A new Spring of Fear in Serbia

Vesna Bjekic

TUE, 14 MAR 2000

Podgorica, March 11, 2000 - March is already here and spring is coming. Here in Serbia, after all these years, it brings back the memories of the past repression and war as well as fears of new ones. Not without nostalgia for the "good old times", some people remember the "velvet revolution", while others bitterly repeat the sentence from buttons worn at one of the students' protests ("It is spring, and I am still living in Serbia"), while very few still remember as "heavenly paradise" the times when the culmination of spring excitement was the "Belgrade Spring" festival of popular music. Today, young men and women from the students' "Resistance" say that they only want "spring without lead rains".

In the past decade, people here, who have lived through the worst that could happen to a man, fear that this is not all. Politics and the social reality are such that there seems to be no end to degradation. Namely, today in Serbia people live with all kinds of fears from possible wars, depending on the individual assessment: from civil war in Serbia, from conflicts with Montenegro, from conflicts with the Albanians in the South of Serbia, from new air strikes. As far as repression is concerned - it is present everywhere. The police has scattered all around: arresting, bringing people in, prosecuting and testifying against politically unsuitable, from revolting students and high-school pupils to opposition politicians.

There is an increasing number of "unidentified persons" (better said: bullies) who instead of settling mutual conflicts have assumed new roles: they wait in ambush and beat up regime opponents in the newly launched "war of posters" without punishment (the regime opponents and supporters stick or tear up posters of the other side).

Apart from fear, the general mood of people in Serbia is characterised by increased nervousness and impatience. Public opinion polls show that apart from the fact that most of the respondents were in favour of peaceful changes, the number of those who want changes, by force, if need be (one third) has also increased in the last two years.

It seems that even for tolerant Serbs, who like to mention 500 years under the Turkish rule and Njegos' rhyme of "evil that is endured for the sake of worse evil", ten years is too long, especially in view of many failures that have characterised that period. Political tension is growing, time is running out, changes are nowhere in sight and people realise that they have only one life. They all want this situation to be resolved as soon as possible and at any cost. Although, on the one side, the people are demanding and expecting the elections, on the other the general public is increasingly convinced that the peaceful way (which means the elections)is not the way out of the crisis.

How do experts and analysts of different profiles see the "state of affairs" and the denouement of a decade-long crisis in Serbia which is, undoubtedly, nearing its end? How long can this state last in which almost daily incidents are trying the patience and taking the pulse of the opposed sides?

The authorities and the opposition in Serbia have become two confronted blocks which, according to Dr Vladimir Goati "will clash in every possible way before they will compete on voting slips". The historian Dr Dusan Batakovic thinks that "the threat of civil war has nothing to do with how much the people are prepared for this kind of conflict, but is rather a reflection of the absence of stable state institution and the rule of law in which crisis could be solved by political means. "If elections are organised, these authorities will never accept the defeat and will do everything to defend themselves. Only the ruling oligarchy can provoke some kind of civil war since that would serve as a pretext for setting up a complete dictatorship. Threats of the Hague Tribunal do not leave any alternative to the Serbian regime, but only the 'sooty shotgun' ideology".

Although for the last ten years Serbia has been constantly waging war in different shapes and forms, introduction of the story about a civil war in the centre of political life here causes great anxiety. A social psychologist, Dr Bora Kuzmanovic, says that all research studies carried out so far show that people are afraid of the war and that that fear is now coupled with a concern that the epilogue of the ten years of war in the neighbourhood, could easily be a civil war in Serbia. According to his opinion, the people stopped protesting last fall after the police attacked them, precisely because they feared that the authorities might provoke a civil war: "People felt that the authorities were prepared to go all the way. The majority of citizens thought that that was too high a price to pay and that it was not necessary since the regime was already caving in".

All that has been going on in Serbia in the last couple of months shows that the regime, faced with a dilemma to either organise the elections or to provoke a conflict, is trying to find a solution in the further radicalisation of relations. Nevertheless, according to Dr Zoran Stojilkovic, a politicologist, there is nothing new in the regime's strategies for the next round of political battles: " What Milosevic has been applying ever since he came into power boils down to two models: the one - provoking of new divisions and even deeper crisis in critical times; and the other - shifting the blame on someone else. This time he has been forced into a tight corner and is looking for culprits in the international community and traitors from the ranks of the democratic opposition ("janissaries" and "foreign mercenaries"). The regime practically counts on instilling fear and provoking deeper crisis as country's isolation suits it, and hopes to cause new divisions within the opposition".

Although the public fears confrontation between the regime and the opposition which could result in a bloodshed, the analysts think that, for the time being, the regime will resort to "proven", but somewhat tighter methods which are practised these days: unscrupulous use of the mechanism of legal coercion, ruthless discrediting of opponents, more intensive use of police and judiciary...

What can the opposition and general democratic public do? Will the opposition finally play the "winning combination" in its ten-year struggle with the regime?

The democratic opposition (which has united on January 10, although even after numerous joint meetings and adoption of a joint platform many still question its unity) has been taking heat again these days. In all fairness, it can thank itself for that because this winter, when March was still far away, it announced "the first joint rally in support" of the request for the holding of extraordinary fair elections at all levels sometime "in March". The important date of the Serbian opposition - March 9, passed and there was no rally, while the date when it will be held is still unknown.

Although there is much the local opposition could be reproached for: uniting - disuniting, leaderism, loss of all that it has won, and lack of perseverance at times when it enjoyed the enormous support of citizens (1996-97 protests) and the regime was seriously shaken, the analysts point out that one should not lose sight of the foreign-political situation and the nearby war, which were never to the opposition's advantage (and are not even today), but rather benefited the regime. The opposition always gave in under the pressure of "greater evil" and there was always some "major state reason" to be considered. Although the opposition doesn't deny the weakness of its tactics and strategy, the analysts see the key of the opposition's failure in Serbia in the character of this regime which would stop at nothing.

That is why their present reluctance and restraint (critics say that they are "washing their hands of the rally" because they are unwilling to take the responsibility) in organising a new rally, seems sensible, both because of incidents and provocations, as well as because it is highly probable that it would achieve nothing. For, it should be clear to everyone that it is no longer enough to send a message to the regime from such rallies.

Since it united its ranks, the opposition now has to develop an integral strategy, which implies deciding whether it will agree to a compromise if the elections are held at all or in case there are only local, and not federal and republic elections, and what is most important, whether changes concern only political parties or the entire social opposition (trade unions, non - governmental organisations, professional associations, independent media, etc.).

There is a paradox on the local social scene. The gravity of the situation of the state and citizens is inversely proportionate to the willingness of citizens to take part in actions and protests. In March 1991 and during 1996-97 protests citizens were more willing to protest and more convinced that changes could be introduced.

Today the dissatisfaction is much greater, but people have grown weary. According to Dr Stjepan Gredelj the reasons for this lie in the fact that "Serbia is a typical example of a "demo-sclerotic" system in which there has been an intentional paralysis of all institutions (everything is reduced to government which functions both as a legislator and as an executor). This has created a "relatively closed political system" with corresponding consequences for the political activity of citizens".

Gredelj points out that results of the majority of public opinion surveys carried out till now, have shown that despite the expressed great dissatisfaction with the functioning and results of the political system (two thirds of citizens are "dissatisfied" and practically one half "absolutely dissatisfied"), there is an apparent discrepancy between that dissatisfaction and (un)willingness to do something about that.

Almost one half of all those dissatisfied think that there is nothing or very little they can do. Survey results show that the phenomenon of "free-riders" i.e. of people who try to slip through such situations, has spread. The "free-riders" are those who are not willing to take any risks or expect someone else to take them for their sake. Over two thirds of respondents are not willing to put themselves to risk, another fourth is still undecided, while only every tenth person is willing to personally run a risk.

Apart from the loss of motivation, the level at which people are prepared to risk conflicts has been lowered because people shrink from conflicts within the family and in their immediate surroundings. "When the majority of the population is living on the verge of survival, all social motives cease to be relevant. If someone can lose his job and expose his family to starvation because he took part in the demonstrations, he will think twice before joining" says Gredelj and warns that there is a growing number of rough riders: a prevailing third of interviewees was in favour of radical cuts: "The regime has totally discredited its never too respectable basis of legitimacy, and mere verbal (self)-confidence in the power of its "available means of legal state" (this exclusively concerns the available instruments of institutional violence) is more an expression of inability to confront problems than of a truly established power.

Mere swinging of truncheons and bayonets only awakens inclination to equal reaction to repeated "challenges" which grows with the spreading of despair, hopelessness and existential problems. Those who have nothing to lose are bad losers and do not shrink from the "either or" type of solutions.

This spring will certainly not be remembered either as a "singing Belgrade" spring or a "velvet Prague" one, but rather as a Balkan spring...

Original article