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Serbia bottoms out

There is desire for change in Serbia. But it comes from the heartlands, not Belgrade, from people facing severe hardship and student activists ready to take real risks. The regime, and the opposition, offer nothing.

By Sonja Biserko in Belgrade

Serbia is reaching rock bottom. While the regime engages in a useless escalation of repression - beating and arresting students and others, shutting down the opposition media - the opposition is effectively passive, and at risk of being totally sidelined as a relevant force for change.

The central problem is the lack of a political alternative. Since its president's indictment for war crimes by the Hague Tribunal, Yugoslavia has effectively entered the post-Milosevic period. Recent developments have driven home the regime's disorientation and its increasing abandonment of any civilised denouement.

Its rhetoric has become increasingly hawkish, especially towards the western powers. It has blamed the spate of recent unsolved murders of leading political figures on the terrorist actions of "NATO servants", and dubbed The Hague Tribunal "a symbol of prostitution". It has labelled domestic enemies "NATO mercenaries", and "terrorists paid to destroy Yugoslavia". Meanwhile, its media clampdown has left the bulk of the population in a virtual information vacuum.

Yet the regime remains the most dynamic factor on the political scene. The next stage in its offensive will be a series of draconian laws to crack down further on domestic opponents. These include the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Act on Weapons, as well as possible legislation banning foreign funding of non-governmental organisations.

But it is the organised opposition which is preventing the emergence of an alternative. Its objectives are increasingly unclear, except for its transparent wish to maintain its own hard-won position. In this sense, its interests are identical to the regime's.

Citizens at large are increasingly disenchanted with the opposition rallies, and its reluctance to engage in concrete actions risks making it irrelevant.

The opposition leaders' recent visit to Russia only illustrates their own confusion and weakness. Russia offers no backing for democratic processes. It only sees Serbia as a means to protect its own traditional interests in the Balkans.

There is desire for change in the country. But it does not come from the capital, which has always been specially protected by the regime to head off political revolt. The interior of the country has been the first to react to the county's destruction, in a spontaneous and real way, even during the NATO intervention. The opposition in the interior, although politically confused and inconsistent, is also more instinctive and active than in the capital - and has been subject to more brutal repression.

Events in Pozarevac, Milosevic's hometown, forced him and his family to face the new reality in Serbia for the first time. Recent clashes there between people close to the president's son and Otpor activists, in which several youngsters were roughed up, sparked widespread popular discontent.

Local judges resisted demands that the activists be tried for attempted murder. Posters of battered youth from the town above the slogan "The Face of Serbia" had a bigger impact than any media campaign. The incident in "their town" shocked the ruling family, and heightened their fears about life beyond their own isolated, virtual world.

The new and threatening roar from the depth of the Serbian people comes not from partisan political interests but something much closer to home: people's own social and financial ruination. Devastated and isolated, the country has no economy to speak of. Citizens are increasingly disgruntled with both the regime and opposition, and know that neither can respond to their demands for real concrete improvements in their lives.

This has opened the way for the new factor on the political scene, Otpor, which is gaining increasing mass support. Reflecting the swelling popular discontent, the protest movement acts in diffuse and unpredictable ways, calling for resistance to the regime "everywhere and in every single place."

Otpor responded to escalating repression and almost daily battering of its members by setting up "rapid-reaction teams" to organise legal protection and assistance. So far, more than 1,000 members of Otpor have been detained. According to Otpor testimonies, police release them immediately, and are even sympathetic.

Otpor has undertaken imaginative if somewhat na´ve protest actions throughout Serbia, as shown by their slogans: "Petition against repression, aggression and tyranny aimed at the media," "The time is ripe," "We are looking for a president," "Let's bury the war hatchet and smoke the peace-pipe."

But they show wit, and real energy - hence efforts of the opposition, worn-out academics and the church to latch on to the movement and find a new lease on life. It is only outside of the capital where Otpor and organised local opposition work together effectively.

The elite, especially in Belgrade, does not grasp the fact that Serbia has territorially and spiritually regressed to the early twentieth century.

It is impossible to predict what the current revolt of Otpor members and citizens could bring about. The lack of political will for change, the exclusive reliance on brute force and absence of respect for other peoples in Yugoslavia has led Serbia to self-destruction - and the process is only continuing. As the writer Latinka Perovic has said, "Having been realised, nationalism threatens the very survival of the nation."

Sonja Biserko is president of the Helsinki Committee in Serbia.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting


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