Recovering from years of war and teetering on the verge of economic collapse, Serbia held democratic elections in November. The ruling Socialist Party, led by President Slobodan Milosevic, annulled opposition victory. Considering its bloody past and uncertain future, Serbia is not a place where there should be much optimism, let alone humor. But despite the immense challenges faced by the people of this nation, the perseverance and spirit of protesters in Belgrade is truly inspiring.
Demonstrations demanding restoration of the Nov. 17 election results are now entering their 11th non-stop week. Protesters are also calling for the establishment of an independent media and the dismissal of University of Belgrade Chief Dragutin Velickovic, who threatened to expel student protesters. At this point, the government has recognized only a handful of opposition victories, and two were annulled again by municipal courts controlled by Milosevic. Despite clear opposition victories, 14 smaller cities and Belgrade remain under Socialist control.
Although last weekend there was some low-level violence, the demonstrations have been characterized by little bloodshed and remarkable cleverness. Milosevic has futilely attempted to drown out the protests. He banned demonstrations during the day. He tried to stop groups of citizens from walking down the street in “an orderly fashion.” In late December, he called out the police force in full riot gear. But the protesters responded with good humor and creativity as they continued their daily rallies. They began sitting down in the streets to play chess and chat. They began dancing instead of marching. They began greeting the 7:30 nightly news with a cacophony of whistles, drums, car horns and garbage can lids. They staged a mass automotive breakdown, as thousands of protestors started changing “flat” tires. They elected “Miss Protest 1997” and even sent pets to join the march.
Meeting Milosevic’s formal tactics of oppression with cheerful anarchy makes the government look ridiculous. But it also helps the movement gain popularity. Of the 65,000 students in the city, approximately 50,000 have been involved in the protests, emptying classrooms at the University of Belgrade. They have been joined by other citizens; almost half a million were present at the rally on the Serbian New Year. And on Monday, Patriarch Pavle, the 80-year-old head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, marched with the demonstrators. The church has traditionally backed the government, and the Patriarch’s gesture was an important show of support.
Since the early 1990s, Serbia has been a symbol of bloodshed, hatred and brutal violence. But in the past months, the Serbs have reminded the world of the power of nonviolent protest. The government has not yet met the demands for democracy, but the demonstrations can still be called a success. The peaceful protests have helped the students bolster their cause within Serbia and gain international attention. As we watch the struggle for democracy play out in Belgrade, maybe there’s room for optimism after all.