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From nationwide leader to The Hague: Viewing Milošević's history through the eyes of opposition

A campaign for the annihilation of neighboring nations, the establishment of “people's republics,” the propagation of nationalism, armed squads composed of criminals, and an indictment from The Hague Tribunal targeting the head of the state – present-day Russia bears significant resemblances to the era of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia. The Insider interviewed two Serbian opposition members regarding the experience of dissent within a warring nation, the erosion of public affection for a dictator due to warfare, and the repercussions when propaganda broadcasting suddenly ceases.

  • Rise to power: “Old leaders read from scripts”

  • Serbian Krajina: “It wasn't clear who was fighting whom”

  • Mobilization of Criminals: “Rise in Criminal Activity”

  • Propaganda at Work: “It took two years to convince grandmothers”

  • Serbs' Reaction: “Many chose to turn a blind eye”

  • War fatigue: “Support faded. Apathy remained”

  • NATO bombings: “Undeserved and unjust”

  • People in opposition: “Milosevic is destroying the country”

  • Toppling Milosevic: “What brings you here? – We are here for his downfall!”

  • Serbia Today: “Supporters of Milosevic are being paraded on television”

Rise to power: “Old leaders read from scripts”

Starting from 1986, Slobodan Milošević, at the age of 45, became a member of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Serbia – the Serbian faction of the Yugoslav Communist Party. His significant political popularity emerged in 1987 when he rallied behind Serbian workers during protests in Kosovo, where predominantly Albanian police sought to quell the demonstrations. Milošević aligned himself with the Serbs, adopting the slogan “No one is allowed to beat you.” By 1988, he assumed leadership of the Serbian Communists, and in May of 1989, he became President of the Socialist Republic of Serbia. In June, Milošević orchestrated an elaborate celebration commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Field, during which he delivered a strategic speech. During the subsequent Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, the Serbian delegation under Milošević's leadership pushed for the repeal of the 1974 Constitution, which had granted equal authority to all republics. In December 1990, he assumed the role of President of Serbia. In 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence, Milošević endorsed the deployment of military forces to those regions.

Ivan Marović (one of the leaders of the youth movement “Otpor,” which eventually overthrew the dictator):

“Milošević rose to power when I was completing my early schooling. He operated as a politician, and in that sense, he bore more resemblance to Lukashenko than Putin. Admittedly, he had a history within the Communist Party and was associated with the nomenklatura. However, he established his distinct movement and garnered a substantial following.

During that time, educational institutions hadn't yet transformed into platforms for propagandistic instruction. Nevertheless, vestiges of Marxism from the communist era persisted. The interpretation of contemporary political events hinged on the individual teacher, some of whom supported Milošević, while others opposed him. A few even belonged to the liberal faction within the Communist Party.

Subsequently, Milošević attempted to introduce mandatory propaganda into schools and universities. This endeavor triggered a struggle in which I, as a student, actively participated. To this day, the Serbian academic curriculum remains infused with this troublesome content, making it incredibly challenging to purge.”

Slobodan Milošević during a rally in Belgrade, 1989
Slobodan Milošević during a rally in Belgrade, 1989

Ilya Vukelić (lawyer, journalist):

“One of Milošević's early speeches caught my attention because previous leaders were old and read from scripts, while he suddenly started speaking on his own, off the top of his head. A couple months into early 1988, I heard his speech focusing on national themes, and I immediately remarked, 'Folks, this will have dire consequences, primarily for Serbia and the Serbian people.' Being a history enthusiast and having studied events from the 1920s and 1930s in a major European nation, I discerned similar patterns and mechanisms. Such situations never end well.

Within several months, he initiated a policy to reclaim the rights of the Serbian population within Yugoslavia. This policy generated significant excitement and gained immense popularity among the populace. This approach persisted until 1991 and culminated in the first war. Throughout those four years, Milošević enjoyed unwavering support in Serbia, without relying on administrative resources, and this backing was genuinely fervent, exceeding 95%. It paralleled the sentiments of Russians in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. Nevertheless, the widespread fervor in Serbia endured until the outbreak of the war. It was then that the initial widespread enthusiasm subsided, and Milošević began to experience a decline in support.”

Serbian Krajina: “It wasn't clear who was fighting whom”

In 1990, even before Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, a self-proclaimed Serbian autonomous region called Serbian Krajina emerged on parts of its territory, where the Serbian population was predominant, with its capital in the town of Knin. Other Serbian-speaking areas joined it. An entity known as the “Serbian National Council” operated, stating that if Croatia declared independence, the region would secede from its jurisdiction.

In 1991, the Republic of Serbian Krajina was declared. This was motivated by fear of the “resurgence of fascism in Croatia.” In 1991, Serbs constituted 53% of its population, while Croats accounted for around 35%. By 1993, Croats comprised only 7%, while Serbs had risen to 91%. A Serbian militia was established. In 1992, a regular army was formed, but separate volunteer units of Serbian nationalists continued to operate. During clashes with Croatian forces, both sides committed war crimes. For instance, during the Vukovar massacre, more than 250 Croatian civilians and prisoners of war were killed. Nearly 600 Serbs died in mass killings in Sisak. Krajina existed until 1998. However, the Government of the Republic of Serbian Krajina in exile still operates in Belgrade.

Vukelić: “Before the war, people were sent from Belgrade to Croatia, particularly to areas with a Serbian majority. The first pockets of resistance were organized there, followed by attacks declaring secession from Croatia. This led to the emergence of unrecognized republics known as 'Krajinas.' It's little-known that when Serbs seized these populated areas in Croatia, they expelled the Croatian population. Perhaps not on the scale seen later in the expulsion of Serbs from Croatia in 1995, but it was initiated by Serbs. At that time, Croats were weak and lacked an army.

When these 'people's republics' emerged in eastern Ukraine in 2014, it seemed like they were copying our situation entirely. Almost as if someone had written a manual. Although Girkin (Strelkov) wasn't in Yugoslavia at that time – he fought later, in Bosnia, in 1994. Maybe when you engage in a certain kind of atrocity, it always turns out the same way. The only difference between Krajina and the DNR/LNR was that Krajina fighters didn't wear striped vests, but the local or imported thugs were present.”

The only difference between Krajina and the DNR/LNR was that Krajina fighters didn't wear striped vests

Marović: “A key distinction between the Yugoslav events and the current situation in Ukraine is that those wars immediately followed the collapse of Yugoslavia. However, at that point, the country had only been in existence for 70 years. Many individuals had yet to solidify their national identities, leading to confusion about the parties involved in the conflict. Initially, it resembled more of an internal struggle. In Bosnia and Croatia, there was a significant Serbian population, and a considerable number of them aligned with Serbia. Personally, I viewed all of these events as a monumental catastrophe, although my circumstances are unique as I come from a mixed marriage.”

Mobilization of Criminals: “Rise in Criminal Activity”

In 1990, Serbia began to establish voluntary paramilitary units. The largest of these, the Serbian Volunteer Guard, was led by internationally sought-after criminal Željko Ražnatović, known as Arkan. As early as 1973, he had been apprehended for bank robbery in Belgium, subsequently escaping from prison and engaging in a spree of robberies and burglaries across Europe. His military faction was responsible for several war crimes during the conflict. Ražnatović met his demise in Belgrade in 2000.

Vukelić: “The initial confrontations commenced in the spring of 1991. As the summer progressed, tensions intensified, culminating in an organized movement of Serbian forces into Croatia between August and September 1991. Despite Serbian people being recognized for their military heritage, Milošević's attempt at mobilization within Serbia failed miserably. This occurred even as he largely steered clear of significant urban centers such as Belgrade, focusing predominantly on rural areas.”

Milošević's attempt at mobilization within Serbia failed miserably

In August 1991, there was a live broadcast from the Serbian parliament, during which non-military matters were being discussed. Suddenly, everyone heard some kind of commotion, followed by women's screams. The camera was turned toward the doors of the chamber, where security was attempting to hold back a crowd of women. In a live broadcast, viewers witnessed the scene as the women burst into the session hall. The speaker fell silent, and the women climbed onto the podium, shouting, “Bring back our sons!” These were the mothers of conscripts.

Even those who had been mobilized and sent to the front lines began to desert en masse. For instance, one of the drafted reservists, a driver of an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), drove it from Vukovar all the way to Belgrade. He parked the IFV outside the parliament building, threw the keys on the pavement, and said, “This isn't my war, go to hell!” And he walked away without facing any consequences.

Recognizing the lack of dependable public support, Milošević turned to a strategy akin to current events in Russia – he formed armed units comprised of criminals. He had his own counterpart to Prigozhin, Željko Ražnatović, famously known as Arkan. However, his own people turned against him, leading to his assassination in January 2000 in Belgrade. Subsequently, revelations emerged as to the motive – speculations circulated about his involvement in negotiations with investigators from the Hague Tribunal.”

Željko Ražnatović
Željko Ražnatović

Marović: “When the very first war broke out, people initially offered strong verbal support. They bid farewell to soldiers heading to Slovenia and then Croatia. However, the mobilization turned into a shameful failure: servicemen were deserting en masse, abandoning their posts. Yet, in words, many still seemed to favor the war.

Milošević found himself relying on criminals. He simply couldn't recruit regular people into the army. The thing was, in Yugoslavia, crime was closely intertwined with intelligence agencies. Some criminals even served as officers in the secret police. Through its chief, Milošević maintained a connection with these thugs. Yet, he maintained a certain distance from them. Perhaps, that's one difference between him and Putin. After all, Putin comes from the KGB, while Milošević was never part of the secret police. When criminals are turned into heroes, they often leverage their status for regular criminal activities such as robbery, extortion, and kidnappings. And that's exactly what happened. Crime rates sharply surged in the country.”

Propaganda at Work: “It took two years to convince grandmothers”

From the moment he came to power, Milošević seized control over the media. The press constructed a historical myth depicting Serbs as eternal victims, ranging from Ottoman Turks to Croatian WWII-era nationalists, the Ustaše. Modern Croats were portrayed as direct successors of the Ustaše. Throughout the Yugoslav Wars, the wildest propagandist myths were disseminated, even suggesting that Serbian infants were being fed to animals in zoos.

In October 1998, the Serbian government enacted the “Decree on Special Measures in Conditions of NATO Armed Threats,” followed by the Information Law, which restricted the rebroadcasting of foreign media. Opposition figures were labeled as foreign hirelings, traitors, and enemies of the state by the television. In 2011, the Serbian state broadcaster formally apologized to all inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia for the propaganda of the Milošević regime.

Marović: “In 1989, as the world was captivated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had our own significant event – the commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. Milošević leveraged this medieval battle to rationalize his policies.

What transpired was a complete manipulation of history. The propaganda that emerged was nationalistic, xenophobic, imperialistic, fantastical, and entirely divorced from reality. It wasn't merely a slight distortion of the truth; entire narratives were manufactured. On television, historians would take the stage, asserting that Serbs were the world's oldest civilization. Some physicists even proposed fanciful space weapons. And all of this was steeped in animosity. It's almost ironic to consider Orwell's concept of five-minute hate sessions – here, our displays of vitriol would extend for a full four hours.”

It's almost ironic to consider Orwell's concept of five-minute hate sessions – here, our displays of vitriol would extend for a full four hours

Of course, this led to a societal divide. Among the South Slavs, there's a tradition known as “Slava,” where extended families gather to celebrate the feast day of their patron saint. And it became routine to have “arguments over Slava,” with relatives quarreling over politics. I was fortunate with my parents – they understood things correctly from the very beginning. However, my grandmother initially supported Milošević. It took me two years to change her mind, and I consider that a significant achievement.”

Vukelić: “There was plenty of disgraceful propaganda in Serbia as well, but it didn't reach the extremes seen in Russia. There wasn't a scenario where people heartlessly advocate for war and its casualties while keeping themselves and their children away from it all. Yet, many narratives were similar. For instance, Milošević justified the campaign in Croatia by claiming that there was a resurgence of Nazism there. That's what he said in 1991. But by 1998, he recognized Croatia's independence and established diplomatic relations.

The Serbs were constantly told how unique and great they were. That they were more cultured than both their Western and Eastern neighbors. They even said that the court of a Serbian prince or king in the 14th century dined with golden spoons while Western Europe was eating with their hands.”

Serbs' Reaction: “Many chose to turn a blind eye”

During the Bosnian War, the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina also saw the proclamation of the Republika Srpska. The town of Srebrenica, predominantly inhabited by Bosnian Muslims, became a virtual enclave. After its capture by Serb forces in 1995, massive ethnic cleansing took place, resulting in the killing of over 8,000 Bosnian men and boys. These crimes were committed by units of the Republika Srpska under the command of Ratko Mladić and Serbian volunteer paramilitary groups.

In the Serbian media, these events were portrayed not as the killing of unarmed civilians but as losses suffered by Bosniaks during combat engagements. After the fall of the Milošević regime, Serbia acknowledged the atrocity, and Serbian politicians regularly visit memorials to the victims. In 2015, the UN attempted to label the Srebrenica massacre as an act of genocide, but the decision was blocked by Russia. In the official Russian narrative, these mass killings still remain a “Western-engineered fake.” Following the exposure of Russian military crimes in Bucha, Russian propagandists referred to it as a “provocation” and a “new Srebrenica.”

Marović: “When I was in school, and Milošević ignited his first war, I had only one friend who looked at things the same way I did. We constantly talked to reassure each other that we hadn't gone mad.

In such a society, it's crucial to understand that there are others who don't succumb to state propaganda. As we grew older, a group of like-minded individuals, including my friend, would gather for cultural events and concerts. The main essence of these gatherings was the understanding that we weren't alone in our thinking – there were others who shared our perspectives. It was one of the fundamental needs – simply having conversations with like-minded people.”

In such a society, it's crucial to understand that there are others who don't succumb to state propaganda

We had 2-3% of dissidents, a single radio station, and two small newspapers that dared to speak the truth. Initially, these outlets weren't forcibly closed; Milošević found it convenient to let them exist. He would use the argument, “See, there are so few of you that no one even pays attention.” However, as their audience grew, in either 1996 or 1997, the radio station was shut down. It was later re-registered and reopened, only to be definitively destroyed in 1999.

Many people deliberately chose to turn a blind eye. They didn't want to be aware of the war crimes committed by Serbian forces. This was further fueled by the fact that the media presented a completely different perspective. On the other hand, there were those who were informed and perceptive. They had acquaintances from the affected regions. Personally, I became aware of the Srebrenica massacre almost immediately after it occurred. It was a profoundly shocking revelation, though not entirely unexpected.

During the invasion of Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs killed around 8,000 men and boys from Muslim families in 1995
During the invasion of Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs killed around 8,000 men and boys from Muslim families in 1995

Vukelić: “When compared to the current situation in Russia, Milošević appears almost like a proponent of democracy. Throughout his reign, there remained pockets of independent media and opposition, excluding the exceptional circumstances of 1999 during the state of emergency and airstrikes.

People, to a greater degree than in Russia, managed to uphold their intellectual independence. There wasn't the same level of complete submission to the official propaganda narratives. Even the propagandist methods of Goebbels seem rather refined when contrasted with the style of Solovyov. Yet, there were those who succumbed to the prevailing narratives. Despite this, everyone was aware of what was unfolding and who was responsible. Personally, I'm not acquainted with anyone who suffered a severe psychological crisis due to these circumstances. Neither I, nor my wife, nor any of the people I know, fell into that trap, even during the harrowing year of 1993.”

War fatigue: “Support faded. Apathy remained”

In response to the invasions of Bosnia in 1992, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution No. 757, imposing comprehensive sanctions against Yugoslavia. All UN member states were prohibited from engaging in any financial transactions with individuals and entities from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). All the country's foreign currency funds were frozen. The acceptance of Yugoslav athletes at sports events, as well as any scientific, technical, and cultural cooperation, was prohibited. In November 1992, a new resolution tightened the sanctions further. Transit of oil and petroleum products, coal, energy equipment, iron, steel, chemicals, pneumatics, and transportation vehicles were all prohibited.

By 1992, Milošević was far from enjoying widespread popular support. In the presidential elections, he secured only 57.5% compared to his main rival Milan Panić's 34.5%. Milošević's party garnered only 38% of the votes in the parliamentary elections of 1993, and in 1997, the entire coalition led by him managed to secure a mere 35%.

Marović: “Even when Milošević was in power, the number of people who genuinely supported him did not exceed one-third of the population. Another third was more inclined against him, while the rest fell somewhere in the middle.

However, regimes of this kind operate like a mafia. There's a very small but highly vocal group of people who are genuinely motivated. They constitute only 3-5%, just like the genuinely motivated opponents. They pounce on any opponent, and especially on those within their own camp, if they suspect that they might change their position and switch sides.

Under Milošević, political assassinations were practiced, and most victims were not his enemies but supporters in whose loyalty he doubted: police generals, directors of major corporations. In essence, potential defectors. Many of his close associates lived in constant fear. They had money and resources, yet were plagued by the constant fear of losing everything.”

Under Milošević, political assassinations were practiced, and most victims were his supporters

Against the backdrop of rising crime, support for the regime dwindled. Two other significant factors were economic sanctions and the fact that the promised short war dragged on extensively. Of course, these people didn't become opposition figures. They withdrew into their private lives and passively observed. “Focus on your own affairs and your family, stay away from politics” – this was the principle that the people adhered to. By 1993, when Milošević had been in power for 5 years, support had waned. Apathy remained.”

An anti-government demonstration in Belgrade, 1996
An anti-government demonstration in Belgrade, 1996

Vukelić: “The situation had shifted from what it had been at the outset of the hostilities in Croatia. The notion of 95% support for Milošević had long faded. As events progressed, the opposition to his regime grew, extending beyond the intelligentsia to encompass regular citizens. Additionally, by the close of May 1992, comprehensive sanctions were imposed against Milošević's brainchild, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in response to the shelling of Sarajevo. These sanctions were not akin to those against Russia, but rather constituted a complete embargo on all imports and exports, air communications, and financial transactions.

Serbs are still queried about how they endured. The explanation lies in Serbia's status as an agrarian nation with a robust rural economy. In contrast to Poland, there was no enforced collectivization in Yugoslavia after the communists took power. This safeguarded Serbia's agricultural sector. Nevertheless, the blockade was comprehensive, differing from the situation in Russia.

The sanctions played a role in raising people's awareness. Prior to Milošević and the commencement of military operations, they had been leading fairly comfortable lives. For instance, in early July 1989, I departed my Belgrade residence, got into my car, and drove to Paris to celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution. However, by December 1993, my monthly salary was a mere five German marks, and my father-in-law's pension amounted to fifty pfennigs. It led to abrupt and complete impoverishment.”

NATO bombings: “Undeserved and unjust”

The NATO operation “Allied Force” lasted from March 24 to June 10, 1999. It was launched following the resumption of hostilities in Kosovo and in response to the deployment of 40,000 Yugoslav troops for an invasion of Albanian territory. The immediate trigger for the airstrikes was the killing of peaceful villagers in the village of Račak by Serb forces. The airstrikes involved more than 400 aircraft from the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Norway, Canada, Turkey, Spain, Denmark, Portugal, and Italy. Over 200 sea-launched cruise missiles were also deployed. The targets of the NATO bombings included military and infrastructure sites: barracks, depots, airfields, military factories, bridges, and tunnels, although civilian casualties were unavoidable.

During the bombing campaign, a rocket struck a train on a bridge on April 12, killing 14 and injuring 16 civilians. On April 23, an air strike hit the Belgrade television center, resulting in the deaths of 16 people. In 2002, Dragoljub Milanović, the general director of television, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to evacuate personnel from the building, despite knowing it could be destroyed. Many international organizations, including Amnesty International, condemned the strike on the television center.

Estimates of the casualties from the bombings vary, with between 570 and 5,000 Yugoslav military and police personnel reportedly killed. The Serbian government assessed civilian casualties at around 1,700, while Human Rights Watch estimated 500.

Vukelić: “In Serbia, the attitude towards the 1999 NATO bombings was as if they had started out of nowhere, without any reason. Similar to the sentiment during World War II when the bombings by the British and Americans were called barbaric. The current Serbian authorities cultivate precisely this sentiment – it was undeserved and unjust.

However, these bombings were not on the same level as what is happening in Ukraine now. There were no bombings of residential neighborhoods and hospitals. I know that in Belgrade, one hospital, one residential building, and another civilian facility were hit, and in all three cases, it was because our military installations and radars were located nearby. The plane doesn't aim directly; it fires a missile that homes in on the radar signal, without discrimination. That's all there is to it. Yes, there were civilian casualties, as in the case of the bombed train, but NATO admitted that it was a mistake.

Before striking a prominent building in Belgrade, a warning was issued that it would be bombed because it housed a television studio owned by Milošević's daughter. The then-director of Serbian television concealed this information, leaving his employees in place, and some of them perished. After Milošević's overthrow, he attempted to flee but was apprehended and put on trial.”

Destroyed building of Radio and Television of Serbia
Destroyed building of Radio and Television of Serbia
Emil Vas/Reuters

Marović: “During the American bombings, we deliberately halted our political activities entirely. It was clear that we would not only become targets of repression but also face unmotivated violence from fellow citizens. Some of us stayed at home during those days and tried not to attract attention, while others even left the country. During that time, Slavko Ćuruvija, the editor of an opposition newspaper, was killed in his home. We weren't as well-known as he was, but we were also afraid.

Even after NATO intervention, Milošević retained power in Serbia. Similar to Saddam Hussein after 'Desert Storm' <on January 17, 1991, the anti-Iraq coalition led by the United States initiated military actions against Iraq - The Insider>. He had no intention of stepping down, but we realized that an opportunity had arisen to do something. We began mobilizing people, especially in rural areas.

We always talked about wanting to become part of the Western world. However, people in Serbia at that time had such hatred for America, England, and Germany that mentioning these countries was taboo. Meanwhile, the European Union didn't evoke the same animosity. That's why we started talking about the European Union. And people rallied behind that slogan.”

People in opposition: “Milosevic is destroying the country”

In 1996, supporters of Milošević suffered a crushing defeat in local elections in many regional councils. For instance, in Belgrade, they only managed to secure 24 out of 110 parliamentary seats. Journalists in Niš uncovered falsifications in favor of Milošević, leading to 35,000 protesters taking to the streets in a city with a population of 180,000. Later, the protests in the city grew to more than 100,000 participants. The protests spread to all major cities across the country. In Belgrade, a rally in support of Milošević was hastily organized, with independent media reporting around 30,000 attendees, although the official count announced more than 500,000 participants.

On the eve of the New Year 1997, around 700,000 opposition members rallied in the streets of Belgrade. A wave of strikes swept across the country. The protests continued until March, and eventually, the coalition's demands were met.

Vukelić: “The first major demonstration against Milošević took place in March 1991. A defamatory comment was broadcast about one of the opposition leaders, leading to a gathering of no less than 100,000 people in the center of Belgrade. Demonstrators stormed the television station.

Demonstrators in Belgrade, 1991.
Demonstrators in Belgrade, 1991.

In 1996, after the end of the war in Bosnia and the signing of the Dayton Accords <international treaties that concluded the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina 1992–1995 - The Insider>, local elections were held in Serbia. The Serbian opposition gained power in all major Serbian cities. When Milošević regained his footing, he chose not to annul these elections, unlike what Putin would have done. He initiated legal actions through his party's city committees, alleging electoral violations that supposedly occurred during the voting process. Milošević aimed to exert pressure on the courts to overturn the results and start anew.

In response, from mid-October 1996 to mid-January 1997, every evening without interruption, around one hundred and fifty thousand people gathered in the center of Belgrade for rallies. When the main evening broadcast on state television began, the city resonated with noise, as everyone came out onto their balconies and banged their pots, pans and other household utensils. Milošević had to capitulate.”

Anti-government demonstration in Belgrade, 1996
Anti-government demonstration in Belgrade, 1996

Marović: “In the beginning, we were a small group, and the authorities ignored us. They were much more concerned with their struggle against representatives of the old guard in power. At first, there were only a few of us, but between 1996 and 1998, the number of protesters grew. By 1999, we had built up our strength. At that point, we had the support of many. For people, the main issue was that Milošević was destroying the country. Everyone was very tired of him, and the political climate in Serbia had changed significantly.

We were saying that Serbia should become a normal country, while Milošević was leading it towards catastrophe and stealing its future. In part, we emulated the style of Yugoslav resistance against Germany during World War II. Hence the name of our movement, 'Otpor' (Resistance). And the slogans on the walls, as a method of resistance.”

Toppling Milosevic: “What brings you here? – We are here for his downfall!”

In September 2000, in the presidential elections in Yugoslavia, Milošević's rival, Vojislav Koštunica, emerged victorious. He garnered 50.24% of the votes, while Milošević received 37.15%. The incumbent president did not contest his opponent's advantage. However, the electoral commission stated that he fell just short of 50% of the votes, thus necessitating a second round.

In response to attempts at falsification, the opposition took to the streets. By October 5th, hundreds of thousands of protesters had converged in Belgrade. The police attempted to use force, but their efforts were in vain. Crowds stormed the television center, the parliament building, and the election commission, where they destroyed the prepared ballots for the second round. A certain Ljubiša Djokic gained fame during the storming of the television center for plowing through its fence with a bulldozer. On October 6th, Milošević conceded defeat. And on June 28th, the former president was handed over to the Hague Tribunal.

Vukelić: “Most people outside of Serbia have no idea how Milošević was overthrown. It all began on September 24, 2000, when he lost the elections and received fewer votes than the opposition candidate. It never occurred to him to contest the outcome. He insisted that his opponent did not garner 50% plus one vote, and that a second round was necessary. And this led to his overthrow. Milošević was no better than Putin; he simply didn't act in Serbia the way Putin does in Russia. Otherwise, he would have been toppled much earlier.”

Milošević was no better than Putin; he simply didn't act in Serbia the way Putin does in Russia

On the morning of October 5th, as I was preparing for work, a knock came at the door. Upon opening it, I was met by the entire male rural side of my wife's family. I greeted them with, “Hello, what brings you here?” In response, they exclaimed, “We're here for his downfall!” They had managed to breach the police cordons with tractors, coming from the village, and as this immense gathering converged in Belgrade, conservative estimates placed the crowd at around a million people. At first, law enforcement attempted to control the situation. However, it wasn't long before each officer realized that even if they could handle ten protesters, the eleventh and the subsequent ones would overpower them. The officers began casting aside their shields, masks, and batons, and soon started mingling with the demonstrators.

The protesters weren't chanting slogans or waving flowers, like in Moscow or Belarus. They went to seize the television and the parliament. Moreover, near the television building, the police even used firearms. Next door, there was a construction site, and one of the protesters got into a huge bulldozer with a bucket and headed towards the police. They realized he was about to ram them into the building, so they scattered.

Protesters on a bulldozer in front of the Serbian Parliament, 2000.
Protesters on a bulldozer in front of the Serbian Parliament, 2000.
Djordje Kojadinovic/AFP

During the summer before Milošević's downfall, a group of engineers from Russia visited. One of them said to me, “I understand you have a division between those against the West who support Milošević, and those who are pro-West, who are against him.” I replied to him quite honestly, “I know many people who, upon hearing the word 'America,' start gritting their teeth, but their teeth grind even harder when they hear the name 'Milošević'.” The Russian, who was not a journalist or a political analyst, but an engineer, paused, looked at me, and said, 'Well, then he's done for.' Interestingly, the phrase 'Well, then he's done for' has the same meaning as the opposition slogan “Gotovje” (He's done for). When Milošević was extradited to The Hague that summer, it didn't cause much commotion. There were some demonstrations, mostly by elderly people.

Over the past year, I've spoken to many people from Russia. They have this feeling that what's happening to them now is permanent. And I tell them that it's not the case. Everything will pass. It was the same with the Germans. When they woke up on May 9th, 1945, and there was no longer a Führer they had prayed to, it was all over. And within 10 years, there was an economic miracle in West Germany. The same thing happened in Japan.”

Slobodan Milošević in the defendant's seat
Slobodan Milošević in the defendant's seat

Marović: “The most important thing happened when they shut down the state propaganda. It was like a feverish patient taking a fever-reducing medicine, and suddenly the illness subsided.

It was like a feverish patient taking a fever-reducing medicine

Following Milošević's downfall, people came to us claiming that they had been opposed to him all along, saying that fear had held them back. We were left pondering: should we put faith in their present words or in their statements from a year prior? In truth, I find it hard to believe either perspective.”

Serbia Today: “Supporters of Milosevic are being paraded on television”

In 2017, Aleksandar Vučić became the President of Serbia. In his youth, he was a member of an extremely right-wing party, and during the late Milošević era, he served as the Minister of Information. His signature was on the “Law on Public Information,” under which journalists providing information contrary to the official narrative faced hefty fines. Many Western and opposition media outlets were closed during that time.

Alongside him, some war criminals from the Yugoslav Wars also reemerged in the public sphere. For instance, General Vladimir Lazarević, who had been sentenced to 15 years for war crimes and served two-thirds of his sentence, led the “Immortal Regiment” march in Belgrade in 2019.

Marović: “After 2014, and especially in 2022, supporters of Milošević are again being paraded on television with their version of the truth. Currently, about 40-50% will claim their support for his policies, as they hear about him on television. The results would have been different two years ago.

After every revolution, there's a counter-revolution. But no counter-revolution has ever completely triumphed. The problem with Milošević's supporters is that their political platform isn't just lousy – it doesn't work and can't work.”

Vukelić: “In the 2000s, a resolution recognizing the Bosnian genocide was adopted. Even the current authorities don't dare pretend it didn't happen. Vučić visited Srebrenica to pay respects to the shadows of the deceased. Yet, the authorities vehemently deny that it was indeed genocide. Yes, they admit it was a terrible crime that stained the honor of the Serbian people, but they argue it wasn't genocide. They acknowledge it as a horrendous crime, but attribute it to the actions of specific individuals.

Relatives of those killed during the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995 bury the remains of their loved ones in a city field on March 31, 2003
Relatives of those killed during the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995 bury the remains of their loved ones in a city field on March 31, 2003

No one officially glorifies any of the leaders of the country during Milošević's time. Some far-right organizations create graffiti with their portraits, but there's no official glorification.

Countless times I've heard from visitors from Russia: 'Well, fine, we know how the Americans orchestrated Milošević's overthrow here and paid whoever needed to be paid.' I say: 'Let's test your hypothesis. I'll arrange a meeting with my rural relatives who were involved, but under one condition – your medical insurance must cover getting new teeth installed. Because I guarantee you, if you tell them that the State Department paid them, the consequences for your teeth will be quite dire'.”

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