Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

Interview

2000: From Milošević to freedom - and back again

  • Woman with child in Belgrade (Photo: Zlatko Vickovic)

Europe's new century began with the peaceful overthrow of an old monster: the late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević.

It was called the 'Bulldozer Revolution', after a man drove a bulldozer into Milošević's propaganda HQ, the radio and TV building in Belgrade, on 5 October 2000.

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  • Vesna Pešić, 80, has been a human rights activist since the 1970s (Photo: boell.de)

And Serbia's student-led uprising inspired similar ones in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and even as far afield as Kyrgyzstan, in the next few years to come.

But in 2020, Milošević's former propaganda chief, Aleksandar Vučić, is now sitting in Serbia's presidential throne.

The revolution's leader, Serbia's late prime minister, Zoran Đinđić, has been murdered, and most of his former allies live in silence and fear.

And even though Vučić gets red-carpet treatment in EU capitals, "internally, he looks more like the Lukashenko of Serbia," for Vesna Pešić, a former Bulldozer Revolution activist, referring to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

"We had more freedom under Milošević than we do now," Pešić said.

The 80-year old academic started fighting for human rights in Serbia back when it was still Yugoslavia in the 1970s.

And on 5 October 2000, she found herself in a crowd of half-a-million people in front of the parliament, with no army or police in sight.

"The whole night was like an anarchic dream, everybody was free to do whatever they wanted ... people entered the parliament building," she said.

"I felt very proud," she added.

"I was scared the military would react, but it didn't. Somebody did a good job. Thank you, whoever it might be," Pešić said.

One of the people Serbs ought to thank, she said, was Đinđić.

"He made a deal with the most dangerous elite police formation [the Red Berets] not to shoot people," Pešić said.

Another one was the then Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov.

"He [Ivanov] flew to Belgrade on 6 October, went to Milošević, and told him to recognise that he'd lost elections. The same day, Milošević went on TV and said he'd lost," Pešić recalled.

And behind Đinđić and Ivanov, stood the then US president Bill Clinton, the then-15 EU leaders, and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"People were tired of Milošević, especially after the traumatic [Nato] bombardment of Serbia, years of sanctions, poverty, exclusion," she said, referring to Western reaction to Milošević's bloody 1990s wars.

"All the international forces joined together to help the Serbian opposition," she said.

Late Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić in Brussels (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Đinđić assassination

Milošević's fall left intact the forces that had kept him in office, however.

And at 12.23PM, Brussels time, on 12 March 2003, Serbia's "dream" was shattered by a sniper's bullet, which hit Đinđić in the heart, as he was getting out of his government car in Belgrade to meet the foreign minister of Sweden.

The assassin came from the same Red Berets with which Đinđić had made a deal back in 2000.

The killer is in prison, but even if no one knows who gave the order, everyone knows who benefitted from the crime, Pešić said.

Nationalist political chiefs, military, spy, and police commanders, and Serb mafias, such as the 'Zemunski Klan', wanted to stay in place, instead of being dragged to court on the way to Serbia's EU membership. Orthodox Church bosses also wanted things to stay the same.

"All of these people wanted a continuation of Milošević state-structures and policies ... so they plotted against Đinđić," Pešić said.

The story of how they got what they wanted is more complicated than one bullet.

The nationalist bloc rounded against Đinđić's reformers after his death.

The nationalists changed their name to the Serbian Progressive Party and got Western backing by "whispering" to EU leaders, Pešić said, that Serbia would, one day, recognise Kosovo, unlocking the Western Balkans' path into Europe.

The ex-Milošević bloc also got Russian support when Putin, 10 years ago, almost fell in Bulldozer Revolution-type protests and declared war on Western values.

And all the while, the young Vučić, Milošević's former information minister, was navigating the labyrinths of power in Belgrade, going from Progressive party chairman, to Serbia's deputy prime minister, to prime minister, and to become president in 2017.

He took control of Serbia's judiciary, media, and state-owned firms along the way, creating "huge clientelism, putting his people everywhere," Pešić said.

Vučić also destroyed what was left of Đinđić's Democratic Party, for instance, by jailing people on bogus corruption charges.

And he terrorised other opposition leaders, such as those in the Liberal Democratic Party, into becoming puppets in a democratic make-believe.

Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić in Brussels (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Vučić system

"A multi-party system is not forbidden, but, in reality, Serbia is a one-party system, since no other party has a chance to win elections," Pešić said.

"Serbia has become a full autocracy in which one man, Vučić, decides just about everything," she said.

And if Western leaders still trusted his "stabil-ocracy," they ought to know better, because "he [Vučić] will never recognise Kosovo, as the EU expects", she added.

He knows what the EU wants to hear, but he speaks nationalist rhetoric at home, and he is arming Serbia to the teeth with new weapons from Belarus and Russia.

But even if Serbia has gone full circle, for some the bulldozer-spirit never died.

And there is still pro-European optimism in Serbian society, where more than half the population wants to join the EU.

"We [Serbian people] haven't forgotten that once upon-a-time, 20 years ago, we were able to get rid of autocratic rule," Pešić said.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.

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