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Hope on the Balkans
Fear, loathing, and extremely bad taste

by Dragan Stojkovic

Picture this. A Serbian family is comfortably seated in the living room around the television and the movie they are watching breaks to a commercial. A message flashes across the screen, warning them that the advertisement they are about to see contains political campaigning.

Filmed against the backdrop of a highway with a large roadside billboard flashing photographs of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and some of his better-known quotes, an attractive, lewd, young woman gyrates madly in front of the leader's face, running her hands up and down her body and singing: "[Milosevic's wife's party] JUL is the only choice, the good solution. Vote for justice, courage, and honesty."

That untamed television ad in support of the regime is only a morsel of what is in store for viewers in the final week of campaigning before presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections. In Yugoslavia, the boundaries of good taste are seriously stretched in television commercials, billboard ads, night poster plastering raids, and the more dangerous daytime pamphleteering.

Five main players are trying to make the most out of their advertising budget and commercial time spots. The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) is the ruling party led by incumbent President Milosevic. The Yugoslav Left (JUL) is a small party operated by Mirjana Markovic, the president's wife, who supports her husband. The Serbian Renewal Party (SPO) is led by Vuk Draskovic a man known for his moderate nationalism, who has gone in and out of the regime's favor and represented in presidential elections by the sober Vojislav Mihailovic. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) is comprised of 17 united opposition groups and led by Vojislav Kostunica, who is leading in the polls. And, finally, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) is led by the outspoken nationalist Vojislav Seselj, with Tomislav Nikolic running as the party's presidential candidate.


Election campaigning is already discriminatory: Many parties not affiliated with the regime receive little to no commercial time. In Belgrade, the opposition DOS has been completely cut off from television time, and the SRS, in the middle of a dispute with the regime, has also been deprived of commercial spots.

The regime is trying hard to soil Kostunica's reputation. A damning piece of creative SPS footage shows U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sitting at a conference table. The camera then pans across the table to the face of Kostunica. The make-believe of the photo montage is necessary, as Kostunica has never attended a meeting with Albright.

Another SPS commercial aims at denouncing the opposition with the message "Let the people choose, not NATO." Immediately recognizable by haunting music which sounds much like the theme song of the Teutonic Knights in Alexander Nevsky's "Battle on the Ice" film the footage plays on people's anti-Western sentiments. Images of activists demonstrating with foreign flags held high are juxtaposed with scenes from NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia last year. The commercial gives the clear impression that the foreign flags attracted, if not welcomed, the bombs.

The ruling SPS has also run a series of television ads challenging the opposition's competence, using the motto "What are they doing to you?" In one ad, a distraught young man sits in a cafe drinking bottled water. He tells viewers the saga of losing his girlfriend during a city water shortage crisis. After his third day of not being able to shower, his girlfriend left him. But perhaps, he opines, with a responsible city government in charge, she will return and they will again be happy together. The message is in reference to the fact that in many Serbian towns, opposition parties run the municipal administrations.

Finally, in yet another SPS clip, a frustrated and exhausted woman tries, against all odds, to maneuver a baby carriage through an ocean of cars parked along a busy street. Once she has run the gauntlet, and finally manages to push the carriage through an opening, a speeding car nearly runs over the baby. Again, a responsible city government would never allow such a thing to happen.


Like television advertising, both the regime and the opposition are thinking big and throwing plenty of low punches when it comes to billboards. The SPS opted for an enlarged photograph of Milosevic with a motto that plays on the president's first name, Slobodan. The ad features the word "Sloboda," which means freedom, with the letters "da" (yes) circled. Of course, once the regime had the billboards in place, the popular student resistance movement Otpor no strangers to pranks moved quickly to paste their own stickers over the ad reading "He's Finished!"

DOS billboards picture only the eyes of Kostunica with the slogan "Who is the only one who can look you in the eyes?" The regime was quick to find fault with the ad. Ever-vigilant and outspoken Information Minister Goran Matic immediately claimed that those were not really Kostunica's eyes, rather those of American film actor Al Pacino.

One particularly poignant billboard has stuck in people's minds. A simple blue and white poster asks "Where is Ivan Stambolic?" referring to the former Serbian president of late openly critical of the Milosevic regime. He mysteriously disappeared late last month, and his whereabouts are still unknown.

Activists from all sides are resorting to surreptitious "night raids," when campaigners plaster walls with hundreds of posters and flyers after sundown. The work can be dangerous, though, as one high-level JUL official recently learned. The 50-something Ratko Krsmanovic was arrested in Montenegro last week by local authorities when he was caught in the early morning hours painting JUL graffiti. It was an unusual arrest, as mainly young activists are the target of such harassment. Krsmanovic was released a day later and was reportedly outraged at the horrible conditions in jail.

The most daring campaigners, however, are those who sign up to distribute party literature during the day. Conducted during normal working hours, the job guarantees there is never a dull moment. Many have been harassed, beaten, and arrested for propagandizing for the opposition. Usually, those brave enough to hand out flyers on the streets are on the receiving end of attacks. But on 13 September, at least in one incident, the tables were turned: A DOS activist went on the offensive in the northwestern town of Sombor, and, after arguing with a man, stabbed him with a knife. The man was admitted to a local hospital and later released, independent B92 radio reported.

Each day, hundreds of new ads appear on the walls of the country's many half-constructed buildings, plastered over old ads from bygone elections. They are constant reminders of past violence. Violence is what Yugoslavs fear most. Many feel that the outrageous commercial campaigning is missing the point. What people really want to see are ads promising that there will be no tanks this year. No one has made that promise.

Dragan Stojkovic is TOL's stringer in Belgrade

Source: Transitions Online ©2000

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