issue 256 - June 1994
Not our war
Serb nationalists have become international pariahs. But are all Serbs nationalists?
Ivan Vejvoda tells a story of resistance that rarely gets heard.
About 50,000 people gathered for a rock concert in Belgrade’s main square. The title of the concert was ‘Don’t Count On Us’ – an abbreviated message to the nationalist regime of President Milosevic.
A few months later 40,000 people came out on the streets of Belgrade wearing black ribbons. The event this time was ‘The Black Ribbon Mourning for Sarajevo’ – in solidarity with the suffering of the city being besieged by Serbian forces.
The opposition of Serbs to Serbian nationalism has not been a focus of Western media. The latter has fallen prey to the need to portray conflicts in exclusively Manichean, good-versus-evil terms. Conflicts – and especially the one in former Yugoslavia – can rarely be understood in this way.
It may come as a surprise to many Westerners that there was a large, spontaneous opposition within Serbia and Montenegro to the war waged by the Milosevic regime. Mostly it took the form of resisting conscription into the armed forces. In Belgrade only 10 per cent responded to the call-up to what was then, in 1991, still the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA).
Thousands of young conscripts went into ‘internal exile’ hiding with friends and relatives. The latter would ignore knocks at the door so as to avoid receiving the call-up orders. Thousands of potential conscripts left the country and headed for Britain, France, Germany, Holland and Greece. Visas were not needed then – as they are today.
Even among those who did obey the draft, there was resistance. The story of young Miroslav Milenkovic from a small town in Serbia is a poignant example of the dilemma faced by many. When the new conscript reached barracks his unit had already split in two – between those who agreed to go to the front and those who were refusing. Milenkovic went from one group to another, not knowing which group of friends and relatives to side with. At one point he stopped and, standing between the two groups, took his rifle and shot himself.
The slogan of the resistance has been: ‘this is not our war!’ Even before the war began the opposition was warning that war was no solution but an irrational course that would bring worldwide condemnation; negotiations would still have to take place between the conflicting parties, whether there was a war or not.
Back in 1990 the Democratic Party was still the main and strongest political voice against Milosevic. But it was to undergo a series of three debilitating splits. The war came as a shock to many. The first concerted movement against it came from the Centre for Anti-War Action in Belgrade in July 1991. It organized legal and other support for deserters and was a network centre for activists. Several women’s groups – like the SOS telephone group for battered women, the women’s party ZEST, and the Belgrade Women’s Lobby – continued their work, adapting their activities to the new situation. A new group, Women in Black, strongly opposed the war and nationalist tendencies. During the winter of 1991-92 there were candlelit vigils every evening outside the windows of Serbia’s President Milosevic, in memory of those being killed in the war and in solidarity with those resisting it.
Anti-war actions flourished during 1992 – which was when the ‘Don’t Count On Us’ rock concert took place. There was a six-week-long occupation of the University of Belgrade by students and professors, accompanied by street processions called ‘The Path of Peace’.
In early 1992 the Belgrade Circle – an association of independent intellectuals – was formed. Like the Centre for Anti-War Action and the women’s groups, it was concerned with creating the basis for a different Serbia. After the first 10 weeks of public meetings, the Belgrade Circle published a book Another Serbia, followed by Intellectuals and War in 1993. Members also went out into areas of tension – like Mostar – to network with similarly minded people there, and give support to villagers in areas where ‘ethnic cleansing’ was taking place.
Now, after three years of war, the struggle is continuing under extremely adverse conditions. Anti-nationalists are condemned as ‘traitors’, as ‘anti-Serbs in Serbia’, as ‘forces of chaos and madness’, as ‘pawns of the West’, and as ‘the helping hand of the future colonizers’.
But Milosevic’s propaganda machine has not yet managed to drown the voices of dissent inside Serbia. The independent media have stood firm in maintaining that the anti-nationalist and anti-war voices must be heard – whether it be in the printed press (such as Borba, Vreme and Republika) or the more-or-less independent TV and radio stations (such as Studio B and TV Politika). The journalists’ independent professional organizations have also tried to countervail the immense influence of the three state-controlled, nationalist TV channels that reach out into the whole of Serbia. But because of Milosevic’s overbearing presence on the international scene these voices of dissent are rarely heard outside Serbia and Montenegro.
The sanctions introduced against Serbia and Montenegro in May 1992 by the UN Security Council have dealt a particularly harsh blow to the opposition, severing it from a free flow of information, ideas and contacts with friends and colleagues around the world. It was a long while before the Security Council exempted independent media from these sanctions.
The war, the plunge into poverty as a result of Milosevic’s policies and the effects of sanctions have created feelings of fear, uncertainty and apathy. More than half of the population is below the poverty line and the constant brain drain over three years has left this society without experts. Crime is widespread - in all aspects of social, political and economic life.
The illusion of a quick transition to democracy has evaporated. The opposition groups and individuals have learned the hard way that there is a desperate need for solidarity if the racist, fascist tendencies in Serbia and Montenegro are to be actively challenged.
Meanwhile, it is worth remembering the following statistics. In Serbia’s last election 37 per cent of voters abstained. Milosevic’s ruling party gained 37 per cent of the vote, but only 23 per cent of the whole electoral body. That is the true support for this abominable nationalist regime: less than a quarter.
Ivan Vejvoda is a journalist and founder member of the Belgrade Circle.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7