor leaflets and a map of the Novi Sad fair ground in his flat.


In his personal phonebook the police allegedly found the number of Richard Butler, Secretary at the US Embassy, a man connected to the Pauk (Spider) terrorist group. They claimed the most conclusive evidence of all was the discovery that Gutovic was the owner of a brochure outlining the structure of the Red Brigade terrorist group.


As the authorities' campaign gathered momentum, opposition supporters held a rally in Belgrade. The hit song, "Slobodan, Save Serbia - Kill Yourself" rang out from the crowd. The whole event was broadcast over and over on Studio B.


The rally heightened tensions yet further. Ivan Markovic, federal telecommunications minister and spokesman for the Yugoslav Left, revealed that Vuk Draskovic was the Serbian equivalent of Hashim Thaci, former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Markovic ranted on that Draskovic had called on his terrorist hordes to attack the Serbian people and state. This traitor and coward had called for a rebellion against his own people, exposing the fear and pathology among his paymasters - NATO.


Markovic demanded, therefore, that all competent bodies undertake all necessary measures to protect the state and its citizens. "Our country has to defeat terrorism and uproot it using all means stipulated by the Constitution and the law," Markovic said. The police at last received the green light to act once and for all against the opponents of the beloved and adored Slobodan Milosevic.


So while Belgrade's citizens slept contentedly, diligent members of the Ministry of Interior anti-terrorist squad prepared for their mission against the ever-present terrorist threat.


Undercover of darkness, at 2 am on Wednesday morning, several hundred officers in camouflaged uniforms and civilian clothes besieged the Beogradjanka building, home to the editorial offices of several independent media outlets. They entered Studio B, Radio B2-92, Radio Index and the daily newspaper Blic.


They checked the identification of everyone present, of course, and stopped all telephone calls. One by one these suspicious people were interrogated, their shelves and offices searched. For seven or eight hours the employees were kept captive. Even a visit to the toilet involved an escort, to prevent anyone getting 'lost'. A police cordon sealed off the Beogradjanka reception area. When the editor of Blic tried to enter the building a plain clothes police officer said simply: "Sir. Get out."


On Wednesday evening, May 17, 30,000 demonstrators gathered at the city parliament to protest against the independent media blackout. At around 10 pm that evening the police, fresh from clashes with fans of football league champions Red Star Belgrade, set about randomly beating protestors. Dozens of demonstrators were injured, one seriously.


When news of the Studio B takeover percolated out, rallies began across the country. Police clashed with demonstrators again in Belgrade on May 18, using tear gas and batons to disperse the crowds. Latest reports suggest the demonstrations are set to continue, and with them the arrests and the maltreatment.


Civil war in Serbia is off to a flying start.


Petar Lukovic is a regular IWPR contributor


More IWPR's Global Voices