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How the Balkan strongman was toppled

Yugoslavia activists - with foreign help - offer a textbook case on dislodging a dictator without firing a shot.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 2003


Through the clouds of tear gas, Daniel Lisonek saw his chance. With a decade of frustration boiling in his breast, and half a million fellow protesters heaving at his back, he hurled himself at the line of armed policemen guarding the entrance to the Yugoslav parliament.

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The line broke, the police didn't open fire, and Mr. Lisonek raced up the steps, through the door, and then on up into the building's cupola. Flinging open a window, he unfurled the opposition banner in full view of the crowd below. A deafening cheer went up. Hours later, Slobodan Milosevic stepped down.

"The main thing was that we were ready to fight the system, to confront it," Lisonek recalls now. "I was ready even to lose my life that day."

That day, Oct. 5, 2000, crowned years of organizing by opposition groups that had been steadily growing in numbers and shaking the pillars of Mr. Milosevic's regime for months.

It also brought to fruition a three-year campaign by the US and other Western governments to dislodge the Yugoslav leader by strangling his country's economy with sanctions and rocking it with bombs during the Kosovo war.

Above all, Oct. 5, when the Yugoslav leader acknowledged he had lost elections, offered a textbook case of how domestic and foreign activists could unite to effect non-violent regime change in apparently hopeless circumstances.

"We could not have done it without outside aid, and the West could not have done it without us," says Veran Matic, founder of the independent B-92 radio network, which proved a key tool in rallying opposition forces.

Branislav Ivkovic, a minister in Milosevic's last government and former vice president of his Serbian Socialist Party, agrees, though from a different perspective. "The sanctions deliberately impoverished the people, to manufacture discontent," he argues. "Then a huge number of nongovernmental organizations with limitless funds sprang up to feed on that discontent."

None of those organizations was as tenacious as billionaire George Soros's Open Society Institute, which set up shop in Belgrade in 1991, and over the next nine years distributed more than $100 million to foster what institute president Sonja Licht calls "an infrastructure of change."

The money bought newsprint for independent papers, kept publishing houses alive, encouraged artistic and literary groups, and - most notably - funded the growth of B-92 as it set up local stations in towns controlled by the opposition.

These stations, cultural societies, alternative art clubs and other projects were "islands of resistance" to the authoritarian regime in Belgrade, says Ms. Licht, because "they empowered the people themselves."

"We created a possible parallel universe," adds Mr. Matic. "There was permanent support to keep our spirit alive."

That universe existed, Matic points out, in the political space that Milosevic left to the opposition. "Opposition political parties may have been weak, disorganized, and infiltrated, but they had a place here," recalls Zarko Korac, one of the leaders who called the demonstration on Oct. 5 and who is now a deputy prime minister of Serbia. "Milosevic allowed this because we are in Europe, and because he was popular."

Indeed, opposition parties ran all the country's major towns and cities after municipal elections in December 1996; independent radio and TV stations managed to broadcast; opposition-leaning dailies and weeklies published. The government harassed them, and sometimes closed them down for a while, but Milosevic never resorted to dictatorial repression of his political opponents at home.

This was partly because he feared Western retaliation, suggests Predrag Simic, a former opposition leader who is now President Vojislav Kostunica's top foreign-policy aide. But it was also, he adds, because Milosevic "was not a great villain, he was a small party apparatchik."

Though Serbian troops committed atrocities in the field against their Bosnian and Croatian enemies, the secret police in Belgrade allowed remarkable latitude to the opposition. "At the demonstrations against him we shouted 'Slobo-Saddam' and it was a good slogan," recalls Slavoljub Djukic, author of several hostile books about Milosevic. "But there were really no similarities between them at all."