Hope on the Balkans Kosov@ Crisis
Cacak's voice of reason
Opposition Mayor Ilic made a triumphant return at the first post-war anti-Milosevic rally, setting the stage for further demonstrations in other cities within Serbia.
By a journalist from Belgrade
Demonstrations in the city centre of Cacak drew thousands of people in a enthusiastic opposition gathering--the first since the end of the war.
Serbian police prevented a few busloads of demonstrators, and some international journalists, from reaching the rally. Local members of opposition parties also received warnings or were detained for "informative talks" in an effort to get them to call off the protest.
Despite this harassment, activists with the coalition Alliance for Change mounted the first public manifestation, June 29, since the war of opposition to the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Making his first public appearance since going into hiding during the war, Cacak Mayor Velimir Ilic addressed the chanting rally and waded into the crowd to shake hands and greet supporters.
He was joined on the platform by Social Democrat leader Vuk Obradovic, Civic Alliance of Serbia (GSS) leader Goran Svilanovic, Mayor Zoran Zivkovic of Nis and civic activists from Cacak as well as Kraljevo. "For Freedom, For Cacak," read posters plastered around the town.
Cacak has been a focus of opposition since its first anti-Milosevic demonstrations in 1992. In the 1996 local elections, opposition politicians from the Democratic Party of Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) of Vuk Draskovic and others gained seats and took overall control.
But it was in the midst of the heaviest NATO bombing that Cacak secured its reputation as an opposition stronghold by organising anti-regime demonstrations despite the state of war. On May 18-20, local activists organised a Citizens' Parliament, which held three days of protests attended by thousands of people. After such meetings were banned, opposition-oriented gatherings continued in panel discussions and other private meetings.
"The Citizens' Parliament was formed so that the people of Cacak could speak openly about everything that is happening to us," explains Verica Barac, a municipal attorney associated with the Parliament. "We wanted the voice of reason to be heard, to fight for the last man, and not to the last man. But it seems the regime . . . wants as many people as possible to die."
During the bombing, euphoric nationalism swept Serbia--including officially sponsored rallies in Cacak "against the NATO aggressor." The municipal assembly, dominated by opposition parties, and Mayor Ilic of the New Serbia party, sought to explain to citizens that such "patriotic protests" were staged by local representatives of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia and its communist partner, the Yugoslav United Left.
Thus while air raid sirens wailed, and soldiers bodies were returned from Kosovo, citizens of Cacak condemned such patriotic defiance. Yet with the media blockade, they had little impact. Even the local private TV station, Galaksija 32, lent itself out as the official parties' mouthpiece.
In these circumstances, the initial aims of the Citizens' Parliament were formally apolitical. The focus was on ending the war and saving people's lives. A modest industrial town of 80 000, Cacak lies 120 kilometres south of Belgrade. The destruction of its economy contributed to the feeling among jobless residents that the patriotic fervour pumped out by the regime and its loyal media cannot offer them a real future. With desperate young soldiers returning from Kosovo, people in Cacak were also under no illusion that the war against NATO could be won.
The regime responded with ham-fisted attempts to stifle dissent in Cacak. The first to be attacked was Ilic, the assembly speaker. Based on statements he made to Radio Free Europe, he was accused of revealing military targets and undermining the defence of the country. The authorities attempted to arrest him, but Ilic was able to slip into hiding, where he remained until this afternoon.
But the persecution of Ilic only enhanced the dissatisfaction of people in Cacak. He has enjoyed strong local support for a long time, since his outspoken role several years ago as an activist in the SPO when he opposed leader Draskovic for openly flirting with the regime.
Trumped-up charges were also brought against leading members of the Citizens' Parliament for holding unregistered gatherings during a state of war. Dr. Mirjana Hercog, a children's GP; Professor Nada Despotovic; Vesna Bjelic, a journalist for BETA news agency; Barac, the public attorney, and Milan Bozovic, a retired professor, were all sentenced and fined 3,000 German Marks.
"The situation in the town is extremely repressive," says Dr. Svetlana Eric, who was also charged. "Only in Cacak were people arrested because of their opinion." Eric says that during her hearing, she was criticised by the judge for writing a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
"According to the judge, Annan is a fascist. The UN is a fascist organisation. You see to what extent their madness goes," Eric exclaims.
Within the town, the political initiatives appear to have widespread support. "Serbia is shrinking year by year and its citizens are ever poorer," says Milisav Kovacevic, an unemployed factory worker. "I am left without a job, and what do I get in return? Bogus patriotism precisely from people who managed to get rich . . . on other people's misery." He sees the Cacak initiatives as a sign that people realise they have to take responsibility for Serbia's future.
"Sooner or later the regime will have to answer before its own people," he says.
The question is whether Cacak's Citizens' Parliament and other activities can emerge as a serious new political force. Similar fora have been founded in Kraljevo, Paracin and Subotica-- all gathering civic-oriented forces, and Kraljevo activists participated in the Cacak rally. In the coming weeks, fresh demonstrations are scheduled for Uzice and Kraljevo, where Democratic Party leader Djindjic, the former mayor of Belgrade, is expected to speak.
The contributor is a journalist with a newspaper in Belgrade whose name has been withheld.
© Institute of War &Peace Reporting
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