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

Milosevic Fortress Crumbles

Once considered a symbol of regime power, the town of Pozarevac is today more a symbol of its weakness.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

At first glance, the small town of Pozarevac shows no sign of the mass beatings and arrests which have marked the last few weeks here. There is no visible police presence, no security forces.

Indeed, only the many advertisements for the local Internet provider and a discotheque called "Madonna" - both owned by Marko Milosevic, son of the Yugoslav president - distinguish this from any other provincial Serbian town.

An hour's drive from Belgrade, the home town of Slobodan Milosevic, his wife and a whole array of Serbian officials, has long been seen as the unofficial second capital of the current regime. But in recent weeks journalists and opposition activists have transformed it into a centre of defiance.

But a closer look at this town of 50,000 soon shows up stark contrasts and divisions. Expensive foreign cars cruise streets lined with decrepit domestic models over twenty years old. At the local market, an old lady is selling hand made tablecloths for 20 German marks. A stone's throw away, an exclusive furniture shop has just sold an armchair in the shape of a five-pointed star for 1,200 German marks, 15 times the average monthly salary.

"There are still people who have money" smiles the shop assistant, when asked who can afford such luxuries. But asked whether the president's son Marko Milosevic has treated himself to a chair, his smile vanishes.

The old lady is equally protective of Milosevic's son, without doubt the most powerful man in Pozarevac, "He built this town up and deserves credit for that. And look at Bambiland, there is nothing like it in Serbia or anywhere in the world."

With some irony, Mile Veljkovic, a local independent journalist agrees that there is nowhere else quite like Pozarevac. His younger brother Momcilo Veljkovic was arrested on May 2, along with two other members of the anti-regime movement, Otpor. First they were badly beaten in the town centre by Marko's bodyguards. Then, according to some reports, Marko himself arrived, urging his bodyguards to "kill the shits". The police arrested Veljkovic and his friends, claiming that they had tried to kill their attackers.

The opposition tried to organise a rally on May 9 and the police responded by detaining, then expelling from the town 29 journalists from newspapers opposed to the regime. Seven policemen came to the Veljikovic house, which had become a nerve centre of resistance, to arrest the older Veljkovic.

His mother fainted when she saw the police arrive. "One of the officers, who we know from the town, tried to help my mother-in-law and shouted out: 'fuck the state that does this,'" recalls Veljkovic's wife Nada. The Veljkovic family have become a symbol of defiance in Pozarevac. Some people stop Mile in the street to offer support, but only some. "There are other people, whom we thought of as friends, and now they turn away and pretend not to see us," says Nada.

A planned opposition rally in Pozarevac was cancelled when the ruling party organised a counter rally at the same place, but Dragan Curcija, president of the local committee of the opposition Democratic Party was nevertheless encouraged by the healthy opposition turnout. "The regime wanted a clash at any cost, even though they had only two hundred people. We were around two thousand," he says.

However, in the local parliament, the proportions are reversed. The ruling coalition has 58 members, against eight opposition members and one independent. Nebojsa Lekic, the head of the local council of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement and a member of the federal parliament, insists these figures are the result of fraud in the 1996 local elections. "They robbed us. At one polling station the ballot papers outnumbered the names on the electoral register by a hundred," he says.

But he too, is positive about recent events, pointing out that since May 9 young people in Pozarevac have been joining his party in large numbers: "The most important thing is that people have overcome their fear."

Like everyone, opposition figures are unwilling to comment on the most powerful citizen of the town. They agree that Marko Milosevic controls both the private and state sectors, from the biggest local company Bambi, through office space, to the black market. "He controls everything, in Pozarevac, even the lawyers," says Ruza Lekic, lawyer wife of Nebojsa Rekic.

Alongside "Madonna" and the Bambiland theme park, which was built during last year's NATO's bombardment of Serbia, a more personal status symbol can be seen in the centre of town, in the form of a new house surrounded by a high wall, which houses the family of Marko's wife, Milica Gajic. The Gajic family used to occupy a far more modest building on the same spot, but when Milica bore Marko a son their home was upgraded.

Since war broke out among the Belgrade underground, young Milosevic is reluctant to stray beyond Pozarevac and on his rare public appearances in the town centre, he is escorted by six or seven bodyguards. His parents make regular visits, staying in their own renovated family house, also surrounded by a high wall.

Although Milosevic junior now seems to have calmed down, he is known for violent outbursts such as an incident in March when he and his bodyguard beat up Zoran Milovanovic, a waiter from his Madonna discotheque who had joined Otpor. They threatened him with a chainsaw and forced a gun into his mouth. Shortly afterwards, Milanovic and his family left Pozarevac.

But amid the atmosphere of violence and intimidation there is some encouraging news. The town's three most senior judges, until recently loyal to the regime, have overturned the charges of attempted murder against Mile Veljkovic's brother and his two friends.

Some hope that this splintering of the judiciary will prompt similar divisions in police, as more people are moved to challenge the repression that dominates the town. Mile Veljkovic is cautious, "People are still afraid. It has just started". But it's an important start.

Once considered a symbol of regime power, Pozarevac is today more a symbol of its weakness.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor.