Serbia's Brave New Protesters

Protesters in provincial Serbia are a different breed from those who have demonstrated in Belgrade in previous years - and may have greater results.

Serbia's Brave New Protesters

Protesters in provincial Serbia are a different breed from those who have demonstrated in Belgrade in previous years - and may have greater results.

Sunday, 11 July, 1999

While Serbs have protested against their leader before, the latest demonstrations are different. This time, Slobodan Milosevic will fall.

Once the focal point of opposition, the Serbian capital Belgrade has yet to stir. Instead it is inner Serbia, long a bastion of unquestioning support for Milosevic, that is leading the protests, and therein lies the key to the demise of the Yugoslav President.

The first anti-Milosevic rallies, at which protestors chanted "Slobo-Saddam", took place in March 1991 in Belgrade and gave the Serbian capital a reputation as a hotbed of opposition. The demonstrations of summer 1992, and, in particular, the prolonged street protests of winter 1996-97 added that this image-of which Belgrade liberals like to boast.

Yet these were never protests by the truly "dispossessed". In comparison with their compatriots in the rest of Serbia, the capital's inhabitants have always been privileged. They have always had access to independent media - whether print, radio or television - and have even enjoyed relative economic prosperity.

Belgrade was spared the worst of the power cuts during the years of UN sanctions. While towns and villages in southern Serbia often spent hours, sometimes even days, in darkness, the authorities made sure that Belgrade never lost power for an entire day. Hard currency savings made life bearable, though by no means comfortable, even at times of rampant inflation.

By Serbian standards, Belgraders were spoiled. They took to the streets confident that they would not face serious repercussions for their defiance. They were seeking "enlightened" change - that is a transition to democracy and political pluralism.

The Belgrade demonstrators never questioned Milosevic's nationalist agenda, just his failure to achieve a Greater Serbia. The protestors sought Milosevic's ouster because his demise and the transition to democracy held out the promise of a better life, not because of the crimes committed in their name.

Milosevic may have flinched in the face of the calls for his resignation. But he rapidly recognised the drive that fuelled Belgrade's demonstrations. And he knew that the protesters were not as committed to his overthrow as they liked to think they were.

In addition, Milosevic knew that he could rely upon internal division - divisions which he inspired, nurtured and exploited - among so-called opposition leaders. As a result, they forever came to his rescue, breaking ranks and helping him rebound from his deepest crises with renewed strength.

Today's dissent is coming from the masses in provincial Serbia. Over the past decade, the regime has assiduously tried to stupefy these people into blind support with a relentless barrage of the most vicious propaganda. Indeed, so powerful was this campaign that it held right up until the morning after the end of the NATO campaign.

But no longer. Today no amount of spin can obscure the bitter reality. The voices calling for Milosevic's resignation are coming from towns which are mourning fallen soldiers who were drafted and killed in the greatest numbers in Milosevic's kamikaze effort to resist NATO.

It is in these towns that NATO bombs brought an already impoverished population to the very end of their tether. Their factories are destroyed, their prospects of work and income are non-existent, and their families will soon be facing hunger. Today's demonstrators are genuinely the dispossessed, who have been driven to join streets protests by their utter desperation.

Paradoxically, it is the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia which has given them the strength and courage to rise up. Having survived nearly three months of bombardment by the most powerful alliance in the history of the world, Serbia's new protesters have become fearless. Army reservists protesting for the pay they should have earned for time served in Kosovo are showing the same defiance to Milosevic's police as they did to NATO bombs. They are emboldened by their experience in Kosovo, and the regime may yet feel their new-found courage.

The Serbs' obsession with a powerful leader has in the past aided Milosevic. But not any more. Now he is exposed and easily identified as the culprit for the many woes of ordinary people. Charismatic leaders will remain a feature of Serbian politics. But new, popular leaders, like Ivan Novakovic, the jailed tape editor who interrupted transmission of a key basketball match to broadcast a call to protest in Leskovac, are already emerging from Serbia's provinces.

As a result of the NATO bombing and destruction to the country's infrastructure, Serbia's centralised political system has been decentralised almost overnight. At the base, many miles from Belgrade, it is now crumbling. The protests are spreading and have been endorsed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has also called for Milosevic's resignation.

The protesters say that inner Serbia will salvage Serbia's image. But they are not protesting or apologising for the acts which were committed in their name in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. They are protesting over bread, water and electricity. But in time, one can hope that these existential issues will lead towards some recognition of the nation's moral fall.

The author is a Belgrade human rights activist and regular IWPR contributor whose identity has been withheld. A version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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