Belgrade erupts as democracy finally triumphs in Yugoslavia
Fittingly, a child led the way—an exuberant four-yearold boy. Breaking free of his fathers grasp, he darted up the stone steps towards the cordon of riot police guarding the entrance to the old royal palace now housing Yugoslavia’s parliament. To the cheers of the assembled throng in Belgrade, the youngster first evaded startled policemen’s outstretched arms, then dashed between them to disappear inside the building. Emboldened, the multitude, at least 100,000strong, surged forward, wave upon wave, braving flailing batons and choking white clouds of tear gas. “Save Serbia and kill yourself, Slobodan,” they shouted, brandishing iron bars, waving Serbia’s red, white and blue banners. The police held
for a time, wavered, finally cracked. And as the exultant mob stormed the building following in the boy’s footsteps, it brought to an end the 13-year rule of Slobodan Milosevic, the last of eastern Europe’s once mighty Communist despots.
“Good evening, liberated Serbia,” a triumphant opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica declared later that same evening, addressing joyful crowds from the balcony of Belgrade City Hall, across a park from the ransacked parliament. “What we are doing today is making history.” Eleven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when virtually every other Communist dictatorship in Europe crumbled, Serbia has at last followed suit. The Milosevic regime’s fall may have
come a decade later than others, but it occurred in a remarkably similar manner, provoked by the same massive upsurge of popular discontent that saw hundreds of thousands of angry demonstrators overflowing the public squares of Prague and Warsaw, Bucharest and Berlin. Last week, it was Belgrade, where some 500,000 congregated to witness the birth of a democracy.
They came from cities and towns scattered across Serbia, drawn to Belgrade to support Kostunicas claim that he had, in fact, won the Sept. 24 presidential election contest with Milosevic. The authorities acknowledged that Kostunica out-polled Milosevic in the vote but claimed he fell short of a majority in the five-candidate race, necessitating a run-off scheduled for Oct. 8. In the face of the Yugoslav strongmans persistent attempts to deny the evidence of the ballot box,
Kostunica and his Democratic Opposition of Serbia—a fragile coalition of 18 political parties and one trade union— threw down a gauntlet of sorts. The DOS leadership gave Milosevic a deadline of 3 p.m. Thursday to resign or face a continuing round of demonstrations and strikes designed to effectively shut down the country. Defiant to the end, Milosevic responded with a decision from the Yugoslav Constitutional Court. Manned by Milosevic appointees, it handed down a ruling that would have nullified the Sept. 24 election, allowing Milosevic to stay in power pending new elections.
The ruling outraged Kostunicas supporters. “Vojo, Vojo,” they shouted, chanting the diminutive of Kostunicas first name as they swarmed Belgrade’s streets. By the time the deadline arrived, the crowds were in no mood to compromise. And when the litde boy showed them the way at
Eleven years after the historic fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia at long last followed suit
the parliament building, the rioting began. Within an hour, the mob had looted the building and set parts on fire.
From there they moved on to another hated symbol of Milosevics regime, the offices of the state television. After a battle with police guarding the facility, the crowds gained control of it as well. Then, it was on to several police stations, all of which quickly succumbed.
By nightfall, Milosevic’s much-feared,
120,000-strong police force had disintegrated, with many officers shedding flak jackets and blue helmets to join the demonstrators, or to quietly disappear. Belgrade exploded with joy, embarking on a celebration fuelled by copious quantities of beer and the Serbs’ beloved rakia—a fiery liquor distilled from grapes. “It’s not good that the buildings were burned,” said Bosko Djordjevic, a retired auto mechanic, as he happily contemplated the unfolding street party. “But it is very good that freedom came.”
One apparent beneficiary of the new order was a Canadian, Calgary university student Liam Hall, 19, who unexpectedly found himself freed in Belgrade in the aftermath of Milosevic’s overthrow. Serb authorities arrested Hall and his uncle, Shaun Going, 45, in the Yugoslav province of Montenegro on Aug. 1, accusing them of terrorist activity after they found detonator equipment in Going’s truck. The Canadians, who were taking a vacation with two British police officers at the
Montenegro seaside, said the equipment was associated with the construction business Going operates in neighbouring Kosovo. Told recently to expect at least another month in custody, Hall was surprised to be released along with the Britons. “I am happy to be out of here so that I can get on with my life,” Hall said before leaving by car for Hungary and a flight to Calgary. Going, however, may still face trial for possession of the explosives equipment.
Freedom, or at least the first glimpses of it, may well have arrived in Serbia last week, but Milosevic could remain a force to be reckoned 1 with. Despite widespread rumours of his flight, I he appeared on television on Friday, sombrely I shaking hands in Belgrade with visiting Russ! ian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. But in a clear % signal that Russia’s support for Milosevic had I crumbled, Ivanov went out of his way to meet I Kostunica, even referring to the opposition leader as “president-elect” and bringing congratulations from President Vladimir Putin on his electoral victory. Still, Ivanov said Milosevic had told him he “intends to play a prominent role in the political life of the country”—a confounding position that Milosevic reiterated in an address to the country.
The following day, Saturday, saw Kostunica sworn in as Yugoslavia’s first popularly elected president. He says he has no intention of handing Milosevic over to the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, where the deposed dictator faces charges of crimes against humanity.
But his predecessor’s continuing presence in Serbia is not only an embarrassment, it could also destabilize the fragile opposition coalition. Exile is one option, perhaps in Russia or, more likely, in Belarus, a staunch ally of Serbia. But the War Crimes Tribunal has no intention of sanctioning such a move. “To allow such an individual to go free,” said tribunal spokesman Paul Risley, “would make a mockery of any of the tribunal’s efforts to prosecute people below him. Milosevic and family: dangerous
No matter how dark Milosevics
personal future, his country’s prospects are now much brighter. That is certainly the verdict of all the Western worlds major powers, which immediately embarked on plans to lift crippling economic sanctions on Yugoslavia. The European Union and the United States, as well as Canada and other Western nations, are also set to channel massive amounts of aid to the country. Given the damage wrought during Milosevics 13 years of disastrous misrule, Vojislav Kostunica is going to need all the help he can get.
With Evelyn Thomas in Belgrade
A TROUBLED PAST
Dec. 4,1918: Following the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbs, Croats and Slovenes are put under control of the Serbian Royal House.
September, 1943: Marshal Josip BrozTito takes control of Yugoslavia. After the Second World War, the country is composed of the republics of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro.
May 4,1980: Tito dies, leaving a fragmented country.
May, 1986: Slobodan Milosevic becomes Serbian Communist Party president.
May 8,1989: Milosevic elected president of Serbia.
June 25,1991: Slovenia and Croatia declare independence from Yugoslavia. Fighting rages in Croatia.
1 Aug. 12,1991: As independence movements flourish in the other republics, Milosevic plans a “Greater Serbia” to include Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
March 1,1992: A referendum in BosniaHerzegovina approves independence.
April, 1992: Bosnian Serbs, backed by Milosevic’s government, lay siege to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. May, 1992: Europe and the United States impose economic sanctions on Yugoslavia.
July, 1995: Serb forces slaughter 6,000 Muslims in the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica, Bosnia, prompting a NATO bombing campaign.
• December, 1995: Leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia sign the Dayton Peace Accord; 60,000 NATO troops deploy in Bosnia.
• July 15,1997: Milosevic elected president of Yugoslavia.
• February, 1998: In a continuing crackdown in the province of Kosovo, Serb police kill 58 suspected Liberation Army guerrillas and relatives.
• March 24,1999: NATO launches an air campaign against Serb targets in Kosovo and Serbia.
May 24,1999: UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague indicts Milosevic on charges of crimes against humanity.
June 10,1999: Serb forces begin withdrawing from Kosovo and NATO halts the air war as domestic opposition to Milosevic grows in Yugoslavia.
Sept. 24,2000: Opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica declares victory in the Yugoslav election, setting the stage for last week’s events.
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