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PROTESTS IN BELGRADE AND THROUGHOUT YUGOSLAVIA--1996-97; PART II
This report covers the protests and other political developments in Yugoslavia
since December 9, 1996. It picks up where
our first report left off, after the annulment of local election results in
Serbia and the subsequent public protests.
The Story Continues
There has been no resolution to the conflict in Yugoslavia
over the annulment of last November's local election results
in the 14 cities where the opposition coalition won. In the
face of international pressure and public protests, President
Milosevic and the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) have
made indications that they might finally recognize the Zajedno
coalition's victories, but all the while they have taken
other steps to legally deny the results and to put an end to
all demonstrations. Both Zajedno and the striking university
students have continued their protests in Belgrade and 40
other cities, as well as their efforts through legal and
international channels to democratize the country.
The Struggle for the Votes
When the 17 November election results were annulled, control
of 14 city assemblies was retained by SPS. Zajedno challenged
the annulments before local and federal election commissions,
and in the courts. The first challenges met with failure, but
this has been followed by appeal court decisions and election
commission reconsideration in their favor. The first big break
came in the town of Nis, on 17 December when a local court
ordered the Nis election commission to review its original
annulment. By January 9, even the national Ministry of Justice
publicly acknowledged that Zajedno had won in Nis.
In other cities, including Belgrade, however, the legal battles have been like
a tennis match, with the courts and then
the election commissions canceling out each others`previous
decisions. On January 14, OMRI reported that the local election commissions
agreed to the Zajedno victories in 14 cities.
International media predicted that Milosevic might use this
occasion to "back down". But the next day, SPS appealed the
decisions, including the victory in Nis, and the cases will
work their way to the Supreme Court.
The legal maneuvers by courts and commissions are confusing
because the real decisions are being made at the political
level. State bodies like the courts and the election commissions are largely
made up of SPS members; it is their political wishes which will dominate. One
local legal observer told
BPT-B that "in every committee, you will find just enough SPS
members to maintain control of its decisions. So it LOOKS like
democracy but this is really a one party state." When international media
reported in late December and early January,
that Milosevic was offering to recognize Zajedno wins in a few
cities, what this means is that the appropriate courts and
commissions would officially make such decisions. In response
to these rumors of compromise, Zajedno publicly rejected all
partial offers and repeated its demand for all the annulled
election results to be returned.
A delegation from the Office of Security and Cooperation in
Europe (OSCE) arrived in Belgrade in late December to review
the election results at the invitation of the Serbian government. The
delegation was headed by Felipe Gonzales, former
President of Spain. Members met with all parties to the conflict, reviewed the
reports from local election commission
reports, and concluded that Zajedno won in the 14 contested
cities. They called on the Milosevic regime to acknowledge the
17 November results but the OSCE has no power of enforcement.
In mid-December, SPS began holding public support demonstrations in small
central Serbian towns. Nasa Borba and other
independent media referred to them as "counter demonstrations." Then SPS
announced plans for a large counter demonstration on 24 December in Belgrade,
predicting up to one million participants. On the given day, the number was
40,000, mostly peasants and workers from rural areas who had
been provided with free transportation and instructed to carry
SPS banners and signs. How voluntary their participation was
is unclear; there were reports on Radio B-92 that workers got
off the night shift at their factories and were put on buses
headed for Belgrade. They arrived in Belgrade with no idea
that there were daily protest marches against Milosevic taking
The counter demonstration was scheduled for 3 pm, the same
time as the opposition's daily protest march, and it was set
to take place on the same street where the marchers regularly
gather. Later, international leaders and local clergy accused
Milosevic of purposely manipulating the day's events in this
way to produce physical conflict among the two sets of protesters. Besides the
two sets of demonstrators, 20,000 police
militia were present, creating a cordon between the smaller Milosevic
contingent and 300,000 opposition protesters. For
all the chaos, the day's violence amounted to a few fist
fights between protesters, two people hurt by gunshots,
clubbings of some protesters by the police, and one death. The
greatest tragedy took place in the evening when a teacher,
Pedrag Starcevic, returned from the protests and was beaten to
death by a group of SPS supporters.
Before 24 December, the police on the streets during the
protest marches were traffic police. But after the counter
demonstration, the government banned street protests in Belgrade completely and
placed police militia in full riot gear
on the streets. At times, there have been as many as 2500
present, mostly from other cities in Serbia, Kosov@ and
Vojvodina. The police are Milosevic's primary ally when it
comes to maintaining control of the country. The Yugoslavian
National Army leadership has been in conflict with him for
many years and some units were reported to have sent a letter
of support to the striking students. In a meeting with the
students army commander General Perisic stated, that unlike
1991 the army would keep out of domestic political affairs.
While the police have beaten protesters with their batons,
police attacks have largely been individual incidents, often
happening when police feel they are being taunted. In response
to the demonstrators' friendly treatment, the police have, for
the most part, been approachable, willing to speak to protesters and have their
pictures taken. BPT-B heard one demonstrator ask a policeman if he and his
comrades would use
violence against the nonviolent protesters if they ordered to.
He replied," I wouldn't be too sure about that".
BPT-B observed undercover police using clubs on demonstrators.
This was caught on camera as well and their pictures published
in the independent press, along with their names.
On 3 December, the government ordered the closing of Radio B92 for not having a
proper broadcasting license. This small
independent Belgrade station, with only 1 kilometer of broadcasting range and
56,000 listeners, became a symbol in Yugoslavia and around the world for those
who value an independent
media. The protests and pressures on Milosevic to take back
the order were strong and two days later, the government
allowed the station to broadcast. Radio Television Serbia
(RTS) reported to the Serbian public that the problem was a
technical one, a wire at the transformer that had gotten wet.
A few days later, Radio B-92 signed a license contract with
The public's anger at the dishonest reporting on state-controlled RTS made the
television station a central focus for
the protest marches. A new form of protest began in January.
From 7:30 until 8 in the evening, when the news is broadcast,
people go to their windows and make as much noise as possible
with pots and pans, bells, whistles. This action to "drown out
the lies", now takes place simultaneously in cities throughout
There have been over 60 days of protests, including 30 days
when marches in Belgrade have been banned and the streets are
cordoned off by police. During this time, protesters have useda wide
variety of nonviolent tactics.These have not been based
in any one specific, clearly defined nonviolent strategy. They
arise, rather, from an atmosphere among the protesters of
determined joy. People have channeled their anger at the state
into humor and celebration, creating a culture of resistance
that the police and the government have not been able to
The list below summarizes the kinds of actions used throughout
former Yugoslavia. The methods used in Belgrade are covered
more extensively since this is where BPT-B regularly monitors
the events, but a number of these tactics began in other cities and were later
picked up by the Belgrade protesters.
Nonviolent Action Used in the Protests in Yugoslavia
When the regime banned street protests in Belgrade, saying
that they disrupted auto traffic, and placed large numbers of
police militia on the streets to enforce the ban, many new
nonviolent protest methods were designed:
Marches often follow a regular route, passing by key buildings
which symbolize the power of the regime. March routes will
also pass through different neighborhoods so that the protest
message can reach new people.
- Marches to Belgrade
Student protesters from other cities have conducted long walks
to Belgrade to link the protests and build awareness in the
towns they pass through. One group made the journey by bicycle. Protesters from
Belgrade suburbs have marched into the
city together to attend the demonstrations.
- Student Strikes
Students at several universities in Yugoslavia have gone on
strike. They have been joined by a growing number of their
professors. There have also been strikes at gymnasiums in
Belgrade and secondary and primary schools in Vojvodina.
- Theater Performance Cancellations
Performances at cultural events have been canceled. Statements
are read out loud to the audience from the striking cast
People use everything: whistles, horns, bells, sirens, pots
and pans. When the marchers stop traffic, many motorists honk
their horns, not out of frustration over the traffic jam, but
in support of the demonstrators.
These are the most common noisemakers in the protests, often
used in a call-and-response cadence. They are also used by
individuals to make a quick "statement" while walking down the
street. A whistle hanging around the neck is a sign of identification, much
like a protest button.
During the marches, the most common chants are "Bando Crveno"
(Red Band); "Lopovi" (Thieves); "Let's attack all together".
- Blinking Lights
When the marches pass by their homes and offices, people blink
their houselights or flashlights. This sign of support originated in Nis and
spread to other cities. People living at
street level put candles in their windows.
Supporters drop confetti on the marchers as they pass. Radio
B-92 regularly showers the protesters with leaflets. On one
occasion, hundreds of old Serbian dinar notes from the days of
hyperinflation rained down on the protesters.
People carry all kinds of flags: Serbian national flags,
political party flags, car racing flags, flags from other
countries, the gay pride rainbow flag, American Civil War
flags, skull and crossbones flags, and scarves tied to sticks.
Supporters wave flags from the windows as the marchers pass
by. While Serbian national flags are the most common, the
main idea seems to be to have any kind of flag. One local
activist BPT-B, "People just bring whatever they had hanging
on their walls."
Posters are mostly home made, often with humorous messages,
such as " Snoopy Against the Red Baron" and "Our Leaders Are
Deaf, Our Leaders Are Blind, But We Care".
Two large satirical puppets were created to march in the
Belgrade protests. One depicting Milosevic's wife, Mira
Markovic, in feudal armor, was designed by Belgrade University
art students. The other, also created and carried by an art
student, is of Milosevic in prison clothes. It attracted wide
popular attention and its creator was picked up by the police
one night and badly beaten. He remains under medical care.
- Badges and Paraphernalia
Entrepreneurs walk the streets where protesters gather, selling badges;
whistles and horns; postcards photos of the mass
demonstrations with the slogan "Greetings from Belgrade"; and
cardboard eyeglasses made to look like eggs--an weapon used
against the state buildings.
- Decontamination Actions
Students in Belgrade staged a cleaning action of the location
where the Milosevic regime organized its counter demonstration. They washed the
building where a state committee met and
turned down their demand to oust the University Rector and
instead, reconfirmed his appointment.
- The Brick Wall
Students built a brick wall in front of the Parliament Building after they were
accused of being destructive. They wanted
to show symbolically that they were trying to be constructive.
- Statements from Professional Organizations
Five Supreme Court judges signed a letter of protest when the
Yugoslavian Supreme Court decided in favor of annulling the
elections. They were then followed by colleagues throughout
the country. The prestigious Serbian Writers Union wrote a
letter to Milosevic, asking that he honor the 17 November
- Noise To Drown Out the News
As reported above, from 7:30-8pm every evening, during the
evening news on the state television channel, people go to
their windows and make all the noise they can. Pedestrians
blow their whistles cars honk their horns. Awards are given to
the noisiest streets.
- Jamming the Phone Lines
People make nonstop telephone calls to state institutions to
completely clog up the telephone lines and make the
government's work impossible. A list of state telephone numbers was placed in
the independent daily newspaper, assigning
different sets of numbers to people living in certain neighborhoods.
In some instances when cordons of the police pushed at the
crowds to move, they immediately sat down in the road. When
this took place during an all-night student vigil, the students were joined by
an Orthodox priest who sat down right in
front of the police cordon and began to pray.
- Funeral March
Protesters held a silent funeral march from the cemetery in
honor of a teacher killed by SPS supporters.
- Holiday Celebrations
During the Christmas and New Years holidays, the opposition
and the students sponsored large street parties. Because of
their celebratory nature and the large numbers they attracted,
the police decided not to keep the streets clear that night.
People used the occasion to go promenading on all the streets
in the city center, as if to make a statement, "These streets
belong to us."
- Marching in Circles
Protesters march in circles on the pedestrian malls. Or they
march in small circles right in front of the police cordons.
- The Green Man
Protesters wait on the sidewalk until the "green man" light
appears at the crosswalks. Then everyone runs into the crosswalks for a few
frenzied minutes of dancing and cheering. When
the light turns red again, they quickly return to the sidewalks.
- Neighborhood Marches
Protesters meet in their neighborhoods at 8 pm and weave
through the streets nearby, making noise and chanting slogans.
With the police cordons concentrated in the center of the
city, they have been unable to block all these small marches.
However, when some of these small marches have met up with the
police, protesters have been beaten.
- Dog Walking
People brought their dogs to the protest one day, claiming
that they were just out to walk their pets that day.
- Traffic Jams
People brought their cars to the center of the city, creating
major traffic jams and honking their horns. This chaos allowed
the marchers to walk down the streets without being accused of
- Photo Opportunity
Protesters pose in front of the police cordons for dramatic
photos, sometimes asking police to pose with them.
- Entertaining the Troops
Students stage skits of fights between protesters and demonstrators and read
out loud to them from Dostoevski. Protesters
stop and speak with the police, bring them flowers and candy,
kiss them on the cheeks, and draw hearts and flowers on their
plastic shields. On one day, protesters wore their own "uniforms": medical
coats, fire-fighting outfits, graduation robes
to match the police's riot gear. In one city, there is a daily
contest where protesters vote for the "most beautiful policeman."
There are many signs during the protests that students play a
special role in Serbian society. During the student marches,
people on the sidewalks would stop to applaud and residents
would applaud from the windows, people who did not show any
other signs of identifying with the opposition. Regular protesters rarely
joined the student marches; local activists
explained that there was an understanding that this event
belonged to the students and their professors. When students
from Nis walked for 48 hours to Belgrade, Milosevic granted a
meeting with them, although he had been denying any contact
with the protesters up to that point.
Student organizers explained that students are seen as the
country's future leaders, and even if their ideas are not well
understood, they are respected and admired. This is particularly true in the
towns and rural areas.
The student protest organizers have continued to maintain
independence from the Zajedno coalition. Their organization is
highly structured and disciplined, but activists outside the
structure have found that this spills over at times into a
paranoid suspicion of all strangers. Despite this, the special
mark of the student protests has been humor and spontaneous
creativity, and extensive use of the internet to build up
international support. Besides the protest actions, students
in numerous faculties have been engaged in seminars and forums
on political topics related to democracy and social change.
Out of this new longer range projects have developed, such as
the Organization for the Development of Democracy in the
The Patriarchy of the Serbian Orthodox Church made no public
statements during the first weeks of the election crisis.
Differing views on the elections and the protests pushed the
Patriarch to eventually call for a two-day Synod on the 2nd
and 3rd of January. At that meeting, the Church developed a
united stand in support of the return of the November 17
election results. The Church's interests are not tied to the
Milosevic regime. Greater democracy would give them more freedom to operate and
to regain some of their property lost
during the Tito era. After the Synod, the highest church
leadership participated in a special Serbian Christmas march
and service on 6 January. In late January, the Patriarch
visited the students during a 3-day nonstop street protest.
Troubles for the Yugoslavian economy continue despite the
lifting of sanctions. This period of protest and unrest has
increased the crisis. It is reported that only 20 % is employed. While others
are working in black market enterprises,
the majority of the labor force is on forced vacations or
unemployed. In mid January, the state had to print more money
to cover end-of-the-year pensions. The daily cost for the
police presence in Belgrade is reported to cost 1 million DEM
a day. On 13 January, the black market exchange rate began to
jump from 3.8 dinar to 5 dinar per DEM. There were renewed
fears of hyper-inflation, though the dinar fell back to 4.0
dinar per DEM by the end of the month. The independent publications, Nasa
Borba and Vreme, however, continue to predict
imminent economic crisis.
Developments in Kosov@
In the course of the protests, BPT-B asked its Albanian contacts in Kosov@ how
they viewed the events. In the first
weeks, we found it was not considered important. With the
exception of journalists at the independent, Koha, people were
curious, but did not see the protests influencing their struggles at home.
Kosov@ political interest has focused instead on
new internal developments such as Adam Demaqi's plans to run
against Ibrahim Rugova for the Presidency of the parallel
Kosov@ Albanian Parliament.
As the protests began to threaten Milosevic's control, however, Kosov@
Albanians began to consider what options this
produced for their independence drive. In January, 600 Albanian students at the
parallel university signed a letter to
President Rugova demanding that he take advantage of
Milosevic's weakness and make a more direct demand for Kosov@
In December, hundreds of students at the Serbian university
staged a protest in support of the Belgrade students. Zajedno
supporters in the Kosov@ Serbian community also began to meet
and hold public protest gatherings in Prishtina. Most recently, opposition
gatherings have also taken place in more rural
areas. Serbian opposition protesters in Kosov@ are very isolated, caught
between the dominant Serbian parties, SPS and
Serbian Radical Party (SRS) on one side, and the Albanian
majority population on the other. Their demonstrations are
photographed by state security and their leaders receive
threatening telephone calls. They have no contact with Kosov@
Albanian political organizations.
The protests have brought an exchange of supportive statements
between the Albanian leadership and Serbian opposition politicians. Adam Demaqi
welcomed the movement towards democracy in
Serbia. When an Albanian teacher, Feriz Blakori, was tortured
and killed in Prishtina in December, Vuk Draskovic called for
a moment of silence at the Belgrade protest rally.
However, the link is a weak one and political observers worry
that it will break quickly if and when Milosevic plays the
"Kosov@ card." The predictions vary, but in late January,
comments from Zajedno leaders and international press raised
the possibility that Milosevic might be fomenting violent
confrontation in Kosov@, thus creating a crisis which cancels
out the importance of the protests or the annulled elections.
This would also give him the option to declare martial law and
get the protesters off the streets. The car bomb attack on the
Rector of the Serbian University in Prishtina heightened fears
of this development; some speakers proposed that the Kosov@
Liberation Army which took responsibility is actually a front
for JUL, the party of Milosevic's wife.
As this report is being completed, the protests in FRY are
continuing. Belgrade students are in their fifth day of nonstop protest in the
city center. In Kragujevac on 23 January,
protesters clashed violently with police over control of the
local television station and created a blockade on the highway
to stop buses of local police as they returned from their
duties at the protests in Belgrade. International observers
comment that Milosevic seems to be biding his time in the
hopes that the protests may dwindle.
Balkan Peace Team, Beograd
tel +381 11 33 66 73
Balkan Peace Team International Office