Serbia: Belgraders Savour Their Freedom

Twelve months after the overthrow of Milosevic, Serbs are worse off economically but at least they now have hope

Serbia: Belgraders Savour Their Freedom

Twelve months after the overthrow of Milosevic, Serbs are worse off economically but at least they now have hope

A year on from the October 5 uprising that toppled the Milosevic regime, Mladen Stojkovic still bears the scars of revolution. On his hand is a burn mark, a badge of honour. When the police fired a tear-gas canister into the crowd of demonstrators, he caught it and threw it back.

Stojkovic, a psychology student, says he will never forget that day. "I caught the hot canister with my bare hands, there was so much anger inside me. Milosevic destroyed over half of my life.

"My parents were unemployed, and I was dodging the draft. I had to do menial work to make ends meet and get an education. But I would do it all again if I had to, not for the sake of those who are now in power, but against him, Milosevic."

Like many young Serbian people, Mladen is dissatisfied with the pace of

change. But he now has what he did not have under Milosevic - hope

for a better future. He works part-time in a marketing agency, and

helps support his parents who live in rural Serbia.

According to a study by G17 plus, a non-government group of economists, whose platform was adopted by the Democratic Opposition before last year's elections, every seventh citizen is now worse off than a year ago.

But in spite of that, it seems no one wants to go back. The memories of the enthusiasm of October 5 are still strong, just as they are of the difficult years under Milosevic. The new government has goodwill,

and its citizens are enjoying the taste of freedom, although living conditions are difficult.

The end of repression has changed the way people think, says fellow psychology student Jovan Stojanovic. "Before, it was horrible, people were dying without medicines, from hunger, and yet they voted for Milosevic," he said.

"I think they have now come to their senses. I was in a very difficult situation, since for years I was at odds with my parents. They told me that I was a traitor and a foreign mercenary, repeating everything that Milosevic's spin-doctors were saying about the opposition.

"But now, for my family, October 5 means reconciliation. Since so many films and programmes were broadcast about the nature of Milosevic's regime, my parents understand that he is a criminal."

But Stojanovic says he still worries because just as his parents once adored Milosevic, they admire without reservation the Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica.

Pensioners, however, view the last year with somewhat less enthusiasm. It is the groups with the lowest income who feel most betrayed by the new authorities. Poverty-stricken elderly people can be found every night at Kalenic market in downtown Belgrade. Prices in the evening are thirty per cent lower than during the day.

Zora Petrovic, a retired accountant, is loading a bag of peppers onto a trolley. "You can see for yourself how much better it is now. I wander in the middle of the night on the market like a prostitute, and I worked hard for 35 years, " she said ironically. "This government did not do what I had expected them to do, and I voted for them."

Although she adds that unlike under Milosevic, her pension is at least paid on time, even though it is inadequate.

Customers watch every dinar that they spend, says Predrag Lazarevic,

a farmer from Vlasotinac, in the south of Serbia, who has brought a

a batch of peppers to the market for sale. "It is hard indeed. People bargain over every dinar. They do not have money, I understand

them, " he said.

"However, it is not easy for us farmers either. In the eighties, I used to earn several thousand German marks by selling a truck-load of peppers. Now, I cover my expenses, and have a bit left over at the end. It is not worse than under Milosevic, but it is not better either."

Milovan Obradovic, from Kosovo, is sitting at a nearby restaurant. Obradovic worked as a salesman in a state company, but is now reduced to selling peanuts and sunflower seeds. Expelled from Kosovo after the NATO intervention, he was forced to leave his property behind.

Despite such economic hardship, he says life is better now, because

he is safe. "In Serbia I do not feel afraid for my life, but in

Kosovo I did, " he said. " The most important things is that we are all alive and in good health, the children are here, they work for a businessman. We are managing and hoping it will be better."

On a nearby table Milan Stankovic sips a plum brandy as he recalls his

day at the barricades last October. "Everyone is now boasting of being a 'veteran' of the revolution, that they ousted Milosevic. But for

ten years they hid away or even supported him," said Stankovic, who owns a hairdressing shop.

He is angered that the same journalists who worked under Milosevic,

spreading lies and propaganda, are still broadcasting on state television.

"It is because of them that I had gone to burn down the parliament. A man next to me was shot through his stomach. Luckily he survived. I now wonder what I was doing. Should I go again to burn it down?"

Even so, he admitted that his business is doing well and the future is

brighter, "Serbs always have money for going out, and they also have money for the hairdresser's."

Bojan Toncic is a journalist with Belgrade daily Danas

Serbia, Kosovo
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