Letter from Belgrade

By Andrew Pakula | 1991-07-01 12:00:00

This bustling city of 1.5 million has been in a state of extreme crisis. On Saturday, March 9, there were violent clashes between police and students protesting the abuses of power by Serbia's communist government. With economic conditions and nationalist tensions worsening, the police used sticks, plastic bullets, and tear gas-leaving a teenage student and a policeman dead, and more than 100 injured.

For hours tanks roamed the streets. Although the army was quickly removed, tensions continued to mount. The eight members of Yugoslavia's collective presidency met in a late night session to consider declaring marshal law. A number of opposition politicians were arrested. Rumours ran rampant in the city and across the entire country.

The crowd of students, joined by workers and other sympathizers, continued to assemble in one of the main city squares. The young protesters faced the great potential danger armed only with flowers, songs, and resolution, born of courage and conviction. They refused to budge until their demands were met by the Serbian government.

The students demanded that the minister of the interior, who was responsible for the violence on March 9, be removed from power, and that all recently arrested opposition politicians be freed. They also demanded a loosening of the government's stranglehold on the media. Serbia's communist party, led by Slobodan Milosevic and recently renamed as the socialists, was elected with a large majority a few months ago, a questionable result given their nearly total control of the media. The demonstrators demanded the removal of top officials of the republic's television network, who were seen as mere mouthpieces for the ruling regime.

By Wednesday tensions started to ease. After a late night session and much debate, Yugoslavia's collective federal presidency decided not to declare military law. Reluctantly, the Serbian government released the recently arrested opposition leaders and fired the top managers of the TV network. Their major demands granted, the demonstrators dispersed.

Less than a week later few outward signs of the violence of March 9 were visible in the city, apart from some posters and graffiti. The government moved very quickly to repair most of the windows broken during the demonstrations. But one powerful reminder of the violence is the place where eighteen year old Branivoj Milinovic bled to death. He was an exceptional student who loved Irish folk music. He had planned to be a lawyer. He and his girlfriend had already picked the names of the four children they were going to have. The place where he died is full of flowers, traditional offerings of food and drink, and a seemingly constant throng of people who come to pay their respects. Such places can serve as powerful symbols, as they did during the Velvet Revolution in Czecho-Slovakia in 1989.

While Belgrade appeared calm, the tension, anxiety, and uncertainty about the future, could be seen in people's faces and heard in their conversations. What are the implications of what happened for Serbia and for Yugoslavia?

With its three major religions (four if one includes communism), six major nationalities, five official language-about a dozen unofficial ones-and two alphabets, Yugoslavia is truly the Tower of Babel. Since World War II until his death about a decade ago, Josip Broz Tito held Yugoslavia together with charismatic leadership and military power. In recent years the various nationalistic tensions have risen to crisis proportions.

Two of the republics, Croatia and Slovenia, intend to secede from Yugoslavia and become independent nation states. They expect to form a loose federation with the other republics. But while Croatia and Slovenia elected pro-free-market right wing majorities, Serbia and Montenegro chose communist governments, further fuelling the divisive fires.

The dominant ethnic groups, the Serbs and the Croatians, have a long history of violent conflict. They were on different sides in both world wars, their religions are different, and they use different alphabets for the language they share. While nationalist passions are vivid and powerful, the realities of intended separation are fuzzy. For one thing, Croatia has a sizeable Serbian minority. In recent months, the Serbian-dominated Yugoslavian army has almost come to a state of war against the Croatians, who have been buying a lot of weapons.

Another trouble spot is the autonomous region of Kosovo, a part of the Serbian republic. While the region is considered by the Serbs to be the birthplace of their nation, a large majority of its population is Albanian. There has been some violence in Kosovo, with more likely to come in the future.

The federal government sees its primary goal as preventing the breakup of the country. Strong evidence exists that the March 9 demonstrations were infiltrated by members of Serbia's secret police. It seems that, in an attempt to provoke the demonstrators to become more aggressive, the secret police were responsible for much of the violence and destruction of property. Had the demonstrators yielded to these agents provocateurs, Serbia's government would likely have called in the Yugoslavian army to restore law and order.

The Serbian government's obvious objective was to provoke the demonstrators and deal with them militarily. Another goal of the government's provocation, less obvious but very significant, was to legitimate similar actions in other trouble spots, particularly Croatia and Kosovo. This in turn might have resulted in an all-out civil war. While the future remains uncertain, the avoidance of great bloodshed offers some optimism for the future.

In this nationalistic country, ethnic background is the greatest predictor of political beliefs and behavior. However, recent events in Belgrade showed that Serbians are a divided people. One possible implication of the increased diversification of political opinion in Serbia and perhaps in other regions is that in the future Yugoslavs may move beyond the tribal forces of nationalism and form political associations on the basis of democracy, human rights, economic and ecological renewal.

Britain has warned the government of Yugoslavia that violent action against the demonstrators would negatively affect future economic support from the West. Other western governments probably gave the same message more quietly through diplomatic channels. Given Yugoslavia's need for foreign investment, it is likely that these actions were of some value. The governments of other nations have both the power and responsibility to influence events by linking economic support to progress on democratization and human rights.

Several times in recent months Yugoslavia came close to civil war. There were several serious crises between Serbia and Croatia, and tensions between Serbs and Albanians in the autonomous region of Kosovo. And yet, each time, this troubled country has stepped back from the brink of disaster. Perhaps the time has come in this part of the world for political violence to be rejected.

The great challenges and difficulties of maintaining complex multinational societies are evident in countries as diverse as India, Czecho-Slovakia and Canada. Yet nations are increasingly interdependent. Perhaps the people of Yugoslavia can transcend their troubled past and work together towards peace, democracy, social justice, human rights, and the preservation of the environment.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1991

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1991, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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