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

Sumadija Takes on Belgrade

Disillusioned with Serbia's supine opposition, the historically rebellious region of Sumadija has decided to take on the Milosevic regime on its own.

Like their forbears over 100 years ago, the people of Sumadija are girding themselves for rebellion.

The springboard for several uprisings against Ottoman rule in the 19th century, the central Serbian region - bounded by the towns of Cacak, Kragujevac and Kraljevo - has now become a centre of resistance to the Milosevic regime.

"The uprising against the Turks started here in 1804, so will this one, against Milosevic," Dr Predrag Stojanovic, from Kraljevo, declares.

Spring protests in Kraljevo began relatively harmlessly when teachers and subsequently pupils took to the streets. Residents then demanded the return of a TV transmitter seized by the federal authorities. And finally reservists defied the military draft-board and called on the army to end its provocations in Montenegro.

Senior military officials visited the city to try to calm to things down, but refused to address the reservists' complaints. Now everyone expects the barricades to go up on Kraljevo bridge, if not around the town itself.

In the neighbouring town of Cacak, residents have mounted a 24-hour armed guard around the town's television station and placed bear-traps around its transmitter.

There have been similar demonstrations in Cuprija, Pozega and Kragujevac.

The protests in the main have either been spontaneous or organised by ordinary citizens disenchanted with the deteriorating economy. Political parties have hardly been involved and, when they have, protesters have complained that they only get in the way.

In contrast to the tumult in Sumadija, cities like Belgrade have remained relatively quiet. The mayor of Cacak, Velimir Ilic, one of the leaders of the Alliance for Change, blames this on incompetent opposition parties who, over the years, have been weakened by government co-option and bitter quarrelling.

"It is a simple matter," Ilic told IWPR, "the leaders who had the trust of Belgrade residents have betrayed them. Belgraders are now looking for new leaders."

One of the leading authorities in the Orthodox Church, Bishop Stefan, agrees. "The Serbian authorities have themselves formed the opposition and are holding it tightly in their clutches. The people understand this and are now fighting for freedom on their own."

The mayor of Kraljevo, Mladomir Novakovic, believes the citizens of his town have waited far too long for the opposition in Belgrade to take the initiative." Now, we have had enough. We cannot wait for anyone. If Belgrade wants to join us, it would be easier but we can manage well enough without it," he said.

Nebojsa Krstic, a senior official from Kragujevac's Civil Alliance, takes a similar view. "Perhaps Belgrade has time on its hands. We, however, cannot wait. Kragujevac is dying as a city. We're not merely protesting against the government, we're fighting for our life."

The international community has given the Sumadija uprising significant encouragement, letting local people know that it is keen to see democracy and opposition to Milosevic thrive.

In local elections three years ago, the opposition scored victories in the cities of central Serbia. Residents proudly declared their homes "free cities". And, despite the opposition's failure to mount a united front against Milosevic, the cities have escaped his authoritarian rule.

Sociologist Aleksandar Veljovic said, "In Kraljevo, Cacak and Kragujevac people are suffering. But at least they've experienced a little freedom. Now they are determined to preserve and extend it."

The most prominent Serbian politician in between the two world wars, Nikola Pasic, used to say that the authorities are responsible for the misery and captivity of the people, the opposition for its future and morale.

The view is shared by the mayor of Cacak, Velimir Ilic, "The Serbian people live in misery because their government is bad, but if they lack hope for the future, it is because they have a poor opposition."

The citizens' uprising against Milosevic started shortly after last summer's NATO bombing campaign. The protest did not last long because it was lead by a weak opposition. The region has learned its lesson -- but it has not turned its back on the opposition altogether. The hope is that it will learn a lesson or two from Sumadija's example.

Miroslav Filipovic is a correspondent for Danas in Kraljevo

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