Exhausted by the war, sanctions, and criminality seeping into every pore of society, Serbia was unstoppably sinking into deeper crisis. Furthermore, every attempt to criticize communism and authoritarian national leaders was choked off, which would leave deep scars in public opinion visible to date.
In Nov 1996, demonstrations began in the third largest city in Serbia where I studied in response to electoral fraud attempted by the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) of President Milošević after the local elections. Although the majority of the seats in the Parliament were initially given to the pro-European opposition coalition, a revised count gave the control of the city once again to SPS. The underdeveloped south, traditionally supportive of the Socialists, voted for a change, which expressed widespread public dissatisfaction with incumbent politicians and the government’s economic and social policy. Upon witnessing Milošević’s attempt to outflank the opposition, university students and opposition parties organized a separate series of peaceful protests. An opposition leader’s statement: ‘This (Belgrade) is our city. It is a beautiful city. Let’s walk a little through it, showed no undertone of aggression or revenge, but rather of possession and self-confidence.’ Serbia didn’t need to be conquered because it already belonged to its citizens, but rather reclaimed since it was invaded and controlled by the Milošević’s regime. The protest was therefore perceived as an action of ‘reappropriating the city.’ Serbia finally realized that ‘life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change’ and if you had lived in a system which didn’t embrace differing opinions, encourage debate, and would do whatever it took to stay in power, you’d know we had a long way to go before claiming what was ours all along.
Winter was knocking on the door, the mercury was dropping, and the nights seemed endless. We had a small electric heater in the room, my sister and I, as well as a wood burner in the kitchen but the fire would go out when we were out or at night, the house would turn chilly and we were all frozen again. Needless to say, we took a bath only when there was fire, which wasn’t every day. One of the ways of shaking off the winter blues, besides snuggling up with your significant other, was putting on 3-4 extreme cold weather clothing, fur gloves, a warm hat and a scarf and joining protesters.
The inability to bring the regime down in a civilized way as a rule led to rallies in Serbia. A politically pregnant time: ‘the politicized insertion of human bodies into public space,’ tens of thousands of people attending protests daily, an outpouring of energy, an adrenaline rush, excitement in the streets, enthusiasm spreading like wild fire, a country craving change, people being outspoken in their opposition of injustice, uncompromisingly forthright with their opinions, and blunt in their criticism. Expressing dissatisfaction with the regime by means of noise. A must-have fashion accessory for fall/winter 1996/1997: wearing a subversive badge and a whistle (the most common noisemaker) AT ALL TIMES. The piercing sound of whistles and horns day in day out, whistles on posters, stickers, postcards and around our necks as a sign of identification, blowing a whistle and ‘filling the air with noise,’ streets and houses fraught with afternoon and evening noise, ‘a noise invasion into regime-controlled space’, making meaningful noise, noise with a difference, noise culminating between 7.30 and 8 PM during evening news on state TV, an enormous outburst of noise made by hundreds of thousands of citizens intended to muffle the sound of lies and misinformation spread by the regime-controlled media, protecting oneself from toxic energy bullshit, coming up with healthy ways to vent and express disapproval, showing signs of rather peculiar behavior: noise produced by unlikely instruments such as pots, pans, cutlery, and bells, banging garbage containers, cars honking horns, freedom to express yourself insistently, speaking your mind by means of noise. Awards given to the noisiest streets. Protesters waved at by old people from their windows, flashlights blinked from balconies, houselights blinked from people’s homes, the sound of trumpets, protests led by noisy drummers, and accompanied by shouting, singing, and dancing, chanting slogans and waving banners, marchers showered with confetti and balloons by supporters, hundreds of Serbian banknotes from the days of hyperinflation rained down on protesters, music systems on squares and in protest marches aimed at ‘reclaiming control over cities,’ ‘redefining space through noise.’ ‘People carry all kinds of flags, the main idea being to have any kind of a flag: the Serbian national flag, political party flags, car racing flags, flags from other countries, the gay pride rainbow flag, the American Civil War flag, the pirate (skull and crossbones) flag, and scarves tied to sticks.’ Waving flags from the windows and balconies as the march passes by. Smiles, chats and laughter. A friendly atmosphere. The determination to alter and control the situation, seizing the initiative, walking the streets as ‘a political act,’ bold civil disobedience. SPS strongholds collapsing like a house of cards, a country undergoing change.
The regime refused to change the tune, and continued to ignore demonstrations in its media, portraying the participants as ‘outlaws and provocateurs by the state.’ An attempt of protest organizers to keep the citizens on the sidewalks to avoid violence turned futile, the act of defiantly walking the streets being crucial to rallies. The further course of action: traffic disturbance, blocking main streets, hour-long congestion, cities brought to a standstill for hours on end. ‘A protest on wheels:’ parking your car in the middle of busy streets, pretending it broke down, thus allowing marchers to walk the streets without being accused of disrupting the traffic. Controlling the movement of the city. Territorialisation: ‘changing the urban landscape by inscribing deviant political meanings into it, testing the limits of the regime, city maps acquiring a whole set of modified meanings by displacing or transcending the existing ones.’ Banners and slogans dominating protests, graffiti with reference to pop culture, music, film, philosophy, and sports. Surreal humor (Our Leaders Are Deaf, Our Leaders Are Blind, But We Care, Snoopy Against the Red Baron, We’ll Walk Till You Walk Away, Time to Wake Up From the Winter Sleep, Did You Come Here to Protest or Stare at the Banner?). Parents marching with their kids. Babies ‘marching ‘(the ‘I’m Being Manipulated by my Fascist Parents’ sign on a stroller). Postcards of mass demonstrations with the slogan ‘Greetings from Belgrade/Serbia.’ Creative time.
At one point student protesters asserted their claim over university buildings. We locked ourselves in, staying there for days (who mentioned sleeping?!), befriending those that resonated with us, passing the time with awful sandwiches, good coffee and terrific people, missing exams (the future of the country was at stake), learning an important life lesson, among others that Serbia always had a soft spot for a mediocrity of successful careerists and yes-men. Kissasses who namely went on taking their exams as if nothing was going on were ‘rewarded’ in the end, some of them getting a job as assistant professors. ‘O brave new world, that has such people in’t!’
Protests were the strongest in the capital, assembling up to 200,000 people daily and very quickly spread over most big cities in Serbia. On Orthodox New Year’s Eve (Jan 13), over half a million people gathered on the central square (almost half of its population), with several bands playing and video messages of support from Vanessa Redgrave, Emir Kusturica and The Prodigy. Jamming phone lines: making telephone calls to state institutions to make government’s work impossible. Throwing rotten eggs on the building of the Supreme Court, and wearing cardboard glasses resembling eggs. Marches normally followed a regular route, passing by key buildings symbolizing the state, but would alter it every now and then so that the protest message could reach more people. At first, only traffic police were present during protest marches, being for the most part pretty approachable, willing to speak to protesters and have their pictures taken. With time, it became much tenser in Belgrade which witnessed a series of aggressive police interventions. By the end of ‘96, the downtown pedestrian zone would be surrounded by thousands of members of riot police, organized, trained and more than well equipped to confront crowds. Riot police were to become a tool of political repression, using traffic disturbance as a pretext for not only violent suppression of civil disobedience but also prevention of bringing down the regime.
On Dec 24, the government coalition organized a large counter-protest in downtown Belgrade. Milošević addressed the crowd. They chanted: ‘We love you,’ to which he replied: ‘I love you too.’ Schizophrenic time. The opposition protest (300,000 people) and counter-protest (40,000) face to face, both scheduled in the same place at the same time (how very thoughtful of you, Mr. President). The latter consisted mostly of peasants and workers from rural areas who were provided with free transportation and instructed to carry SPS banners. How voluntary their participation was is unclear; there were reports that workers were put on buses after their night shifts, without knowing that daily protest marches against Milošević were taking place. 20,000 police militia in the streets. The result: massive riots during which a young opposition protester was beaten to death by a group of SPS supporters, while another one was shot in the head (survived), after which the government banned all street protests in Belgrade. A silent funeral march in honor of the murdered teacher. On Feb 2–3, 1997 riot police clashed with protesters on a bridge, firing water cannons at them even though the outside temperature was almost 14°F (-10 °C). Dozens ended up in the ER.
(Translation from Serbian: COUNTER-PROTEST: WINTER 1996 – MILLIONS AGAINST ONE – ONE WINS – ONE IN A MILLION – ONE LOSES)
Perseverance. Coming up with new nonviolent protest methods: staging a sit-down protest when pressed harder by police cordons. An all-night student vigil joined by an Orthodox priest. Finding ways to outsmart the police, playing the ‘traffic light’ game: waiting for the signal to turn green and ‘occupying’ the crosswalk. Marching in circles in pedestrian zones or in front of police cordons. The collective dog walking day: bringing dogs to the protest, in response to the state-controlled media claim that protesters were mere passers-by walking their dogs. Posing in front of police cordons (the more theatrical, the better). Entertaining the police: reading them the most beautiful love poetry and Dostoevsky out loud, chatting with them, giving them flowers and candy, kissing them on the cheek, and drawing lipstick hearts on their shields. Painters standing in front of police cordons with mirrors turned towards them. Wearing your own work uniform: white medical coats, stethoscopes, surgical masks, fire-fighters’ outfits, chimney sweepers in black. Wearing graduation gowns to match the police riot gear. The daily Miss Protest, and the most handsome policeman of the day contest. Converting rage to laughter; ‘channeling angst, anguish and anger at the state into humor and celebration, creating a culture of resistance that the police and government could not break.’ A carnival atmosphere in the streets on a daily basis.
The aesthetics of the protests included not only visual and textual elements such as images, symbols, graffiti, clothes, art, humor and slogans, but also performative ones. In one of them, Belgrade students, restricted to pedestrian areas and surrounded by the police, walked in a circle with their hands on their heads, which simulated a prison yard walk and symbolically denoted being imprisoned in their own city. After they had been accused of being destructive, they built a brick wall in front of the Parliament Building, showing they could be very constructive. On one occasion, they covered the headquarters of the national broadcasting company with toilet paper. On another, a ‘parade of the blind’ walked around its building with their hands covering their eyes. In addition, two large satirical puppets were created to march the streets of Belgrade. One depicted Milošević’s wife in feudal armor, the other Milošević in a prison uniform. As mascots, they personifying everything students were fighting against. They ‘became the only embodied antagonists, thus concretizing the strategy of the struggle,’ though the main goal was ‘an abstract idea of democracy and an individual understanding of freedom.’ Its creator, an art student, was badly beaten by the police. Students also organized a decontamination action: showing up with detergent and cleaning the location where the Milošević regime organized the counter-protest, along with the building where the state committee met and turned down their demand to oust the dean, reconfirming his appointment instead.
It is said that winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Milošević behaved like a communist dictator and the influence of his wife Mirjana Marković (eye roll), who headed her own party, was enormous. She was radicalizing his ideology and was, according to the opposition, an echo of Ceaușescu’s wife Elena. They lost touch with reality, both of them. They believed they were invincible and that it was all ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’ Luckily, opposition and students were rather persistent. This development was important because it was certain to endanger favorable results for the Socialists in the Republican elections the following year.
‘Richard Holbrooke commented on the issue in his memoirs, recalling that the Americans were not able to support the protests due to the transitional period to the Clinton II Administration: A remarkable challenge to Milošević unfolded in the street of Belgrade, led by three politicians who banded together in a movement called Zajedno, or the Together Movement. For weeks, hundreds of thousands of (Belgrade) citizens braved subfreezing weather to call for democracy. But Washington missed a chance to affect events.’
The civil protest lasted a total of 88 days, with hundreds of thousands of citizens in 50 cities in Serbia seeking respect for the electoral will of the people. The demonstrators eventually succeed in redressing the election fraud. Forced by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Milošević’s government finally accepted the results of the local elections. He signed the ‘lex specialis’ which accepted the opposition victory and instated local government in several cities, interestingly without acknowledging any wrongdoing. Student demand for replacing the University management was also met, with the pro-Milošević dean resigning. The daily police presence in Belgrade is reported to have cost a million Deutschmarks a day. The Serbian economy continued to sink despite the lifting of sanctions in Oct ‘96 . The long period of protests and unrest further deepened the crisis. According to a survey, only 20% of the population was employed at the time. The majority was either unemployed, forced onto unpaid furloughs or working in the black market.
The organizers of the student protest maintained independence from the opposition coalition until the end. Without cell phones and social networks, students organized themselves, raising their voice against injustice and fraud. Besides protest actions, they were often engaged in seminars and forums on political topics related to democracy and social change. The 1996-1997 student protest in Serbia was a victory of the youth over the forces of darkness for ‘in a dark time, the eye begins to see.’ It lasted 117 days, which makes it the longest and most massive student revolt in the history of Europe to date. And I was a part of it.