Peter Maass

Peter Maass

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 12 2000 8:30 PM

Peter Maass

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Forget, for a moment, where you are and who you are. For a moment, you are a policeman in Belgrade who earns a modest salary, and although you may not be an opponent of the president you serve, whose name is Slobodan Milosevic, you are not an enthusiatic supporter, either. And at this moment, you are standing alongside a nervous group of fellow policemen on the steps of parliament, facing a crowd of several hundred thousand anti-Milosevic protesters who intend to storm the building, with or without your consent. One of those protesters, a burly gentleman from the notoriously anti-Milosevic city of Cacak, is just a few feet away and, fixing his eyes on you, he says, "This morning I kissed my family farewell. I hope you kissed your family farewell, too."

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He is willing to die for his cause. Are you?

This standoff was described in a local newspaper the other day; it was just one of many confrontations that occurred as Milosevic was swept from power last week, but it sticks in my mind because within it lies, I think, a key to understanding what it takes to bring down a dictator like Milosevic. The cop on the parliament steps—this is you, remember—must decide whether the crowd can be repulsed without much trouble, and if it can't be repulsed so easily, he must decide whether he is willing to risk his life to defend the regime that signs his paycheck. The guy from Cacak, after all, is willing to go all the way. What do you do?

The police on the steps of parliament fired tear gas but gave up when it became clear, quite rapidly, that the tear gas only enraged the protesters, who regrouped for another assault. The sound that was heard on the steps of parliament, after the tear gas failed to settle things, was the clatter of riot shields and batons falling to the ground as the police ran away, some of them tearing off their uniforms so that they would not be beaten by the protesters. You would have been wise, were you a cop on those steps on Oct. 5 (rather than a reader of Slate on Oct. 12) to do the same.

There were, at last, enough protesters in Belgrade who were willing to go all the way, and after 10 years of Milosevic, neither the police nor the psychopaths who did the regime's bloody work in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo were willing to put their lives on the line. Perhaps it has been several years since Slobo's enforcers possessed this minimum level of fatal enthusiasm for him, but until last week they had not faced all-or-nothing protesters who, a few hours earlier, had kissed their families farewell. For the first time in Belgrade, the enforcers were up against Serbian kamikazes.

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Who were these people? They were not the students and middle-class professionals who had marched against Milosevic, fruitlessly, for much of the past 10 years. Those protesters were out on the streets again last Thursday, of course, blowing their whistles and shaking their baby rattles and wearing their irreverent stickers ("Suck my dick, Slobo"). In the last decade, they had been the most well-behaved of protesters, so Gandhi-like in their nonviolent opposition that they might as well have worn sarongs. I do not want to suggest that they should have been violent or threatened violence; I just think it is interesting to note that they are a breed apart from the angry men of Cacak, who entered Belgrade as though entering the Colosseum in Rome. They even brought a bulldozer to crash through police roadblocks (which it did) and barrel into barricaded buildings (such as the headquarters of Radio-Television Serbia). The opposition movement had found its vanguard.

"I couldn't go back to Cacak without winning," said Velimir Ilic, the mayor of Cacak, in an interview published by Vreme, a longtime opposition magazine here. "It was a battle of all or nothing."

They weren't only from Cacak, though. There were several thousand Belgrade soccer fans in the vanguard, two of whom I met the other day. I'll use their nicknames, Joca and Tima. They are supporters of a local team ("Please don't call us hooligans," Joca said), and they are known, with their buddies, for brawling not only with opposing fans, but with the police. As Joca explained, modestly, "We are always in favor of action. And last week, we were going to win or we would die."

He told me they had come with Molotov cocktails and firearms. They used some of the former (parliament and RTS were set on fire) but none of the latter, which came as a surprise to them. "We now realize that some policemen abandoned their posts," Joca said, and I sensed a bit of wistfulness in his voice. "We expected Romania, but we got Czechoslovakia." In 1989, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in a bloody uprising, whereas the regime in Czechoslovakia wilted away in the "Velvet Revolution" led by playwright Vaclav Havel. The Serbian uprising fits between the two—it was almost as peaceful as the Czech example, but the protesters in Serbia were prepared to shed blood, as occurred in Romania.

The key difference between Romania 1989 and Serbia 2000 is that the police in Belgrade—regular and secret—were not willing to kill their own people. Though some shots were fired, apparently by police, when demonstrators attacked RTS, nobody was killed by that gunfire. But the resolve of the police needed to be tested. The success of the pro-democracy forces last week depended on many things—hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, a withering of support within the regime itself—but it was also necessary to have a few thousand men who had kissed their families farewell in the morning.

And a bulldozer.