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

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.

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."

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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."

The opposition may have existed, but it failed repeatedly to take advantage of Milosevic's weaknesses because of its own internal divisions born as much of personal rivalries as from ideological debate. At the same time, anti-Milosevic leaders were dispirited by Washington's continued reliance on the Yugoslav president as a guarantor of peace, especially after the Dayton accord in 1995. "We could not win until the West decided that it was not going to negotiate any more with Milosevic," says Professor Korac.

Only when Western governments gave up on Milosevic after the 1999 war over Kosovo did they make a serious investment in the opposition, such as the $100 million that the US Congress approved in assistance to antiregime forces, coming on top of private aid such as Mr. Soros's funds.

More critically, say former members of the fractious 18 party 'Democratic Opposition of Serbia' (DOS), US diplomats knocked their heads together until they formed a cohesive and united coalition.

"The pressure on us to unify was the most important thing," argues Korac. "There was a credible alternative." And that alternative was given a face when the DOS chose Vojislav Kostunica - untainted by any dealings with Milosevic, reputed to be honest, and sufficiently nationalistic to broaden the opposition's appeal - as its candidate in the 2000 presidential elections.

At the same time, western money funded the development of Otpor, meaning 'Resistance,' a student movement using sophisticated marketing techniques and edgy, hip mobilizing tactics that added street pressure onto the government.

For most Otpor members, "the essential condition for success was the feeling that we didn't have anything to lose," says Milja Jovanovic, a founder of Otpor. "Dealing with Milosevic was an urge that had been building up for 10 years."

But the money from abroad was "a tremendous support," she adds. "The only illegal thing that we did was to receive foreign funds through accounts around Europe," she says. "Eighty-five percent of our funding came from the United States," through bodies such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, as well as USAID.

That money paid not only for stickers and T-shirts and badges, computers, offices, and administrative costs, but also for training abroad in how to develop a political strategy, and how to organize a door-to-door campaign.

At the same time, the European Union kicked in over the winter of 1999 with several million dollars' worth of heating oil for towns under opposition control. The program, called 'Energy for Democracy,' bypassed the Yugoslav government, and was meant to show voters that Western governments took the opposition seriously as a partner.

SOMETIMES, Western officials involved themselves in the nuts and bolts of resistance. When the government shut down B-92's main transmitter during mass demonstrations in December 1996, for example, Matic persuaded the BBC to take his feed over the internet and then beam it on a BBC satellite down to B-92 network stations around the country.

It was the British ambassador, carrying the diplomatic bag, who smuggled into Yugoslavia the devices needed to decode the BBC signal.

At other times, the West simply bought the equipment that the opposition needed, such as satellite phones, so that opposition leaders could communicate among themselves even if the government shut down the national phone system after the Sept. 24, 2000 elections.

By then, the pieces of the opposition puzzle were in place. "An electorate for the opposition existed," says Mr. Simic. "A civil society had emerged from the depths of the Serbian spirit." Civic activists had worked hard to get out the vote, boosting turnout by the critical margin that defeated Mr. Milosevic in the polls.

On the front lines of the street protests against Milosevic's refusal to accept that defeat, Daniel Lisonek and his fellow soccer fans, who often made up the shock troops of the opposition, "all fed from each other's energy and strength," he remembers.

The police did not shoot as Lisonek and his friends charged past them, because by then the Army and police chiefs had decided that the game was up, and abandoned their supreme commander.

"It was not one thing that brought Milosevic down, it was lots of things," says Korac. "It was death by a thousand cuts."

And while outsiders helped to mobilize and organize opposition forces, raising their spirits and their profile, says Ms. Licht, the decisive thrust came from inside. "In the end," she says, "the seed of resistance must come from the people themselves."

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