Editor’s note: Aleksandar Pavic in Belgrade has been reporting for WorldNetDaily on Yugoslavia’s historic election and its chaotic aftermath.
By Aleksandar Pavic
© 2000, WorldNetDaily.com, Inc.
BELGRADE – Today, the tear gas in Belgrade has the distinct smell of victory.
Of course, as word has it, it seems that it wasn’t just tear gas – there was poison gas as well. The intensity of its burning in my mouth, eyes, and lungs confirms it. But if anything of the sort could taste sweet, this did. Not because I am a Serb, or an anticommunist – although these certainly help. It was sweet because it all felt right. And these are not emotions talking: they are still out in the street taking in the atmosphere of a 2-million strong party in the capital of Yugoslavia, while the brain is doing the evaluating and putting the straitjacket of words on the unrepeatable scenes of life.
The rightness has to do with the fact that this was truly an event of the people, by the people and for the people. The practical overthrow of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic on Oct. 5 was a true expression of the feelings of a nation. No interference from the outside. No revolutionary cells directing from behind the scenes. No demagogues leading the masses for the sake of their own ambitions.
Yes, the people voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Opposition of Serbia and its presidential candidate Vojislav Kostunica. But, all along, it was clear that they were simply embodiments of a general feeling in the air, a sign of the times. The opposition filled two minimum requirements: they united into one and put up a decent man to represent them all. Nothing more was asked. The people did the rest; first they voted, then they went out into the streets to defend their choice.
So when the first tear gas cartridges were fired today out of the federal parliament building by the small unit of police that was sent to guard it from a mass of several hundred thousand people – there was no panic. Everyone simply pulled out their handkerchiefs, put them over their mouths and slowly stepped back. And the message that streamed through the crowd was, “Be calm, move slowly, they’re not going to make us stampede like cattle.” Those in the very front lines took it much more personally and charged right at the policemen in riot gear, despite the live ammunition that started being shot instead of the gas.
And who were these people? Many were organized fans of the most popular Yugoslav soccer club, “Red Star.” Others were the rank-and-file members of the various political parties that made up the DOS coalition. And the party leaders were there as well. But pressing behind them was an unstoppable mass of people who had finally decided to take charge of their own lives. Those up front could only go forward and push the police into the parliament building, or be overrun by those behind.
It did not have to be like this. There was no plan to take the parliament building. The opposition had simply wanted to erect a stand in front, from where it would announce its demands, calling for an independent recount of the disputed vote and punishment for those who were responsible for falsifying the ballot count in the presidential election of Sept. 24. The opposition was prepared to sit in front of the parliament and wait for an answer for as long as necessary – hours, days or weeks. However, the regime directed the police to prevent the stand from being put up; so, the anger had to be vented in some way.
And the main source of anger was the ruling of the Constitutional Court, announced that morning, which invalidated the entire presidential vote. Actually, this was probably the last straw, and it would have been difficult to hold back the mass of people that had poured into Belgrade from all of Serbia during the day. The Federal Election Commission had refused to compare its figures with those of the opposition and independent controllers. The Federal Bureau of Statistics provided the supposed voting figures on a piece of paper that its director had not dared sign for fear of possible criminal charges. The opposition members of the Election Commission were not allowed to review the voting of the military and the police. Yet, on the basis of such suspect data, the commission first ruled that there would be a runoff. When the opposition pressed to have its figures compared with the commission’s, the Constitutional Court, under the complete control of the regime, ruled to invalidate the entire process. It seemed evident that it wasn’t possible to have any sort of an opposition presidential victory legitimized by the official institutions of the state. This is, in fact, what gave the people gathered in central Belgrade the determination to fight at any cost. Their dignity was being ruthlessly trampled.
Many may not realize that a widespread national revolt against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime had started back in 1990-1991. On March 9, 1991, several hundred thousand demonstrators had gathered in central Belgrade to protest the state television’s biased, pro-regime reporting. A fight with the police ensued, they were turned back and the streets of Belgrade were free for several hours. Then, however, the army tanks rolled out and the regime slowly regained control of the situation.
But that was a different time. The army had some legitimacy because the breakup of Yugoslavia had already started, and the military was already engaged in the battlefield. At the same time, the regime could appeal to the patriotism that is naturally roused in times of danger. And this proved successful through the wars in the break-away republics of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The additional attack from the outside in the form of sanctions further helped the regime play the patriotic card and put questions of democratization on the back burner. So the anti-regime energy has actually been pent up for almost 10 years.
Now, however, having lost all its wars, having allowed the occupation of the Serb holy land of Kosovo, the regime had lost its main card. Its true, old-style communist nature could not but be revealed. And the main thing about such regimes is that they never give up power willingly. The institutions of state are really nothing more than tools for continuing their rule and for giving it the necessary legitimacy.
With no immediate outside danger, the regime’s opponents could concentrate on its true nature. It was no longer necessary to rally around the flag; it became necessary to reclaim it.
While the mood in Belgrade is festive, everything is not over. The opposition leaders underline that it is still necessary for Slobodan Milosevic — wherever he is — to admit defeat. Also, they are appealing for people to stay out in the streets until victory is complete. The first constitutive sessions of parliament and the Belgrade City Assembly are planned to be held during the night. Agreement has been reached with the Belgrade police whereby they will intervene only in cases of criminal activity. Still no news of where Slobodan Milosevic is, although it has been observed that there are no more police guards around his residency in the elite Dedinje quarter of Belgrade.
Facing his people might have proved less difficult that facing himself at this present moment.
Aleksandar Pavic served as chief political adviser to the president of Republika Srpska, the Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina and as an adviser to the late Prince Tomislav Karageorgevitch of Yugoslavia. Pavic is currently translating Prince Tomislav’s memoirs into English.