Protest demonstrations and counter demonstrations in Belgrade; 24 december 1996
Some information and images from Balkan Peace Team-Belgrade
We present this short report, written immediately after the large demonstratons in Belgrade on 24 December, to provide images and information about this day's demonstrations in Belgrade that may not be covered by the international media.
On the 24th of December, there were 3 demonstrations in Belgrade: a student protest march, an opposition (Zajedno coalition) protest march and rally, and what the the independent media (Nasa Borba) has termed a "counter demonstration" in support of President Milosevic and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). The student and opposition protest demonstrations have been taking place for 34 days, after the results of the local elections were annuled on 17 November.
The counter demonstration, was scheduled for the same hour as the opposition demonstration, and held in the public square right next to the street where the protest marchers have always gathered. State-controlled media had announced the previous day that hundreds of thousands of people would attend this event.
Afterwards, independent media reports (Radio B92) carried estimates that 300,000 people attended the oppositon march and rally, 40,000 were at the counter demonstration, 60,000 students participated in marches earlier that day, and there were approximately 20,000 special police "milicija," on active duty.
The participants arrived for the counter demonstration on buses from all over Serbia which had been provided free by the SPS. BPT-B observed that these demonstrators were mostly older people, dressed in working clothes, very quiet and looking quite confused. We learned from other observers that most of these people came from the countryside. We were also told that many were not aware that there were other demonstrations taking place simultaniously.
The gathering of people for the two demonstrations brought two very different crowds together in the same streets. There was a lot of tension for hours beforehand. The opposition march did not get started on time, which gave conflicts more time to develop.
While we were in this area before the protest march began, we saw some violence. We saw loud heated arguments between small groups of demonstrators. When the counter demonstration rally began, the speakers got cheers from the supporters but were momentarily drowned out by loud boos from the much larger opposition crowd. We saw sticks and snowballs thrown at the police line which set itself up between the pro-Milosevic rally and the opposition protesters.
We also saw acts of nonviolence. When the police began pushing the opposition protesters back, the crowd responded by sitting down en masse in the street. They rose to their feet again but we feel that this gave the police some awareness of their potential for nonviolent resistance. The crowd used this tactic a few times. When the crowds did move back, many voices were urging "Polako" which means "Slowly."
Later, after we left the area, we learned from participants that the police continued pushing and began beating at some of the protesters. We also heard that when the largest crowds had left the area for the protest march, there was tear gas and more police violence used against oppositon protesters who remained.
As on previous occasions, the protest march made its way
through the city streets.
It was dark by now, and people in apartments along the way put candles in their windows or flickered their lights to show their support. They dropped confetti from the windows and roofs. The protesters were surprised when passing by the offices of Politika, a private pro-government newspaper and television station, to see the lights flickering from one floor and to have confetti fall from the fire escape. Rather than yelling and booing the building as they have on previous occasions, the marchers greeted these small signs of support with applause and waves.
The opposition protest march ended with a rally in the main square. The counter demonstration had ended earlier and the streets around the rally stage were empty. However, the large police presence remained, creating a unusual scene. The police had cordoned off large sections of the street and were standing four-deep, armed with plastic shields, gas masks, some of them with rifles. But the streets they were guarding were empty of people. People stood around on the outside watching them, as if waiting for something to happen, but the police themselves did not seem to know what their purpose was for standing there. They stood casually, speaking with some of the protesters, and BPT-B watched one woman hugging some of them.
RTS (state-controlled television) reported later in the evening that 500,000 people had attended the counter demonstration to support Milosevic. The tv cameras concentrated on close up shots of the rally and Milosevic's speech. It gave some coverage of the protest demonstration, focusing on the violent incidents.