In spite of the Serbian opposition parties' attempts throughout all of February to plan a meeting for March, the meeting still took place in April. False promises from the leaders, who promised a meeting in March, caused discontent among the citizens, opposition party members and opposition leaders alike.
Because of this, and maybe also because of self-conscious feelings among the opposition leaders, the most influential members of the opposition did not even dare estimate how many people would attend the meeting. One could even see that opposition leaders feared the possibility of a low turnout. First, because of the regime's repression and its attempts to keep citizens away from the meeting, and, secondly, there was a growing dissatisfaction among the citizens with the opposition's tedious negotiations.
However, on 14 April any apprehensions of the opposition were dispelled, as 150,000 people gathered on the Square of the Republic in Belgrade, while the surrounding streets filled with people who did not manage to reach the main square. It is quite obvious now that in Serbia there is a great number of dissatisfied people, who are ready to accept a squabbling but united opposition, in order to confront the undemocratic government. This realization has obviously frightened the ruling regime.
Watch TV instead
One should keep in mind, however, that the government used all possible means to stop citizens from attending the meeting. For example, the government, via the state-run media, launched a propaganda campaign, which said that the lives of those who attend the meeting will be endangered.
Also, on the day of the meeting, stores miraculously were full of staples, which are usually in short supply or altogether absent, such as sugar and oil. Furthermore, state-run TV Politika broadcast a film marathon consisting of recent Hollywood blockbusters that have yet to be released for television viewing and are still playing in first-run cinemas around Yugoslavia.
The only interest of the regime was to stop, by all means, people from attending the meeting. The main roads into Belgrade were strictly controlled, in order to quell the planned influx of demonstrators from places other than the capitol. Police stopped private citizens in cars and buses on their regular routes. The buses that were organized to take people to the meeting from places outside of Belgrade were detained as long as it was possible.
In Serbian cities where the local governments are under the control of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, it was extremely difficult, if not completely impossible, to charter a bus to Belgrade. Military helicopters flew over Belgrade, and various police forces were placed at several locations around the city. They were hidden but ready to act if commanded to do so. Also, there were many policemen dressed in civilian clothes, though the sound of their Motorolas gave them away.
Despite these attempts, however, the number of people who attended the meeting exceeded anybody's predictions.
It was to be expected that, the day after the meeting, the shortage of sugar, oil, gasoline and other staples would, just as mysteriously as it had gone away, become reality again. Not to mention the great financial losses incurred by movie distributors, who lost audiences to TV Politika's illegal film marathon.
Out of the abyss?
Luckily, there were no incidents, big or small, during the meeting, and one can conclude that this most recent protest in Belgrade defined two basic messages. The first, that there is definitely no doubt that the time has run out for the Milošević regime, and that the citizens of Serbia will not follow the politics of the Milošević-Marković [Mira, Milošević's wife, ed] duo any longer, which has led Serbia and its people into a political, social and economic abyss.
The second message can be defined with two premises. First, in Serbia there are no other relevant opposition parties besides those that organized the meeting. Only those opposition parties who use democratic means will be able to defeat Milošević in the general elections. Secondly, only a united opposition can count on the mass support of the citizens.
It is not certain, however, whether Belgraders were voicing their support for the opposition parties, or if they were simply showing their resentment and resistance to the politics and terror tactics of Slobodan Milošević and the clear signs of a coming dictatorship. Leaders of the opposition have been warned several times that they can only expect the support of the citizens if they remain united, and it appears that they have finally come to understand this. As far as Milošević is concerned, it appears he has finally got the message.
It is certain that the opposition in Serbia is stronger after this protest than it has ever been, and that the citizens have forgiven and forgotten the various rows that took place and continually postponed the meeting. It seems the citizens have weighed their options: accept an imperfect opposition that tends to show its flaws and is built on shaky foundations or continue to allow Milošević to drive the country further into the abyss.
Now, it is clear that the desired change is one away from the undemocratic politics of the past. The realization has been made: the lack of basic political and human rights and freedoms, which were casualties of the recent wars that ripped the country apart, will continue unless Milošević goes down.
The ruling regime has many reasons to be scared. After ten years, the opposition is finally on the road to making a difference and implementing the changes it has been trying to bring about. This road will, doubtless, be rocky, but it is also the only way out. The masses have spoken, leaving it up to two warring sides. The question remains: will the opposition be able to win at the polls, or will Milošević make it yet another bloody battle?
Slavko Živanov, 21 April 2000
Translated by Vana Suša