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Hope on the Balkans
The calm before the storm?

By Dragan Stojkovic

BELGRADE AND POZAREVAC It's not over yet. But on 2 October, things did start to change. The opposition set in motion a general strike. Thousands turned out in a show of support for opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica's stated victory, truck and taxi drivers blockaded major roads, and state-run media outlets renounced their loyalty to the regime and called on their colleagues to do the same. The question now is whether people are ready to see a general strike through to what may be a bitter end?

Over the past week, with both sides claiming victory, the situation has remained ominously quiet. The rhetoric and posturing that have characterized the past years are strangely absent, leaving many Serbs to wonder if they are merely experiencing a calm before a terrible storm. People are watching and waiting, looking for a sign for how they should feel or react. All eyes are on the political barometer.

Speculation on the streets is rampant and varied. There are stories that Milosevic has a plane on standby at the airport, ready to fly his family to China, a country with whom he has retained strong relations. Former Prime Minister Milan Panic last week said he intended to ask Russia for temporary refuge for Milosevic, in case of bloodshed against the disgraced Yugoslav leader.

An effective strike?

When Kostunica's Democratic Opposition of Serbia party (DOS) announced victory following the elections, Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and his wife's Yugoslav Left party (JUL) retreated into silence. Pressure to hear the reaction of the ruling party quickly mounted. On the afternoon of 26 September, SPS officials held a press conference, announcing that Milosevic was in the lead but without the 50 percent needed. That evening, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) went public with "official" results which told a different story. According to the FEC, Kostunica was in the lead, but again, still below the 50 percent necessary for victory. Kostunica said in Belgrade on 26 September that he won the first round and Milosevic's call for a second round, to be held on 8 October, is an "insult to the voters," the BBC reported. Kostunica claims he receives 54 percent of the vote.

None of this meant much to Yugoslav citizens what they were anxious to see was the response from Milosevic and his supporters. Milosevic sought to buy additional time and called for a second round of voting. The response was unprecedented and has had a profound effect on the citizenry. As one Belgrade physician commented after hearing the SPS-JUL reaction to the election commission's report, "I have never heard them speak this way; their arrogance has vanished, they speak completely differently than ever before." Many workers feel uncertain about participating in a general strike, though. "I have a child, he must eat," says Zorica, a 40-something Serb woman, when asked if she would participate in the strike.

Kostunica, however, is attune to the people's hesitancy. Belgrade city transport began its strike from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., thus giving many citizens a way to opt out of their jobs with a good excuse but also not inconveniencing citizens who rely on transport for personal needs.

The catalyst for a general strike may have been university and high school students in Belgrade, who, on 29 September, left their classes to march in the city center in support of the opposition. In Novi Beograd, a suburb of the capital, and previously a SPS-JUL stronghold, students from one school marched down a main thoroughfare, with their arms held high, blowing whistles and receiving honks of encouragement from passing motorists. Later that day, events slowed back down and quiet once again descended. So far, that appears to be the pattern fits and starts, with people moving forward little by little.

Jumping ship

Pehaps as a natural reaction to Milosevic's defeat or as an attempt to spur the Yugoslav population into taking to the streets, many of those previously seen as stalwarts of the regime are distancing themselves from the president. Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Vojislav Sesejl announced his own party's massive losses, confirmed Kostunica's first-round victory, and began dismantling his party. "Milosevic is finished," the SRS leader was quoted as saying.

Belgrade's Free B92 radio has published news stories that, if true, would confirm that Milosevic's inner circle of supporters are panicking. Some of those reports have not been independently confirmed, some have regardless, their impact cannot be underestimated. On 27 September, B92, quoting Reuters, reported that Milan Beko, Yugoslav Finance Minister and the executive director of one of Serbia's largest factories resigned from the company. Beko denied the move had anything to do with politics, although he is widely known to be a significant member of the Milosevic circle. Opposition figures said the move was directly related to the president's poor election results. The radio station also broadcast reports saying that "senior regime officials had fled the country" in panic.

Whether the strikes will succeed are another matter, especially with many still supporting the regime or paralyzed by apathy. Dusan, a 77-year-old resident of Milosevic's home town, Pozarevac, openly admits that he does not follow politics, watch the news, or read the papers, but holds firmly to his belief in the regime and that "we should not put ourselves in the hands of NATO." Self-interest continues to play a key role in how Yugoslavs are reacting. One 32-year-old man called in to Index Radio to say that he supported a second round of elections because he is on a waiting list for a new apartment. He said he didn't think there was anything wrong with the opposition, but an apartment is an apartment.

Others are just tired. Maja, a 20-year-old philosophy student, says she's been protesting since she was 10 years old and she isn't sure she has the energy for anything more or that anything will actually change. Still, at the sound of shouts and whistles, she quickly runs to the terrace, joined by her mother. Disappointed to find the hubbub to be centered around a sporting event, rather than an opposition rally, they go back inside.

But there are fewer and fewer supporters of the regime on the streets of Pozarevac, a once solidly pro-Milosevic town. BETA radio reported on 1 October that 20,000 DOS supporters hit the streets of Pozarevac in support of Kostunica's victory. "Now you can be proud to be from Pozarevac," said 33-year-old Jelena, a native of the town who turned out for the demonstrations. Calling her home town the alpha and the omega for Milosevic, Jelena says the spontaneity of the protest has convinced her that Pozarevac will be the center for finalizing the post-election crisis in favor of the opposition.

Once it finally dawns on Yugoslav citizens that the power now rests almost solely in their hands, a new boldness may overtake them. Already some indications of this have appeared. On the morning of 2 October, when police intervened in protests and began to remove license plates from cars blocking Belgrade's Marsala Tolbuhina street, the people retaliated by removing police car license plates something that never would have happened a month ago.

Perhaps the most significant sign that a new courage is taking root in Yugoslavia was the reaction of state-run media. On 1 October, a number of state-run radio stations Obrenovac, Smedorevo, Novi Becej, Zajecar, Lazarevac, Mladenovac, and Sremcica contacted DOS headquarters and called on all journalists to expose the FEC's "blatant rigging" of the elections. Furthermore, a group of staff members from state-run Novi Sad television went on strike against the regime, as did several other TV stations.

As TOL was going to press, Milosevic upped the ante, and in a televised address to the nation, warned that "Yugoslavia will inevitably break up" if the opposition comes to power. The question in everyone's mind still remains: Does Milosevic still have the ability to use force?

Dragan Stojkovic is TOL's stringer in Belgrade.

Source: Transitions Online ©2000

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