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Protests in Serbia Archive
Balkan Peace Team Report Jan. 23

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.

Counter Demonstrations

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 closer to 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 place.

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.

The Police

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.

The Media

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 government.

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 FRY.


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 break.

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:

The Students

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 University.

The Church

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.

The Economy

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@ independence.

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
E-mail: BPT_BG@ZAMIR-BG.ztn.apc.org

Balkan Peace Team International Office
Minden, Germany

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