A Troubled Peace

Reflecting on Revolution/Ana Trbovich, F98

Ana Trbovich, F98

It was my father on the phone from Belgrade: "We are just calling to say that we won. Welcome to free Serbia! We are waiting for you!" His voice faltered, full of joy and hope that we will once again live in a normal country. Friends of mine, both Serbian and American, called the same night. "Is it really over?" we asked one another in disbelief. But it was true. Slobodan Milosevic had conceded defeat in the September presidential elections. A democratic revolution had overturned the Milosevic regime in Belgrade. Most Americans take peace for granted.

For the past ten years, since I was 14, I have known only war and uncertainty. Now, for the first time, I can hope to present myself in Boston as a Serb and a democrat without causing disbelief. No longer will Americans automatically think of Serbs and Milosevic as one and the same. Now I can make plans for a normal life, for a return home. Until now, we have just been waiting.

On the day of the news, people asked me, "What is going on in Yugoslavia?" and I said, "Oh, nothing, just a revolution." It has been so long in the making. But when it finally happened, it seemed to do so with lightning speed. Since early morning on that day I followed the news as it unfolded-over a dozen websites, simultaneously-with updates each tenth of a second.

My parents had told me the previous night that October 5 was D-day. The results of the September 24 federal and local elections had been known since the evening of the vote. However, the opposition's victory had been denied by the regime, provoking hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets of almost every town in Serbia.

In a final attempt to stop the people's efforts to change the government, the Milosevic-controlled Constitutional Court was expected to proclaim the elections invalid, and the coalition of democratic opposition parties in Serbia called on the people to come from all parts of the country to Belgrade, focusing the strength of the protests on the capital. The court's ruling confirmed the opposition's fears, and hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Belgrade. At around 11:15 a.m. Boston time-5:15 in the afternoon in Belgrade-one of the opposition websites posted alarming news: The Parliament was in flames.

I called my parents immediately, but my father could not console me. "The tear gas is making my eyes itch. I can only see the smoke," he said. "You will probably know better than me what is going on in a few minutes. Check the Internet." Throughout the day I spoke by cell phone with my parents, who were in the streets. When the police began surrendering to the people, and the military sent to fight the demonstrators instead deserted their tanks on the streets, we knew it was over. I cried as I watched the footage.

My parents, who run an eye clinic in downtown Belgrade, had been protesting every day since Yugoslavia's voters hailed the opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica as their new president. Like other people in Yugoslavia, they were experienced demonstrators. For five months during the winter of 1996-97, they walked the streets daily protesting against Milosevic, who had illegally annulled the opposition's victory in local elections. When I could take a break from school, I joined them.

But a disunited Serbian opposition then dashed all our hopes by yielding to Milosevic's power games. The dictator stayed in power and the international sanctions continued to starve the economy. Serbs felt oppressed by their regime from the inside and by the West from the outside. Tragically, two years later, NATO decided to help us reach democracy with bombs, killing 2,000 innocent civilians and failing to resolve the conflict in the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia. That is why the day Milosevic conceded, one Belgrade university student posted a cynical message on the BBS Internet comment board: "We did it on our own. Please do not help us again with your bombs."

I understand his bitterness. Like him, I felt disappointed by the country I had considered a beacon of democracy, but which had ignored the democratic movement in Yugoslavia and failed to aid numerous Serbian refugees. Unfortunately, most Americans have not been aware of the Serbian democratic movement, which is why they could not easily fathom the success of the democratic revolution in Yugoslavia. The new government will not be infallible. But it will be democratic and in need of Western support in rebuilding Yugoslavia's economy and its civil society.

The success of democratic reforms in Yugoslavia will be ensured only by a victory in the upcoming republican elections, because that is where the real power has been delegated by the Yugoslav constitution. To win, democratic opposition in Serbia, under President Kostunica, must demonstrate to the Yugoslav people that the West has embraced its cause.

The West can begin by lifting international sanctions and providing direct economic aid without interfering in the decision making of the new government. It does, finally, belong to the people of Yugoslavia. Ana Trbovich earned a joint BA/MALD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she is now a doctoral candidate. She is the U.S. correspondent for Blic, a leading Serbian opposition daily in Belgrade. Her essay appeared in the Boston Sunday Globe on October 8, 2000.







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