The demonstrations began in the southern Serbian city of Nis after the second round of Yugoslavian local elections on November 17. It became clear that there was severe tampering with the results which initially gave most contested seats to the opposition coalition, Zajedno (Together). A revised count gave the control of the city once again to the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the party of President Slobodan Milosovic. The Center for Antiwar Action in Nis reported that leaders of the SPS surrounded all the polling locations with their own paramilitary formations, officially refered to as a kickbox club, which mistreated candidates and members of the election commission who were part of Zajedno. At one polling station, ballots and voter lists were stolen and many were not found. All the returned ballots were falsified by crossing out numbers and filling in new ones which were to the advantage of the SPS. A member of the City Election Commission from Zajedno intervened but to no avail. Over 20 ballots were falsified and, according to the final report, the SPS was the victor.
The initial Zajedno win was a surprise to everyone because Nis sits in south Serbia, the heart of Milosevic's political base. This vote exposed a growing public dissatisfaction with the government's economic and social policies, opinions once thought limited to intellectuals and anti-war activists. This development is important because it is certain to endanger favourable results for Milosevic in the Republican elections next year.
But Nis was not the only city undergoing change. In Belgrade, Kragujevac, Kraljevo, Novi Sad, Valjevo, Uzice, Pirot, Cacak and in a number of other cities, Zajedno won. In some of these communities, the contest was close. But in Belgrade, the opposition won 70 seats in the City Council while the SPS got only 21.
It will be difficult to get a full and accurate report about these elections. Each polling station is monitored by an electoral commission made up of representatives from all the parties. Once all the votes are counted, this commission must agree to a written minute as to their validity. The minutes from the polls which were completed that day, concluded that the elections had proceded in a fair and regular manner. But independent media reported that there were various irregularities committed by SPS members after the counting of votes, such as putting in a few votes more, and getting access to the ballots by the police force. In othe places, the minutes of the electoral commissions were not to be found.
It is regretful that there were no international observers present for either the Federal elections on 3 November or the second round of local contests on 17 November. The OSCE turned down a request for monitoring by the Federal government, saying it was too short notice.
The SPS took their complaints to court and they were accepted by every level, including the Supreme Court. Complaints filed by Zajedno against the court decisions to cancel votes or seats in their majority districts were all turned down, as were their complaints against abuses at the polling places. The legal petitions from SPS were approved at remarkable speed.
It was after the election annulments were given approval by both the electoral commission and the Supreme Court that Zajedno leaders called for public protests against the disrespect of the voters' decisions. The protesters are demanding that the original election results be respected.
The common denominator is the very specific goal of removing Milosevic and his party from their powerful position in Yugoslavian politics. Beyond that, it shares a commitment to moving the country away from the single-party way of thinking that was part of the Communist system, toward a multi-party, participatory democracy. Many intellectuals and activists voted for Zajedno because it was the only reasonable option, but most of them were not too happy about it. Djindjic has been portrayed in the international media as the key leader of Zajedno and the protests, probably because he fits a Western media image, having left Yugoslavia as a dissident student in the '70's and studying and living in Germany for many years. However, it is Vuk Draskovic and his Serb nationalist rhetoric which attracts the largest following to the coalition.
The first protest in Belgrade took place on 21 November when it became clear that even the Belgrade election results were threatened. After gathering in the central square, the crowd of 50,000 marched past the City Council building to a planned rally near the Parliament. But because the police had confiscated three sound systems, the rally was delayed, and the marchers moved through the streets in a large circle, returning to the center of town where they were addressed from a working sound system at Zajedno headquarters. This then has become a daily ritual, with the numbers growing larger with each passing day. Protesters gather at 3 every afternoon in front of the Zajedno office with whistles, horns, pipes, bells, pots and pans, and even empty beer cans, filled with beans to rattle. After one or two short speeches they start walking. The routes differ slightly each day, but usually they pass by the City Council, Milosevic's presidential office, the state television and the state-owned newspapers "Politika" or "Borba". At each of these places people whistle and shout against the institution, chanting "ne damo pobedu"(we won't give in), "bando crvena" (red gang), or "lopovi, lopovi" (thieves, thieves). A lot of anger and frustration gets especially directed against the state media. There are also sites which bring out great cheers of support and love from the crowd: the offices of independent Radio B-92, and the apartment of an elderly woman who is out every day on her balcony waving a flag and cheering them on. The crowd chants "Grandma," and everyone waves.
In the first few days, lots of eggs were thrown and also some stones at the buildings, so that now the TV-building and also "Politika" have broken windows and yellowish facades. Zajedno repeated its call for nonviolence and posted people standing at these places to discourage further attacks. In recent marches, people have been planting candles outside "Politika".
The crowd is very mixed. While the first few days of marchers attracted mostly young people, the participants seem to come from all age groups and social classes. The number of young people has grown less as the university student protests have begun (See StudZnt Protest section). At the beginning of the march, there are men with large SPO flags. In later marches, a truck moves slowly at the front carrying loudspeakers, used as a platform for Vuk Draskovic to make occasional speeches en route. Around this wagon there are a great number of people carrying nationalistic symbols: Yugoslavian tricolor flags, posters and banners with the Serbian cross and the four Cyrilic S's, some even wearing different kinds of "chetnik" (Serb nationalist) hats.
But in the middle and main body of the procession, the outspoken nationalistic symbols fade out, giving way to signs like "Snoopy against the Red Baron", " Watching too much State TV makes You loose Your sight", "A "handful" of 200.000 ...?" (referring to the state tv comment portraying the demonstrators as a "handful of people, incidentally passing by"). People in the march are quite friendly, there are lots of smiles, conversations and laughter. Whistle and noisemaker duets happen spontaneously. People tend to start up their own chants rather than following anything coming from the sound truck.
There is no sense of latent violence and the crowds are remarkably disciplined. There are virtually no monitors along the route, except at key buildings as mentioned above. A handful of traffic police keep the traffic lanes closed, but for a few days, police stopped doing this, creating small, frustrated traffic jams. Demonstrators spontaneously stepped in to keep the roads clear and tried to ward off those motorists angry by the delay. Both the bus drivers union and taxi drivers union are supporters of Zajedno, and thus their members have adapted willingly to the congestion.
At the end of every march, there is a rally with speeches from the Party leaders and messages of support from all over the world. After the first few days, these rallies got smaller in size while the marches grew. This is another sign that people are inspired to protest from their own personal motivations and not because of party politics.
The students'main demand is for the forming of a commission, which will investigate any claimed election irregularity. They also want the replacement of both the University rector and the students' pro-rector because both have made public speeches which denied the protest and incriminated the demonstrators. Beyond these demands the students are hoping for a strong social impact together with the other demonstrations and they hope that their own protest marches act as a motivation for people on an overall level to take part in the demonstrations. One of their leaflets was specifically addressed to their parents, explaining that the students would stick it out alone but they would prefer to have their parents join them.
The students are well organized and have prepared themselves for possible violence from the police. Designated monitors walk in front and along the sides and in the case of a clash with police, participants are prepared to all sit down in the road en masse. The protests have been very creative. After the state media accused them of being destructive and fascist, they built a brick wall in front of the Federal Parliament building and sprayed on it: We are not destructing but constructing.
There are sympathizers among the police. The independent newspaper, Nasa Borba, printed a letter of support from 65 police to protesters in the city of Kraljevo, reassuring their fellow citizens, that they would not go against them but rather protect them from other police of a different mind, especially those from other towns.
The two newspapers have been reporting widely on mass demonstrations in other towns of Yugoslavia as well as Belgrade. "Demokratija" is a new creation, published by journalists who left another independent daily "Blic", after its Austrian owner Peter Kvlbl wrote a public letter stating that the demonstrators were not respecting democracy. Until that point "Blic" had been covering the demonstrations extensively, with an increase in circulation from 30.000 to 200.000, but Kvlbl was apparently under pressure to protect his investments. "Demokratija" is being backed by the Democratic party and selling well.
Activists have a variety of assessments regarding the protests. Members from Women in Black clearly say that they are not supporting Zajedno, but they take part in the demonstration each and every day, because they see them as a hopeful sign that people have lost their fright of speaking out, particularly after the large demonstrations in 1991 and 1992 which were crushed by government tanks and ended in violence and death. They hope for a change. The Women in Black are worried about a lack of concept and strategy in the Zajedno's handling of the demonstrations. Women in Black have been creating and distributing leaflets at every march with suggestions what to do in a case of violence and how to apply nonviolent resistance. Each leaflet contains 5 suggestions derived from Gene Sharpe's list of 200+ forms of nonviolent action. WiB members have also offered their ideas to the striking students and Jelena Santic from Group 484 has been speaking at daily student forums.
Other activists have taken a more cynical perspective, choosing to stay away from something they see as a "walking Zajedno-rally" or attending only on those occasions when it seemed important to stand up to the police threats. Feminist activists have added to the critique, pointing out how strongly the demonstrations are characterized by nationalist male chauvinists.
But whatever the practical results, democracy and civil society have made giant steps in Yugoslavia in the past three weeks. It is hoped and assumed by many who live here that the country will never be the same.