You somehow always expect more from so-called turning points in history. We, the public, (audiences watching CNN, BBC et al) like drama. There also seems to be a need for accompanying powerful visuals: the Berlin Wall being torn down, or Boris Yeltsin atop a tank. Reality is far subtler. The anticipation built up by the international press, commentators and statesmen was enormous and you could feel their disappointment when election day passed without incident. But what was bad for them was a great day for Serbia.
In a city and state where free and impartial media has been muzzled for so long people are understandably news hungry. On the way to Belgrade, my co-travellers bought up every newspaper possible, saying that they were simply not available in the city.
As a result, there has been a reversion to news being transmitted by word of mouth—but without the town criers—and rumours and speculation run rampant. Prior to election day, people I spoke to were nervously anticipating the worst-case scenario, including armed intervention and the sealing of borders, yet apparently this was not enough to persuade them to withdraw from the whole exercise.
"He's an SPS supporter"
Election day in Belgrade was like any other Sunday, quiet and sunny with people going about their business. Individuals of all ages, and whole families, casually strolled into polling stations as though it were simply part of the weekend routine.
"He's an SPS supporter," whispered my friend about one of the neighbours who greeted us warmly on our way into the apartment building. "I don't know why." Perhaps the lowered voices, along with the distinct discomfort and the avoidance of any authority figures, are some of the details that revealed the slightly tense, but palpable, atmosphere.
"I plastered [the building entrance] with Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) and Otpor stickers yesterday and now they are all gone. But the SPS ones were left alone." It seems that this is not unusual, so more permanent tactics are employed and a good number of walls are graced with spray-paint; in support of the opposition, but also simply appealing for people to go out and vote.
Where's the opposition?
By noon, a stage is being set up in the main square in Belgrade for the evening's festivities. At this point we still think that it is the opposition's stage so this is where we would be spending the evening. Only a few hours later (thanks to a phone call, though B2-92 also carried the information on their website) we found out that the opposition had been denied use of the square that morning and the stage was set up by, and for, the SPS.
The opposition gathering had been moved nearby. No one really knew what to expect—some people were bringing rocks and sticks, just in case, while others jokingly regretted they hadn't spoiled eggs in preparation. We met with several other people and headed down and the mood was quite festive.
We had to pass by the SPS stage on our way. There was a fair crowd in front of the stage, and we'd been listening to the clapping and cheering for the preceding hour, but as we were walking by a song was ending and the crowd on the edges began booing loudly. We stayed and observed this for a while, noticing that the performers barely paused, presumably to drown out the hisses and booing.
We were approaching the police cordon when someone stopped to ask where our gathering was. Well, it depended who we were, we responded. He laughed, "Of course there is only one we." Rounding the corner there could be no doubt that we were in the right spot. One of my friends was disappointed that the crowd was so small, which it wasn't really, and there was a constant stream of people throughout the evening.
The effect of victory
The crowd was excited but edgy; at a certain moment a ripple of panic passed through the crowd as people started suddenly bolting away from the area where the police cordon was standing. A quick response from those reading out the election results had an amazing and immediate assuring affect.
He appealed to the crowd not to react to any provocation, and, more notably, said that the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) had been in communication with the police and both parties had agreed that they wanted a peaceful evening. "Besides, by the end of the night they'll be supporting us!"
Cheers greeted the news that the celebrations around the corner were ending early. Along with the stage and performers, the police cordon was dismantled as well. We later saw small groups of regular police gathered together (smoking of course) on several street corners, but keeping to themselves.
Election results were read out as they came in. Several news stories have described the mood that night as euphoric; I wouldn't agree. The crowd was increasingly joyous and celebratory with each result announced—despite there being some that Milošević won. But what was striking was the growing feeling of satisfaction and confidence.
After years of failure it is hardly surprising that cautious optimism and hesitant acceptance were most prevalent: "I don't feel it yet. I can't believe it's over, it's too easy," but this said through an ear-to-ear grin. Subdued, but full, gatherings continued in and around the city, at various public and private venues, late into the night.
The elections numbers—however disputed and whatever tally is finally agreed on—have infused the opposition movement with a genuine sense of legitimacy and rectitude.
What will happen next? Will the opposition be able to hold together? Will Milošević, as the western press and leaders have repeatedly ominously warned, go to any length to hold power? If rumours were rampant prior to the election they have truly reached new heights since then. What is encouraging, and seems to be holding, is the feeling that Milošević truly is finished. As the most prevalent Otpor slogan heard on the streets says, "Gotov Je"—"He's done."
"I knew things were going to be different this time when my grandfather [who had always supported the SPS] changed his mind."
Alexander Fischer, 2 October 2000
The author writes for CER under pseudonym.
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