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

Paranoia Grips Belgrade

Belgraders are on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown as the pressures of living in a pariah state take their toll.
By Gordana Igric

Miodrag V, a 40-year-old father of three from Belgrade, wakes up at night, his heart pounding and his bedclothes drenched in sweat.


"I want to escape, but it’s no use,” he said. “ I can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality any more.”


Since the NATO bombing of Belgrade ended in June, Serbs have been living in terror of civil war and a fresh wave of NATO air strikes. Their paranoia has been fueled by the threat of new conflicts, international isolation and poverty.


Vera B. picks up her salary of 32 German marks, unpaid since April last year, and asks a friend, "Have you heard that they’re going to bomb us again in a month's time? I’d rather die than ever hear the air-raid sirens again."


Such is the mood of despair in Serbia. Neither NATO nor the Serbian regime has made any indication that renewed hostilities are imminent but the people remain convinced that “something is brewing” and that their fates have been sealed.


Why should NATO want to bomb Serbia? Conspiracy theories are rife. Some say the Americans have discovered oil fields in Kosovo, which are the richest in the world – and that’s why Serbia wants to hold on to the territory. Others claim the Western powers are desperate to secure a route to oil wells in the Caspian, and that Serbia stands in their way. Others simply believe that the world prefers Albanians.


An elderly dental technician shakes his head worriedly. "Can’t you see what they’re doing to us because of the ‘Shiptars’ (a derogatory name for Albanians)?" he says.


Even those who dismiss the conspiracy theories have little doubt that the bombers will return to Belgrade. They believe Slobodan Milosevic will spark off fighting in neighbouring Montenegro -- the smaller partner in the Yugoslav federation -- in a bid to avoid civil war at home and his own political ruin.


Or perhaps Kosovo will once again be the battleground – but the result will be the same. This time NATO will raze Belgrade to the ground.


The sceptics say the rumours are being spread deliberately by police informers acting on orders from the Milosevic regime. "You can’t scare a child with anything but a cudgel,” says one. “And, in this case, the cudgel is a NATO bombing. This is the easiest way for the regime to cling on to power.”


Finally, there is the unspoken fear that the Serbs will be punished by God for all the crimes they have committed against other ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia.


As the last NATO bombing failed to bring about Milosevic’s downfall, the population at large is torn between two contradictory emotions – a fear of the West and a sense of anger towards the regime.


The president’s political opponents are also feeling uneasy about the future. Ever since the attempted assassination of Serbian Renewal Movement boss Vuk Draskovic, opposition leaders have taken to surrounding themselves with protection squads, which would have been the envy of a 1930s Chicago gangster. As they clamber out of armoured limousines, the bodyguards leap into the street, with weapons at the ready.


But the same paranoia is also becoming evident in the ranks of the ruling party. In the run-up to last week’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) congress, when Milosevic consolidated his leadership, bomb disposal experts searched every inch of the Sava Center hall in anticipation of an assassination attempt.


On the day of the congress, supporters of the student lobby Otpor (“Resistance”) were arrested for putting up posters outside the hall and “posing a security threat”. The whole of New Belgrade was promptly cordoned off, with access granted only to coach-loads of confused Serbian workers ferried in from the surrounding countryside.


Milosevic’s speech to the congress was followed by a 20-minute standing ovation. A pensioner queuing at the dentist’s and watching the event on TV muttered furiously, “I wish it was his last – like Ceaucescu’s!” referring to the death of the Romanian president in December 1989.


A taxi-driver, who had served in several wars waged by Milosevic in the name of a “Greater Serbia”, pointed towards a vast billboard advertising the SPS Congress. Gripping his steering-wheel furiously, he said the time had come to “wipe out Kosovo’s thieves and traitors”.


Ultra-nationalist deputy prime-minister Vojislav Seselj is building a four-meter high wall around his house in Batajnica, notes one of his neighbours with glee. The neighbor also lives in constant fear but he gloats at this sign of weakness.


It is widely thought that Seselj’s recent threat to liquidate independent journalists and “placenike” (“agents of foreign powers”) was inspired by panic but anyone who had a chance to see his face on television screens last week will argue that it was suffused with terror.


One young woman -- a member of the JUL party, which is headed by Milosevic's wife – refuses to answer her doorbell. There is an entry phone in her building but she only opens the door to visitors who call her up by mobile telephone from the street – and whom she knows personally.


And there is growing evidence that Milosevic is facing his own demons. He lives with his wife in virtual isolation and makes state decisions without consulting his cabinet. He alone, however, can transmute his fear into violence.


Redolent with passionate hatred towards anyone in Serbia who refuses to share his views, Milosevic’s speech to the congress reflected the true depths of his paranoia.


Milosevic stated that all dissidents were cowards, terrorists, speculators and thieves, ready to spill Serbian blood in order to please their rich bosses in the West.


It seems likely that this growing panic will spur the regime to introduce a state of emergency. The authorities are already threatening to gag the independent media: outlawing the opposition parties could be the next step.


Milosevic’s message from the congress was unambiguous: "Different ideas on the state and social order, which set the parties apart from one another, should wait for more peaceful days."


But there have been no peaceful days in Serbia for a very long while.


Gordana Igric is Balkan Crisis Report Associate Editor and recently visited Belgrade.


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