A Challenge for Serbian Civil Society: The Death and Rebirth of the Human Rights Movement

Like the rest of the people in their country, Serbian activists were absolutely unprepared for the powerful NATO intervention that started on March 24, 1999. Having worked tirelessly for years to promote human rights, democracy, peace, and tolerance in Serbia, these activists woke up on March 25 with an overwhelming feeling of disappointment and anger at the West for having let them down.

Serbian activists realized during the NATO bombing campaign that they were victims of the policies of their own government; however, they also felt like victims of the international community, which was using military means to promote the human rights standards that they had been advocating peacefully for years. In the words of a leading independent broadcaster, Veran Matic, “they felt betrayed by the countries that were their models.” Serbian civil society groups also felt betrayed by their NGO friends and partners around the world who were lining up behind their respective governments in support of the NATO campaign.

Ten years of work toward raising human rights awareness in Serbia had now been destroyed. Serbian activists felt they had lost credibility with a population disillusioned and disappointed by the actions of NATO—actions taken in the name of human rights. With bombs falling all around them, how could Belgrade NGO activists persuade the people that this was only an attack on their government, not on their country? Milan Nikolic of Belgrade’s Center for Policy Studies argued, “It will be extremely difficult after the NATO aggression to advocate models of democracy of those countries that sent bombs our way.” Sonja Licht of the Fund for an Open Society–Yugoslavia in Belgrade asked, “How are we to fight for a civil society and democracy in this country, as every fool can now question the rule of law, after that rule had been violated at the highest international level?”

In the first few weeks of the NATO campaign, 27 prominent Serbian academics and leading NGO activists issued a joint statement named after the frequently used phrase, “Between NATO’s hammer and the [Milosevic] regime’s anvil.” Adopting the official Serbian government’s language of “aggression” to refer to the NATO campaign (in reference to its bypassing of the United Nations Charter), the letter’s authors expressed their “deep concern that NATO’s violation of international norms would disable any struggle for the rule of law and human rights in this country and world wide.” In a similar public statement, a consortium of Belgrade NGOs warned that the NATO campaign had damaged the existing civil sector in Serbia—in particular the once-growing network of local independent media and other grassroots organizations—to such a degree that its very survival was threatened.

Following the Serbian capitulation to NATO in June 1999, the Milosevic regime dramatically intensified the crackdown against its critics. Especially hard hit were opposition parties, the independent media, the student movement, NGOs, and civic activists. More than ever, the regime exercised brutal police force when dealing with peaceful street demonstrators. Intrepid student activists of the Otpor (Resistance) movement were detained on a daily basis, interrogated, and often severely maltreated. Open declarations of political dissent became increasingly dangerous. This repression, which continued to intensify until election day in the fall of 2000, helped Milosevic hold on to power in the immediate aftermath of the NATO intervention.

However, the crackdown also produced a boomerang effect. Many people argued that the latest wave of repression was a sign that Milosevic felt increasingly vulnerable to political defeat, either at the polls or in the streets. Growing discontent with Milosevic’s policies soon became manifest, and opinion polls consistently showed a steady decline in support for the authorities and a strengthening of support for the opposition. People started to realize that the Milosevic regime was crumbling from within, and that the oppression of its own citizens was the only power mechanism it had left.

In spite of the pessimistic predictions, Serbian civil society started to regroup, gaining particular strength in the less developed, smaller urban areas that had suffered the most during the NATO war. For the first time since Milosevic’s military adventures in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the NATO campaign against Serbia brought home a feeling of what the war was really like—it was no longer something only seen on television. Most of the troops drafted for the Kosovo war also came from small towns in the south, where it was difficult to hide and dodge the draft and where patriotic pride ran deep. These soldiers came back from Kosovo horrified by what they had seen. They started talking to their families, friends, and neighbors about ethnic cleansing, forced expulsions, and civilian massacres. They were furious at being engaged in what they began to see as an unnecessary war with the world’s most powerful military alliance, a duel for which they were very poorly trained and paid. In the previous wars in Croatia and Bosnia the draftees were convinced they were protecting “Serbian national interests.” In Kosovo, they felt Milosevic had tricked them into waging a personal war against NATO.

Public frustration was so extensive and the economic devastation that followed the NATO intervention so severe that many people across Serbia felt that they had nothing to lose in demanding that their voices be heard, even at the price of police intimidation and brutality. “Civic Parliaments” began to sprout throughout Serbia. Officially registered as NGOs, these local initiatives developed into a real grassroots network of popular opposition to the Milosevic regime, setting the foundation for a new civil society. By providing an outlet for the people’s anger and frustration, these civic actions finally broke the cycle of fear and victimization that the Serbian population had lived in for the last ten years. Together with the student movement Otpor, this new civil society created a popular base of support for a united political opposition in Serbia. Fourteen months after the end of NATO intervention, this new civil society achieved the long overdue fall of the great dictator.

Today, most of the Belgrade NGO sector believes that NATO’s intervention was a grave mistake by the international community that actually helped to keep Milosevic in power longer. The early impact of the NATO campaign was extremely detrimental to the existing Serbian civil society, which faced great new obstacles in continuing to advocate for peace and human rights. Initially, Milosevic successfully rallied the nation behind the patriotic flag and clearly defined the Serbian enemy as NATO and, by proxy, the West. In doing so, he created a temporary “safe-haven” for his regime as he managed to redirect the anger and frustration of the Serbian population toward the Western governments and away from himself. In the long term, however, the military intervention played a significant role in mobilizing a new, stronger, and more determined civil society, which succeeded in overthrowing the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000.

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