The dangerous choice to dissent in Serbia
In their quest to unseat Milosevic, opposition members endure threats, harassment, phone taps.
Last week, a bus full of opposition organizers from Belgrade was stopped at a police checkpoint, roughly halfway along the five-hour trip to a rally in the western Serbian town of Uzice.Skip to next paragraph
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Two police officers told the democratic activists to prepare their paperwork. A tense silence filled the bus. At the previous rally in Cacak, the "opposition bus" was stopped and turned back just outside of town, although the organizers walked the rest of the way. This time, the bus was still hours from its destination. Would it be allowed through?
The two police officers carefully examined everyone's paperwork, then let the bus pass. The relief was palpable and an occasion for a brief on-board celebration on the road to change the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
But only a half-hour before the Uzice rally was scheduled to begin, local police told organizers it was illegal. Electricity to the public-address system was turned off. The opposition ignored the police, brought in a generator, and spoke to several thousand people.
Serbia's postwar opposition movement is pressing forward despite such obstacles at every turn. Police harassment, phone taps, intimidation, threats, arrests, "informative talks," and people being laid off are daily occurrences.
"When people in the West say, 'Why don't you get rid of Milosevic?' they act like it's just that easy. We're faced with situations which are not imaginable to the average Western European or American," says an organizer of the Democratic Party. "And the bombing actually set us back, because the regime used it as an excuse to crack down."
Yugoslavia's opposition has taken various forms over the past decade to challenge Mr. Milosevic. Much of the time its efforts have been thwarted by infighting and Milosevic's authoritarian tactics. Yet one high point for the opposition was in 1996-97, when Zajedno ("Together"), a coalition of independent media, students, and opposition leaders, led three months of powerful demonstrations in Belgrade.
The conflict in Kosovo, however, effectively shut down most opposition, beginning as early as 1998. Milosevic took the opportunity to consolidate power and tighten his control of the media, thus muzzling voices of dissent.
Now, in the wake of defeat in Kosovo, oppositionists are beginning to raise their voices again. Attention has centered around two groups: the Alliance for Change, a coalition of smaller opposition parties led by Vladan Batic that is organizing rallies outside of Belgrade, and the larger Serbian Renewal Movement, led by Vuk Draskovic, which has won the support of about 15 percent of Serbia's population.
Whatever group opposition members belong to, threats and intimidation go with the territory. "When we distributed petitions [at the Uzice rally] calling for the removal of Milosevic, they threatened to arrest us, but then backed down," says Nenad Simovic, a Christian Democrat representative in Uzice.
In Nis, Yugoslavia's third-largest city, activists from the Democratic Party collected 12,000 signatures in two days calling for Milosevic to resign.