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

Serbs Opt for Rebellion

Growing numbers of Serbs are willing to take up arms to overthrow the Milosevic regime.
By Vesna Bjekic

Over a third of people in Serbia are prepared to use force to remove Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, according to one of the most comprehensive independent surveys in the republic in the last few years.


The recently published polls, conducted in September and December last year by three prominent Serbian think tanks, suggest that the number of people favouring a quick and radical change in government has increased in the last three years.


Results from a new survey by the influential Strategic Marketing and Media Research Institute are expected in early April. Preliminary indications suggest even worse news for the government.


The surveys by the Centre for the Investigation of Alternatives and the Belgrade Institute for Social Sciences, which jointly polled nearly 4,000 people, revealed that 35 per cent of the population advocates the use of force to bring about a change in government. Only three per cent supported maintaining the status quo.


Two thirds expressed dissatisfaction with those in authority. Only 4 per cent thought Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's government was doing a good job.


One third of respondents said of all state institutions, they had least confidence in the presidency of Yugoslavia. Just eight per cent said they had unqualified confidence in the post.


Milosevic can, however, take consolation from the fact that few respondents expressed much trust in the opposition.


When asked how to resolve the current crisis, 20 per cent advocated a people's uprising, 16 per cent believed the system would destroy itself and only 17 per cent thought change would come through the ballot box.


Many of those prepared to use violence, so-called "radicals" or "rough riders", are university and high school students, private sector employees and unemployed people.


Half of those polled continue to advocate gradual change. Although dissatisfied, anxious and lacking faith in political institutions, this group is not prepared to risk losing their jobs or splitting their families over politics.


They have been labeled "free-riders", people who want change but expect others to take the risks for them - only getting involved when numbers hit a "critical mass" and it is relatively safe to do so.


Sociologist, Dr Stjepan Gredelj, believes this should come as no surprise, "To participate in demonstrations means getting the sack. When the population is barely surviving, fear of getting involved in confrontation is understandable."


The almost daily protests by the student movement Otpor, Restistance, has lent credence to researchers' more recent findings that numbers supporting the radical approach have increased since December.


The Milosevic regime is largely to blame. The government has increasingly resorted to brute force to shore up its position. The threat of assassination looms over journalists, opposition politicians are castigated as "traitors" and the independent media branded the "mercenary" mouthpiece of Serbia's enemies.


Political analyst, Dr Zoran Stojiljkovic, argues the regime's introduction of the restrictive Information Law is a clear example of repressive practices. "The draconian measures brought in under the Information Law are designed to bring about fear and obstruct the shaping of democratic opinion," Stojiljkovic argued.


Gredelj believes, however, that such measures are counter-productive. "The use of batons and bayonets only provokes violent reactions ...Those with nothing to lose become extremely dangerous."


Fear of civil war erupting out of violent confrontations between the regime and opposition protestors is widespread among the Serbian people. But the predictions of political experts vary.


Stojiljkovic believes the regime will opt for a more "subtle" form of conflict, exploiting the mechanisms of state repression, the police and the judiciary to compromise political opponents. He believes this phase will test to the utmost the opposition's patience and readiness to fully confront the regime.


Stojiljkovic feels the Milosevic government will only resort to open conflict if these measures fail to silence the opposition.


Less optomistic, however, is Dr Vladimir Goati of the Belgrade Institute of Social Science. He believes Milosevic plans to ban the opposition. The authorities and their rivals, in Goati's view, will become two opposing blocks, prone to clashing in every way "except at the ballot box".


The historian, Dusan Batakovic, also believes people's fear of civil war is well founded. Conflict, he suspects, would break out if the government were defeated at the polls, "The government is up against the wall, some of its members are on The Hague list, and the others are mired in corruption. It would be unimaginable for them to survive in any other legal state system. So it is entirely logical that they would resort to weapons."


Vesna Bjekic is a journalist from Belgrade.


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