Pozarevac - the Forbidden City

Milosevic has made the first step towards open dictatorship. Whether he will continue in this direction, it is not clear.

Bojan al Pinto-Brkic

MON, 15 MAY 2000

Podgorica, 11 May, 2000 - On 9 May, the Day of Europe and the Day of Victory (over Fascism), Pozarevac seemed to have been the most autistic city on the Old Continent. Neither the Victory nor Europe were celebrated there that day; indeed, there was no festive atmosphere at all. Three groups of people were parading, each hopeful that it would return home that evening alive and in good health. Fear, panic, tensions, all that was felt in the "most sacred of Serb sanctuaries", the native town of Milosevic and his wife/coalition comrade Mirjana Markovic, and the approaches to it. The announcement of united opposition that a rally titled "Stop the Terror, for Free Elections" just about triggered a citizens' conflict which is indeed believed by many to be inevitable.

That things would not go very well was clear already on Monday evening. High delegations of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and the Yugoslav United Left (JUL) arrived in Pozarevac to hold a meeting of a crisis group there. Chaired by Mirjana Markovic this gathering decided that the two ruling parties would organise the central celebration of the Day of the Victory in this small city in Eastern Serbia, 90 kilometres from Belgrade. Preparations began that same evening.

The police picked up two Dutch journalists having established that "something was wrong with (their) passports" and deported them. About 23.00 h activists of Otpor (People's Resistance Movement), Radojko Lukovic and Momcilo Veljkovic, and correspondent of Beta news agency and Blic daily Mile Veljkovic, were taken into custody, as well as journalists of Danas daily, Natasa Bogovic and Bojan Toncic. The police set up a few control points on the roads leading to Pozarevac.

Just before midnight, a truck with loud speakers and audio equipment for the protest of the opposition was stopped and after a long delay it was sent for technical check-up to Smederevska Palanka. The car of assembly deputy Zivadin Jotic, who is a member of the Serb Revival Movement (SPO), was also stopped and an unknown policeman pointed a gun at Jotic and his son, ordering them to step out of the car with their hands in the air.

Tuesday 9 May dawned a dreary day. During the night and morning independent media were reporting about arrests, intimidation. It was learnt that SPS and JUL were planning a celebration "with an appropriate cultural and artistic performance" on the central square at 14.00 h, that is, one hour before the beginning of the rally of the opposition which they had duly registered with the police.

A large number of private cars started from Belgrade and other cities of Serbia, along with some buses, not more than 20, in the organisation of pro-democratic parties. That morning the police carried out unprecedented control: all buses whose destination was Pozarevac and its surroundings were checked, five or six of them were sent for technical check-up, which in Serbia where the average age of the motor pool is between 12 and 14 years, automatically means that they would be forbidden to continue travelling.

Early that morning the police in Novi Sad "visited" Mile Isakov, leader of the Reform Democratic Party of Voivodina (RDSV), asking whether he owned firearms and permits for them. At 9.50 h, Nenad Canak, president of the League of Social Democrats of Voivodina (LSV) was pulled out of his car and taken to the police station. Correspondent of Radio Free Europe and TV Montenegro Marina Fratucan and her cameraman Bojan Erdeljanovic were also taken into custody, along with journalists of Radio 021 Borosavljevic and Gmizic, Radio-In Jovan Djeric, Nezavisni weekly Nenad Seguljan, and 25 activists of Resistance and opposition parties.

About 10.30 h leaders of united opposition gathered downtown Belgrade in the seat of Social Democracy (SD) whose three-week mandate of chairing meetings of the opposition is expiring in a few days. Five buses of party members (four of Democratic Party (DS) and one SPO), left the capital escorted by the police, but in front of the toll gate near Bubanj Potok, about ten kilometres from the centre of the city, state security officials and a couple of traffic policemen stopped them. Electronic media reported about a large number of blockades at the entrance to Pozarevac. They said that not a single vehicle with licence plates from Belgrade could enter the town, and neither could a sparrow fly in unnoticed. The police was arresting members of Resistance, supporters of the opposition and citizens who happened to be on the wrong side of the central square. Among the arrested were also the editor of photography of Danas daily Imre Sabo and of NIN weekly Branko Belic, correspondent of Danas Veljko Popovic, cameraman of Pancevo RTV Sergej Bibic, the whole crew of correspondents of Studio B from Mladenovac, photographer of GAMA French agency Dragoljub Zamurovic and reporter of London Guardian Gilian Sandford; equipment was confiscated from every one of them.

On Cacalica hill which is two kilometres from Pozarevac, in front of a couple thousand citizens, a gathering was held occasioned by the victory over fascism organised by local SPS, JUL and veterans' of the Second World War organisation. The only speaker was president of Pozarevac organisation of SPS Bojan Kekic who spoke about Neo-fascist methods applied by the opposition.

For a whole hour members and sympathisers of DS, SPO and Resistance blocked a part of the Belgrade-Nis highway near Bubanj potok. According to unconfirmed information, the traffic jam caused in one direction of the highway was about 12 kilometres long. About 13.15 h, 35 members of special police forces removed the group of people from the road. Leaders of the opposition had by that time already ended their meeting. In the decisions reached at the meeting which were later accepted by SPO it was stated that the opposition gave up on the rally in Pozarevac, called the citizens to return to their homes, but also that it would organise a rally in Belgrade on Monday 15 May, at 15.00 h. About half past one the leaders arrived at Bubanj potok on the highway leading to Pozarevac. The first to arrive was president of SD Vuk Obradovic, retired general. After a short haggling about what should be done, it was decided that the gathered group should return to Belgrade on foot. They walked just a short way, then sat into cars and buses and drove away.

At the central square in Pozarevac, at the exact spot where the opposition had notified the police it would have its rally, a red stage was put up. At 14.00 hours, about 100-150 supporters of SPS and JUL were waiting for the beginning of the "appropriate cultural and artistic program". On the opposite side stood several hundred supporters of the opposition and Resistance. Waiting lasted for some time. Nobody appeared on the stage. Reporters of independent media who had by some miracle managed to penetrate into the city claim that in the vicinity of the stage they saw Serbian minister of internal affairs Vlajko Stojiljkovic, accused of war crimes by the Hague Tribunal. The groups stood facing each other for at least two hours. The third group, members of the police force, crowded the surrounding streets. According to the words of a high official of SD, at least ten thousand members of the ministry of internal affairs headed by Stojiljkovic were present in Pozarevac, plus a couple thousand in its surroundings.

The Independent Union of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) promptly reacted to the arrests of its members and to the fact that they were prevented to do their jobs. A protest was organised at the square of the Republic in Belgrade, around the monument to Branislav Nusic (Serbian satirist). Leaders of the opposition and activists of Resistance were also present. In front of a couple hundred people, NUNS claimed that Milosevic had in fact carried out a coup d'etat by having violated some of the key articles of the Constitution, the proclaimed freedom of movement, freedom of gathering, of thought... Between 15.00 and 18.00 h the police released all the arrested persons except Radojko Lukovic and Momcilo Veljkovic who had been arrested a couple of days before allegedly for an attempted murder, and Momcilo's brother Mile, correspondent of Beta and Blic.

The idea about the rally in Pozarevac has occurred after the fight between bodyguards of Marko Milosevic and activists of Resistance. In an obscure investigation, Lukovic and Veljkovic were indicted for an attempted murder and arrested despite heavy bodily injuries they suffered. They spent six days in Belgrade Central Prison and then were released on Monday (investigative judge who was in charge of the proceedings, Papovic, determined that there was no foundation for raising charges; after Lukovic and Veljkovic were arrested for the second time, he resigned). The opposition and Resistance promptly reacted and called up the rally. Now they are establishing a joint crisis staff. Activities are being planned at the moment this articles is written...

The episode of Pozarevac opens many questions. Everybody agrees that it marks the beginning of a new phase of political struggle (for the existence, for some). Milosevic has made the first step towards open dictatorship, because only with Stalin and in China were there forbidden cities. Whether he will continue in this direction, it is not clear. Addressing representatives of the veterans’ organisation in the federal palace he spoke in the language of hatred which is interpreted by analysts as a crescendo in relation to the speech at the latest convention of SPS. The opposition is not just treacherous and janissary any more, but fascist (the first to use this qualification was Dragan Tomic of the national oil company – Jugopetrol). Everybody has noted that Milosevic appeared to be agitated, almost panic-stricken. After the developments in Pozarevac his regime seems injured. The ruling couple did not wish to demonstrate stability by letting the opposition demonstrate in their native town, but decided to make Pozarevac the bastion of their struggle.

The arrested reporters and opposition leaders stress that the police acted mildly towards them like never before (Canak was even offered cookies while in custody). Even members of special police units who removed the blockade from the highway were quite decent. Some of them apologised that they were just doing their job, obeying orders.

Of course, it is difficult to predict actions of the regime due to its dubious strategy and lack of reason in its previous moves, but political analysts believe that it will try to continue “as before” for as long as possible.

But the regime is not the only one that is affected by effects of defence of Pozarevac. From the point of view of the opposition, it should be said that Milosevic is still capable of carrying out what he intends to do however senseless it may be. United leaders reacted slowly to the moves of the regime: despite the proclaimed victory, it is not wrong to say that they too have lost. In fear of bigger conflicts, the opposition appeared quite unstable in Pozarevac episode. Nobody doubted that they could achieve unity of platform, but unity of action has not been questioned so far. It should not be forgotten that four months have passed since the meeting on 10 January before they managed to organise a single protest.

At the moment, a couple of demonstrations of force of the opposition are planned. Whether they will come up to anything, remains to be seen.

Moves of Vuk Draskovic continue to irritate his political allies. Like so many times before the leader of SPO is offering his platform (“All brooks flow into the river”) without much chance that other opposition parties will accept it. He insists on his priority in making joint lists, but only when he wants to make them, he insists on organising the rally on Ravna Gora instead of in Belgrade… The threat that action unity of the opposition might be endangered could prolong the life of Milosevic’s regime for a long time. But not forever. Because, as an analyst has said: “Not even the opposition can save this regime”.

Original article