NYTimes.com Article: Long-Suffering Serbs Wary of New Leaders
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Long-Suffering Serbs Wary of New Leaders
November 19, 2000
By STEVEN ERLANGER
BELGRADE, Serbia, Nov. 15 The postrevolutionary billboards of
Belgrade are mostly commercial again, advertising everything from
Italian clothes by Pal Zaleri to Orbit chewing gum, reruns of "Ali
Mekbil" and Faks, a detergent.
A few posters, mostly torn and defaced, still have the slogans of
the old regime before the Sept. 24 elections lost by Slobodan
Milosevic. One states, "The people choose, not NATO," which in the
end was Mr. Milosevic's problem.
Now, on billboards all over Belgrade, there is a new poster
sponsored by Otpor, the student movement, whose name means
It shows a bulldozer, the symbol of the revolution, because it was
bulldozers that on Oct. 5 pushed aside police barricades, allowing
protesters to enter the federal parliament and the headquarters of
state television and radio, both of which were burned.
Next to the bulldozer is the slogan, "We are still watching," a
warning to the new authorities gathered awkwardly around the new
president, Vojislav Kostunica.
After 10 years of international isolation, contempt and increasing
poverty, Serbs are wary and watchful, unsure if their new,
democratic leaders, swept into power so quickly, will behave as
they should, and unsure how much longer the people can endure the
hardship rising prices, power failures, ruined infrastructure
that is Mr. Milosevic's legacy.
The independent radio station B2-92 has a new introduction to its
newscast. The old one quoted Mr. Milosevic telling a crowd, "I love
you, too." The new one cites Mr. Kostunica telling another crowd,
"I promise you that power will not change me." People want it to be
true. They want a country that functions, that can take its place
in the world with a degree of pride.
"The opposition made a whole career out of being in the opposition
it was better than working," said Vojislav Zanetic, a marketing
consultant and playwright. "You could cry about how awful Milosevic
was and the West would pat you on the head and pay you money. It
was true for opposition journalists as well as for politicians. But
do they have any idea how to run this ruined country? Now people
have to perform."
The Milosevic regime fell so quickly it was obviously rotten, he
said. "But everyone here also has to ask themselves: if it was so
rotten, why did it last so long?" The new rulers fight over who
will get what job in the ruins, he noted. "Not enough people are
asking, `What kind of country will we have here?' "
Mr. Zanetic loves the feeling of change, but knows it will pass.
"It's like going to a nice vacation spot after a long time, but
then you realize you don't have any money," he said. "The first day
or two is great, but on the third day you need to eat." He laughed.
"I don't need optimism from people. I need realism. But I don't see
much of it yet. I just see people who tell me the future will be
better and we should just wipe out the past."
One influential Serb who is disappointed with the behavior of some
now-triumphant friends said: "Look, Milosevic had a mandate. He was
never the black-and-white dictator that the opposition and the West
condemned, feeding their own misinterpretations of this place.
Dictators don't have elections and then lose them."
"There isn't a whole other nation to replace this one," this Serb
said. "There's no spare nation to replace the one that's
Ognjen Pribicevic, a political scientist and aide to the Serbian
politician Vuk Draskovic, said Mr. Kostunica, calm, modest and
careful in manner, was setting "a new standard of behavior for
Serbia and especially Serbian politicians." But there was a danger
of overblown expectations that a deteriorated life, with average
salaries of some $40 a month, would soon get better.
"People expect better lives in the next six months," Mr.
Pribicevic said. "But the rule of the eastern European transitions
will be true here, too: `Western prices, eastern salaries.' "
Maja Pesic, a philosophy student, is at 22 less touched by the
past, and less tainted. Near the federal parliament building,
burned and looted in the huge demonstration that forced Mr.
Milosevic to resign, Ms. Pesic was asked about the loss of national
treasures in the fire. "I don't care about any of that," she said.
"It's nothing compared to what's changed. This is what young people
think you can't have change for nothing, without some loss or
Dobrivoje Radojevic, 54, a construction engineer, smiled in
Belgrade's unseasonable warming sun. "You can feel the change," he
said. "People are smiling waiting for the bus."
"I didn't believe it would change, that Milosevic would leave,
even a minute before it happened," he said. "But now I'm glad. It's
something new, these new political faces on television. They all
speak the same, it's a bit boring but it's a sweet boredom, you
know, with some hope."
Underneath the hope is a fierce debate about the speed and depth
of change and justice, and who shall mete it out. In Mr.
Milosevic's 13 years in power, Serbs followed his lead into four
wars that they lost. Hundreds of thousands of the most talented
Serbs emigrated, and most probably will not return from the new
lives they built abroad.
"The Serbian situation is much more complicated than what Serbs or
the West think," said Aleksandar Tijanic, a slashing and operatic
writer who once was Mr. Milosevic's spokesman."Serbia is a deeply
sick society, and none of the problems that started 13 years ago
The Serbian national question remains alive in Kosovo, Montenegro,
Bosnia and even Croatia, he said. "Economically, with sanctions, we
lack every technological advance in the last 20 years except for
the latest hair driers and mobile phones."
Aleksandar Nenadovic, now 72, was editor of the daily Politika
back before Mr. Milosevic, taking power as Serbia's Communist boss
in 1987, purged the news media and installed his own allies who
turned the newspaper from a widely respected publication into the
Mr. Nenadovic also worries about how deep Mr. Kostunica will go to
reform the ruined society Mr. Milosevic left behind. "Milosevic was
a man with few limits in the way he used power," he said. "Every
institution, from the judiciary and the universities to the army,
police and state media, have been ruined or corrupted. My fear is
that those who manage this peaceful Serbian revolution may be
misled by how fast it went into misunderstanding how unstable the
situation is now, and the need for fundamental reform."
Mr. Tijanic noted that the new authorities were simply tracking
Mr. Milosevic's model in their current tussle for power. Their
fight, Mr. Tijanic said, "is not about politics, it's about
starting positions, about appointing your own people to the
society's checkpoints: customs, finance, banks, foreign trade,
army, police, secret police and the big enterprises and systems
that should be privatized."
"They follow behind him in his footsteps, like in the footsteps of
a Yeti and with their smaller feet, more of them can fit into
his," he said. "And they call that change. And they call that
The fall of Mr. Milosevic was too quick and easy, without death or
sacrifice. "So to the Serbs, there is the wrong historical
message," Mr. Tijanic said. "It shows that there is always a cheap
way to get out of anything. Slobo committed political hara-kiri,
and the Serbs think they killed him. And they pretend suicide is
murder so that they can appeal to the world to make life easy for
them and be forgiven."
Mr. Nenadovic noted that, in Serbs, "there's always a tension in
our stomachs, about our need to be loved and our desire for
"We're too big a nation to be ruled by others, but too small to
rule everybody else," he added, alluding to the fact that the 10
million or so Serbs were the biggest ethnic group in the former
Yugoslavia, and one of the biggest in the Balkan region. "And when
we relax, like now, we want to be loved for overthrowing Milosevic
and treated again like the major actor, superior to the Muslims,
the Croats, the Albanians and everyone else. Will we have a leader
who is above all this?"
Mr. Kostunica, a lifelong anti- Communist, talks of deliberate but
sweeping change, arguing that the sickness in the system began with
the Communist takeover 56 years ago. But there was little democracy
before that, with even the sainted monarchy negating the results of
elections in 1929.
Ivan Radovanovic, a writer preparing a book on Serbia's October
revolution, said that on the one hand the changes were remarkable.
"But on the other hand," he said, "I'm upset that no one is really
changing the system. The new bosses are just struggling to control
the police, the army and the media, the same three tools Milosevic
used and Tito before him."
In Serbs, the past has created "the habits of servitude," Mr.
Radovanovic said. "Nothing real will be changed until the system is
changed. And we've already lost some opportunities. But we need to
remember that it wasn't what Milosevic did to us. It's what we did
to ourselves. Freedom is always just a question of price what
people are prepared to pay to live freely. Very few people who
wanted to be free were executed here. That wasn't the price. But a
lot of people wouldn't even pay a smaller price."
Mr. Zanetic, the consultant, playwright and satirist, said that
the day after the revolution, he was unutterably sad, and people
asked him why. "Well, I'm satisfied," he told them. "But I have the
sense of a lost 10 years."
Under Mr. Milosevic, he said, "this was a country with a lot of
past, but no future." Now, he said, "we have a future, somewhere,
but we don't have a present."
He stopped, sighed, laughed, drank more Italian white wine. "I
know how to breathe in the water," he said. "The regime had us all
under water. It was cold and lousy, but I knew how to breathe. But
now the water is gone. How will I do how will we all do on the
ground? How do we live on the ground, without the water?"
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