Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Remembering October 5 in Belgrade

B92 - Galerija - Peti oktobar - Internet, Radio i TV stanica; najnovije vesti iz Srbije i Crne Gore

This is a day I should really have been in Belgrade together with other friends to celebrate that it is five years ago since the regime of Slobodan Milosevic was toppled and the democratic revolution in Serbia truly began.

It was truly dramatic days.

Milosevic had midjusdged the mood of the country and the determination of the opposition - previously often hopelessly split - and called a presidential election that he counted on winning. Th NATO bombing the previous year had been a traumatic experience for the country, and Milosevic had skillfully used it to strengthen his position.

But then the opposition suddenly united around the hitherto little known Vojislav Kostunica the scene suddenly changed. He had been as much against the NATO bombing as anyone, so that card could not be used against him. And he argued against corruption and in favour of democracy in a way that was seen as honest and promising.

So Milosevic suddenly lost the election he had called in his certainty of winning. But he then tried to falsify the election result in order to remain in power.

It did not work. Even in his days Serbia wasn't a total dictatorship. There was an element of transparency and media freedom. The bluff was called, and the people of Belgrade took to the street.

It was touch and go for a while. But at the end key sectors of the security apparatus refused the orders to act against the demonstrations, Milosevic de facto lost control of the capital, and when even high-level Russian representatives flew in to say that the game was up he did not have much of an alternative.

He resigned, and a new era in the history of Serbia opened up. And a new model for democratic transformation saw light. Since then, the model of Belgrade has been played out in the streets also of Tibilisi and Kiev.

I vividly remember that Thursday. It was a sunny day in Vienna, and I was standing at the Ballhausplatz when my mobile rang. It was a friend in Belgrade who dramatically said that the Parliament building there was on fire. I rushed up to the office of Chancellor Schuessel - we had agreed to meet - and on his TV we followed the live transmissions from the drama in Belgrade.

Only a few days later - the 12th - I was there myself. At the time, I was the Special Envoy for the UN Secretary General of the Balkans, which meant that I was heavily involved in most things going on in the region.

I rushed to Belgrade to see Zoran Djindjic - we knew each after well after the struggles of the preceding years - in order to coordinate things. We met in the Democratic Party headquarters with people running up and down the stairs to the second floor where we were sitting all the time. It was a question of consolidating the gains, and of taking the quick steps necessary to get Yugoslavia back into the international community.

And in the rather drab building of the Federal Presidency on the other side of the river Sava I saw President Kostunica. We had met years before when I came to Belgrade as the war in Bosnia was still going on. He remained the rather strict but honest person I remember him as, although hardly comfortable with the instruments of power that the voters had suddenly placed in his hand.

Somewhat joklingly I remember remarkning that in one way Serbia had gone from one extreme to the other. From a man who knew everything about power but had no principles to a man of firm principles but hardly a clue about how to use power. The difference was big in every sort of way.

It's been five years since those days.

Zoran Djindjic was brutally murdered. He was caught between the escalating demands of the outside world and the escalating resistance of the inside forces of reaction. Perhaps we could have done it differently and still have him with us. It's one of those questions that keeps coming back to me.

Voijslav Kostunica is still President of what today is called Serbia and Montenegro. He remains the man of principles, but not the man that is ready and able to use the powers that are there to really pursue the modernisation of the country as I believe he could have done. But he remains the man that made the peaceful defeat of Slobodan Milosevic possible.

Much can be said concerning these years. I'm waiting for an English translation of the column by Bill Montgomery - he was the US Ambassador close involved all of these events - to appear on a website so that I can link to it. He sums it up.

It's a story with both positive and negative sides.

Slobodan Milosevic is spending his time in the ICTY detention unit in Schveningen in Holland, and is busy trying to defend himself in a trial that seems nearly endless. He's still on Kosovo, and there are the wars in Bosnia and Croatia yet to come.

At some point in time, I'll be there to tell the parts of my story that the trial chamber and the two sides want to hear.

In Belgrade, an international conference brings together many of those that were active in trying to help the change of October 5th.

I should have been there - but one can't be everywhere. I suspect my friends are all sitting around in th smokefilled rooms of the Writer's Club sharing memories of those truly memorable days over a number of bottles of heavy Montenegrian Vranac vine.

And the country is looking forward towards the opening of negotiations for a Stability and Association Agreement with the European Union on Tuesday of next week.

It's been five much too slow years. But it's still been five years far better in every respect than the ten years of wars, sanction, isolation and repression that preceded historic October 5 in Belgrade.