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

Slobo's Biggest Ally - The Fear...

Internal dissenters are keeping their heads down, and not because of NATO bombs. But the real concern is after the air strikes end, and the internal reprisals begin.

Right up until the evening NATO launched its offensive against Yugoslavia, the country had never been entirely behind its president. But this is no longer the case. Today Serbia is cast in the image of one man: Slobodan Milosevic.

This is not to say that Milosevic has succeeded in persuading all Serbs that his is the true path. Rather, overnight, he acquired a most potent ally, namely fear. It is all-pervasive and has silenced every dissenting voice.

Milosevic has always had to expend roughly an equal amount of time and energy on the enemy within, that is the domestic opposition, as the enemy without, be they the other peoples of the former Yugoslavia or the West. As long as Serbia proper was spared direct involvement in war, the internal battle remained largely civil. Dissidents were branded traitors, fifth columnists, foreign mercenaries and the like, but rarely harmed physically.

Now, however, potential dissidents are acutely aware that the price for raising their voice against the regime may be much dearer. It may even cost them their lives.

Following the first NATO bombs, my neighbour ran out on the balcony, looked up in the sky and unleashed a torrent of abuse. He cursed NATO for what he considered an unjust and illegal bombing. And he cursed his president, whom he had never voted for, asking rhetorically: "Where are you now, Slobo? I'll bet you're somewhere safe, unlike the rest of us."

This frustration echoed throughout the apartment block. The second night of bombing went by, the third, and the fourth, by which time my neighbour could no longer be heard voicing his double-pronged anger. He continues watching the skies from the balcony, but has decided it would be prudent to keep his opinions to himself.

My neighbour is a professional, long critical of Milosevic, but not especially political. His only public expression of opposition to the regime came in winter 1996-97 when he joined the daily protest marches, which brought Belgrade to a standstill for the better part of three months. He is therefore used to keeping quiet. Not so the human rights' activists and opposition politicians who addressed the crowds during those protests. Yet they are equally silent.

Although logically it should be feasible to oppose both the NATO action and the Serbian regime at the same time, in reality this is no longer an option. The air strikes have effectively destroyed what opposition existed, even more efficiently than the repression of the past decade. And, with the dissidents silenced, Milosevic has truly emerged as Serbia's supreme and unchallenged ruler.

Where does Serbia's former opposition go from here? The views of some I have spoken with have come as a greater shock to me than the air strikes themselves. Even those who used to argue that Milosevic should be bombed for the suffering he has caused not only to Croats, Bosnians and Albanians, but also to Serbs, have, publicly at least, lined up behind the regime. Moreover, their newly articulated position becomes ever more entrenched with each day of bombing.

Many Belgrade analysts had warned of the "day after" in Kosovo, predicting prophetically massive reprisals against the province's Albanians in the event of air strikes. Ominously, the same individuals are now increasingly fearful of the "day after" in Serbia. They fear that after NATO's bombing campaign stops, the regime will turn against the remnants of Serbia's opposition. As one good friend says: "As long as the NATO air strikes continue, we're fine. But god helps us when they stop."

As for me, I was never a political figure. But I used to view myself as a dissident--opposing the dominant political view in Serbia and arguing in public against the regime. As of Wednesday evening, when the sirens began to wail and when my flat shook from the first explosions in the distance, I joined the ranks of the "yes-men". Instead of doing the talking, I have begun listening. Even when I find what I am hearing totally unpalatable, I say nothing. I just nod in seeming agreement. It's something I never thought I would do.

With censorship tightened and no opportunity to hear any alternative opinion in the media, I wonder how many like-minded remain. I almost rejoiced when, one evening last week in the company of old friends, we gradually plucked up the courage to criticise Milosevic and his regime. Sadly, however, the prospects of this particular anger spilling out into the public realm are minimal. Indeed, as we dispersed, I wondered whether it was wise for me to have been so frank.

The author is a journalist and writer from Belgrade, who recently left the country. The name is withheld to protect his family from reprisals.