Serbia's Democratic Uprising
— Suzi Weissman interviews Borka Pavicevic
HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST and author Anna Cataldi (Letters from Sarajevo) received a call from Belgrade urging her to join the daily demonstrations for democracy in Serbia. She marched arm in arm with former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang. Intellectuals from all over Europe are now joining in solidarity with the protesters.
Through Anna's efforts in bringing international understanding and support for the protests, the following interview with Borka Pavicevic was arranged by the Lasiewicz Foundation and KPFK-FM radio. The host is Suzi Weissman and the interview was broadcast on the December 6, 1996 edition of her program "Beneath the Surface."
—Nalini Lasiewicz (Bosnia Briefings Project, Lasiewicz Foundation)
The following interview on the political crisis and democratic mobilizations in the republic of Serbia was transcribed by Nalini Lasiewicz and has been slightly edited by ATC. Editorial clarifications appear in brackets.
Suzi Weissman (hereafter "Q"): For 19 days now, there have been municipal demonstrations by Serbia over the annulment of elections. The demonstrators have been demanding the resignation of Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, and have also opposed the censorship and biased coverage by state-controlled media. We are very privileged to talk to Borka Pavicevic, in Belgrade, of the Centre of Cultural Decontamination, which is a pro-democracy group. Hello Borka.
Borka Pavicevic (hereafter "A"): Hello. Good evening.
Q. Could we start out for our listeners in Los Angeles by describing what's going on in the streets around you?
A. It has been as you say, so many days. Of course the situation is changing from minute to minute. There are moments in the events when the time passes so fast!
The Voices of the election [the results were stolen by the regime and by the ruling party. For some people, it was a great surprise, let's say, but for one part of the people it was quite logical.
It's not a big surprise that [this] regime, which actually broke the previous country [Yugoslavia], which was leading the war [the Serb assaults on Croatia and Bosnia], which stole the banks for example, which robbed the citizens, which did so much damage all over the former Yugoslavia and of course inside Serbia simultaneously, steals the Voices.
Of course the consequence of such a regime is the stealing of the Voices, at the elections. And when you do such a crime, if I may say, then you are pushing the people onto the streets. It was the last cap, if I may say, after all that siege, all those years. And if there is no organization and parliamentary or civil or democratic way of behavior, of course, then the situation is taking place on the streets.
First, you have the permanent [daily] demonstration of the opposition, and then you have simultaneously a big riot [peaceful of all the students of the Belgrade University. It means that every day at noon, the students start the demonstration with the general assembly of all students.
Then they are gathering beyond the university and then they are passing through all the streets, the huge column of students marching and marching in the streets. Then in each department of the university the discussions begin among the students, asking with some persons that they call upon to help them, about the present and political situation in Belgrade.
At three in the afternoon, you have the gathering of the citizens of Belgrade, in the demonstration of the opposition coalition, together, which takes place in the middle of the city. Again, the opposition is going on a long walk, all over the city. They stoop at the door of State Television, which is one of the most incredible, Orwellian, "1984" monsters—it's almost incredible how they are talking—and the official press, like the newspaper Politika, or the other institutions of this poor broken state.
All the actions are bringing every day more and more people onto, the streets of Belgrade.
Q. Do you see it as a generalized opposition to the regime of Milosevic or is it because of the economy, because of the censorship, because of the war. . . . What do you think is the general focus of the opposition, and is it united?
There are, of course, different reasons. Economic for sure: After all those years it is a disaster in the economy, where the majority of the people have nothing to eat and the regime has stolen everything. You have to understand that during the war, the property has been changed. I mean the property which was pre viously called Yugoslavia's public property is now the property of the party which is on power. In the meantime a lot of stories were invented, myths of the [Serb] Nation, but now it is obvious that it was not any struggle for your Nation, it was a battle for property and power. And now, in some ways it is clear.
Q. Is this something like, instead of privatization, it is partyization?
A. Exactly. I mean, there is a term that I can't translate, "privatcization," that means taking everything for us.. . that is a joke actually, that privatization in this country is actually taking everything you can take; and of course that is some kind of Mafia regime, which through political power is taking the money.
This all happens at the same place. Usually, you have the state and then the Mafia that do some different things, and the state may even be against the Mafia, even publicly. But here you have the circumstance that the party which in power takes everything as its own property.
Then you have the people who have become more and more rich, through [political] power, by the opportunity to influence the economy, and to take the hotels, the factories, the universities, the theatres, the public objects . . . and the land especially. Before the war, land was held in common, now you have taking the land as your own property. As you know, war is the way that some people get very rich, and actually the story of the war in Yugoslavia was about THAT, not only about Serbs, Croats and Muslims.
Q. It's clear that Milosevic was whipping up Serbian nationalism and it spurred a sort if era of nationalism on every side. Do you see in these oppositionist demonstrations also an opposition to his nationalism? Some people say here that the people who are demonstrating are right-wing nationalists . . . can you tell us?
A. Of course things are mixed but the majority of the demonstrations, especially the students, are not from that relax ing on the street—that's what you can feel, a nationalistic viewpoint. Milosevic came into, power with the so-called populist or national movement—and now he has a national movement against him!
I mean, different kinds of people are on the streets, but I must tell you there is some kind of humor, some kind of goodwill and not any hate.
This especially is the case with the students, and as we may hear the workers from the bottom and the south of Serbia [The "Together" (Zajedno) coalition won in the majority of cities in SerbiA.] Previously the main struggle was in the capital city Belgrade, now it is actually in the whole of SerbiA. That's what produces the trembling in the regime as we can now see, as they react terribly with suppressing the free press, with cutting Radio 92, with the closing of the small radio stations.
One part of the opposition was changed during the war. Some people who were extremely nationalist at the beginning of the war now are coming to some civil option, because it is obvious that there is no other way. Some of them are still nationalist, but among the majority of the citizens of Belgrade, and especially the students, you can't find that they are nationalist. It is more a movement for democracy, if I may say.
Q. Borka, it sounds like you are describing almost an insurrectionary situation; you've mentioned that it has spread beyond Belgrade and gone to more working-class districts and other cities in the south. Is it also spilling over the borders and what is the effect in Croatia and in Bosnia, if any?
A. You know, things are connected but the real connection... is the consequence of that war, that terrible war in Bosnia, which was led from Zagreb [Croatia] and Belgrade [the capital of both Serbia and what used to be YugoslaviA.
The war was made because the parties in power wanted to suppress a democratic movement. Creating that incredible hate—five years of it—that the other nation are idiots, that they want to kill us, that enormous xenophobia, all that was how the ruling regime was keeping itself in power.
Then you are inventing enemies all over the world, enemies are other people. After the war that mirror is turning back. Now it is clear in the end that the regime is the enemy, because the war should never have been waged.
I mean, it was a disaster from the very beginning when it was prepared. . . It was clear that it would be a catastrophe in Bosnia because Bosnia is the sum of that multicultural YugoslaviA. And now, you have the consequences of that terrible war. Now the people are seeing that something was wrong in our own country. The Croats are not guilty, or the Muslims, but the people who are leading you are responsible for your situation.
But without bringing real peace and democracy to Belgrade and Zagreb, you can't solve the Bosnian problem. As long as you have these regimes in Belgrade and Zagreb, Bosnia can't survive as an independent state.
Q. Your words are very hopeful. Do you see Milosevic being able to use the army to crack down? It seems that this is the kind of spontaneous mobilization that sweeps people like Milosevic out if power. . . do you think that he will crack down with the army?
At this very moment [Friday, Dec. 6, 1996] I don't believe so. It was possible six days ago. Now, I think it would be too much. Listen, the problem is what makes you in some way optimistic are those people in the streets. They are for change.
After the long year of depression, when you thought that everything that we are doing is for nothing because there is no deep reaction among the majority, now there is an opening because there is some energy for change. When that energy starts to move it arouses new energy; now the majority has risen out of de pression, out of that feeling that Milosevic will do whatever he wants with us.
What's positive is the imagining of change and the possibility of building something new. A few days ago, it seemed that [the crackdown] can be terrible, but now it seems possible that he would not use the army or the police.
Q. It seemed to people in the United States that the Clinton administration was far more interested in keeping Milosevic in power so that he could preside over the keeping of the Dayton Accords. Now that seems to be in question. What is your view?
A. Listen, I must tell you. After Dayton [the Bosnia partition agreement], Milosevic gained politically by his international recognition. [This is important] when you have such terrible media as we have here, which are really terrible I must tell you—for example there were ten days on Yugoslav television that there was no any word about what was outside! [The protests had been marching right in front of the state television building every day and the state media didn't cover them.]
On the television you have not a damn word [on the protests]. When the police said, "now it is enough with the demonstrations," actually it was as if television was forbidding something which never existed. This is paranoiA.
Q. It's Orwellian too.
A. Absolutely. Like, for example, Milosevic signed the peace for the war which had never happened . . . officially, Yugoslavia has never been in the war. So, how can the leader of the country that was never in the war sign a peace?
And after Dayton, it was especially that feeling of depression. Why? First, because the world is recognizing him as somebody they collaborate with; and if the majority of the people are listening every evening on the Belgrade television how Milosevic receives [diplomatic visits by] Karl Bildt, how he received Klaus Kinkle, how Milosevic received I don't know who, then the majority of the people think that he is now in power by Bill Clinton! (Laughter)
Only those people who don't want to know didn't know what was going in BosniA. And now you have the leader of that war, making the peace. The people were totally depressed in that moment. If the world is recognizing him as the valuable person, then than can we do?
Now, this is a different situation. And I really think that is what will be good . . .[that] the people are fighting for de mocracy, and that such a people exist. And if the regime is not responsible for the war, then who is responsible? It would be the people who were responsible then, wouldn't it? But that's not true!
Q. Of course not.
A. And that is our and the world's blasphemy. Milosevic is pushing that game in the Yugoslav New Left party with his wife on the top, that they are not responsible . . . that the people by themselves hate each other so much that in Yugoslavia there is some anthropological, genetic, religious and I don t know how many mythological wars—which is NOT TRUE. I mean, the people in Bosom did not hate each other every day from the morning till the evening so that it was totally natural that we in one moment take a knife and gun and start to kill each other. The regime provided the ideological and state weapons for the crime. And now . . . it is the end of that game. Now, when they say the Serbian or Croatian people are responsible, they are pushing that story because they want to get rid of that responsibility.
Q. Your words are very encouraging and I'm very pleased also about the dynamism of the movement. In the last minute we have left, can you explain to our listeners why you chose the name Centre for Cultural Decontamination and what it means?
A. It means that during all those years, people become sick, and culture especially, and that we needed a center that will decontaminate that incredible xenophobia and nationalism which was spread in Serbia, [which] is some kind of national socialism and [which has] become a real schizophrenia and disaster.
Q. I think we'd like to borrow that and use it here as well!
A. I think you really have to decontaminate the territory . . . of all those images, those idiotic stories which are pushed at the people and used [to construct] the new [ethnic states with that regime. . .that is not freedom and democracy.
Q. I want to thank you very much for being with us, and to congratulate you for your work, and thank you for staying up until 2:30 in the morning Belgrade to talk to us here on Beneath the Surface.
A. Thank you. Thank you so much. Good night.
For information on the Bosnia Briefings Project, call 213/668-1811 or fax 213/668-1033. To reach Borka Pavizevic and the Centre for Cultural Decontamination, call Belgrade at 381 11 681-423 and fax #681-422.
ATC 66, January-February 1997