Ghosts of protests past

So far, the current set of weekly street performances in Serbia appear to have as much in common with demonstrations in March 1991 as with the events of December 1996 or October 2000.

By David B. Kanin

It is important to distinguish between different species of popular political theater. Such analysis is not meant to disparage the value of street democracy, but rather to assess whether the usual rhetoric and postures of political celebrities are worth the efforts and sacrifices demanded of the citizens they attempt to recruit as their followers. It is not hard to figure out the personal agendas of those believing they are entitled to power, but it is rarely obvious what everyone else involved has to gain if the speakers of the moment actually manage to replace the authorities whose jobs and perks they covet.

It did not take long for the Saturday night marchers in Serbia to wonder whether their efforts would come to anything – and to debate what, exactly, they want those efforts to come to. Coverage in media outlets not controlled by the government has raised these issues and has even tapped the shoulders of veterans of previous protest movements for memories and advice. It always is worth listening to the views of Vesna Pesic, whose retreat from politics shortly after playing a leading role in the ouster of the Milosevic regime deprived the country of a thoughtful and selfless alternative to what became politics-as-usual even before March 15, 2003.

Despite their internal debates, protest organizers and opposition politicians still seem to lack strategic goals or tactical competence. This should not be surprising, given the ease with which Alexander Vucic has been able to marginalize names like Djilas, Tadic, and Jeremic. As things stand, Vucic’s dismissive “#1 of 5 million” remark appears to be holding true.

This may be because the oppositional context of the current movement is different from that surrounding earlier mass protests. The Saturday marches reflect the relative absence of electoral potential, rather than the anger of people who in 1991 had recently voted in large numbers against Milosevic and in 1996 and 2000 were robbed of outright victories at the polls. Milosevic never figured out how to manage elections. Vucic, on the other hand, has proven himself a more than competent electoral politician.

Meanwhile, poor political performances over the past decade by Tadic, Djilas, and Jeremic have established them as analogues to Milosevic, rather than the DOS trio of Pesic, Kostunica, and Djindjic. It remains a serious question as to whether Vucic’s opponents – protesters or politicians – could defeat him in a fair election, something their political forebears did not have to worry about regarding Milosevic.

Reviewing the Bidding

For several days in In March 1991 Vuk Draskovic held large crowds in the palm of his hand. This novelist and monarchist made the Communist patronage network seem obsolete and exhausted in the context of a Yugoslav collapse enabled, in part, by the short-sighted tactics used by Milosevic after 1987. The regime had no intelligent response to the demonstrations so it sent in its thugs, threw Draskovic and some others in jail, and hunkered down. It turned out that was all Milosevic needed to do – Draskovic had no idea what should happen next. If they had been in charge, the protagonists’ wives likely would have been more able to focus their mutual hatred into a decisive and bloody confrontation. Up to now, those marching behind the “#1 in 5 million” banners seem like the unfocused husbands of 1991.

Milosevic stole local elections in in December 1996, leading to mass demonstrations and several weeks of chaos. International attention still affecting the region after the Bosnian war and Milosevic’s typical indecision fed optimism that the dictator would be overthrown. However, the demonstrators turned out to be as rudderless as the regime, and the protests eventually burned themselves out. The memories of the disappointment engendered by what so many thought would be a decisive movement may well be on the minds of older protesters’ involved in current events.

There were three major differences between what happened in 1996 and 2000. First, opposition politicians and – especially – younger activists had learned they had to think things through before acting. In my view, Otpor veterans claim a little too much credit for what happened in October 2000, but there is no question demonstration organizers were much better prepared for a struggle than they had been four years earlier.

Second, Milosevic magnified his electoral incompetence by misjudging the domestic impact of NATO’s bombing campaign of 1999. He misread the demonstrated unity of Serbs against what many across the political spectrum believed had been unjustified aggression against Serbia as indicating his own personal popularity. He did not have to run for re-election in 2000, but chose to do so anyway. He really expected to win and – unlike his adversaries – did not learn anything from the crisis of 1996. Still, for the first 36 hours or so after the elections of October, neither Otpor mavens nor the DOS politicians appeared to know what to do as security forces once more came into the streets and the flawed election seemed up for grabs.

This brings us to the third and decisive difference between 1996 and 2000. The participants in the earlier protests had been driven largely by students, intellectuals, and others, and took placer largely in the capital. There was much less interest in the rest of the country in forcing a change of regime. What Milosevic – and, in my view, those in the DOS/Otpor universe – did not understand was how much credibility Milosevic had lost outside Belgrade. For example, the mothers of soldiers from southern Serbia had demonstrated during the bombing campaign because they believed their sons were being sent to face NATO bombs in unfairly large numbers. General Ojdanic, the Army’s Chief of Staff, took their protests seriously enough to personally pay court to those women. In October 2000 it was when citizens of Cacak and other towns marched to Belgrade (and the Kolobara miners came out against Milosevic) that events took a decisive turn. No matter the revisionism expressed by some Otpor notables, it is important to remember that on October 5, folks from outside the capital and the narrow cohort of intellectual elites played an important role in the seizure of the parliament and the overthrow of the Milosevic regime. While some of the current demonstrations are taking place in cities other than Belgrade, it remains unclear as to whether Vucic confronts a similar, viable national opposition movement.

What Now?

The demonstrators have to decide what they want. If it is elections (whether “snap” or not), what if they lose – can they take a page from the book of Vojislav Seselj, who learned from repeated defeats in the 1990s and laid the groundwork for the movement Aleksandar Vucic later turned into a political juggernaut?

On the other hand, let us assume the Opposition wins – what then? Who, exactly, “wins” (besides urban intellectuals) and what will be their priorities? How can rank-and-file demonstrators gain some control over activists who might turn out to be just as focused on personal power as the current political class?

If elections are not the immediate goal, how should regime opponents move beyond weekly street parties to seriously threaten the most formidable Serbian politician since Tito? Who is capable – and deserving – of leading a revitalized Serbian political opposition? Assuming the movement matures politically, what issues should become immediate priorities – Vucic’s stranglehold on the media? Judicial reform? Overcoming patronal political and financial systems? Serbia’s relations with Bosnia and Kosova? If Vucic is removed, how will the Heroes of the moment organize Democracy?

There appears to be a window of opportunity for Vucic’s opponents, if they can get their act together. For the first time since his rise to power, Vucic has made himself vulnerable by promoting the unpopular idea of a land swap with Kosova. Nevertheless, it was a not necessarily a positive sign that the “#1 in 5 million” slogan attached itself to the one year anniversary of the assassination of Oliver Ivanovic. Bringing his murderers to justice matters, of course, but this Wednesday event gave the impression that the Saturday movement is in search of a new rallying cry and strategy as its original slogans and chants grow stale. If it does not find one, it could burn itself out — as happened with the Belgrade waterfront development scandal last year. If that happens, can activists maintain the discipline and concentration to figure out where they go from wherever it is they are?

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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