Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999

The Serbian Opposition T H E   S E R B   O P P O S I T I O N:
A Shadow Serbia

Ladka Bauerova

A conference in Bratislava has brought together members of the international community and Serbia's political opposition, as well as the Serb private sector and grass-roots organisations to discuss the possibilities of forging peace and change in the devastated country.

The two-day conference called "The Future of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the Context of the Post-War Reconstruction," held on 21 and 22 July in Bratislava, Slovakia, brought together some 120 participants, including representatives of the Serb democratic opposition, independent media, private sector, Serb and European NGOs and other members of the international community, who discussed ways to prevent the further isolation and impoverishment of the Serbian population. The meeting was organized by the EastWest Institute in cooperation with the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The discussion focused on possible ways to provide support for democratic forces within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, while bypassing the official authorities. The participants called for increased help from the West and stressed the need to open channels of communication with - rather than isolate - the Yugoslav population.

Stephen Heintz, the Chief Operating Officer of the EastWest Institute, called for a "new international partnership with the people of Serbia" and said that the goal of the international community was to end Yugoslavia's isolation and to promote democracy, peace and prosperity now with "No excuses, and no delays."

Heintz further called on the West to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the people of Serbia and "direct financial, moral and intellectual support to the forces of change in Serbia." An overwhelming majority of the Serbian participants - including politicians, NGO workers and journalists - warned against the imminent danger of civil war which, could take place if the international community did not act immediately.

Some representatives of the Democratic opposition suggested some level of cooperation with Mr Milosevic's regime was necessary to help the ordinary citizens of Serbia and to actually strengthen their will to get rid of him.

"How can you help us without confronting Mr Milosevic?" asked Slobodan Vuksanovic, the Vice-President of the Democratic Party led by Zoran Djindjic.

"Knowing him, we know that we must avoid trouble. He will try provoke a civil war if it is possible. He has no policy. [He knows] conflicts provide him with power."

In an interview, Vuksanovic added that, absurd as it sounds, some cooperation with Milosevic could actually strengthen the opposition. Other participants stressed the importance of creating parallel structures within Serbian society.

Bratislav Canak, president of Nezavisnost, Serbia's only independent trade union, said it was important to begin creating a "shadow Serbia," a political and economic infrastructure independent of the Milosevic regime. Through such parallel infrastructure, Western institutions would be able to provide support and aid to the Serbian population. Canak also called on the Serbian democratic opposition forces to unite and put forward a comprehensive program. "Down with Milosevic is not a sufficient program," he said.

The business representatives present discussed ways to enhance regional cooperation and stressed the importance of free and growing trade activities. Michael Gold, head of the Prague-based company Crimson Capital, said there were ways to bypass the state-controlled banking system. One of them was to provide loans to small and medium-size businesses through micro-lending institutions and investment funds administered by Serb NGOs.

Another way to revive the economy is to encourage foreign companies, particularly those from the region - such as Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Austria and Italy - to start approaching individual Yugoslav companies directly, on a company-to-company basis.

"There is an existing, viable private sector that is limited but functioning," said Gold. Although it comprises only ten percent of companies, it accounts for about 30 to 40 percent of Serbia's GDP, he added.

But members of the business community pointed out that trade will continue to suffer until Yugoslavia develops a banking and insurance sector foreign investors can trust. Still, they agreed, the international community should provide Yugoslavia's private sector with an extensive public relations campaign, funded, for example, by USAid and similar programs, in order to attract foreign trade partners.

The conference pulled in representatives of numerous NGOs from both inside and outside the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Sonja Licht, director of the Soros-funded Open Society Institute in Belgrade, warned against the moral impact of Serbia's isolation on its citizens.

"We are losing touch with the world. It's understandable, but it's very dangerous," she said. "Out of poverty, out of insecurity, out of frustration, people simply lost the opportunity for self-reflection. It is dangerous, because they are not able to cooperate. They are closing themselves off. They are enclosing themselves in small ghettos where they feel safe."

"There is a tremendous need for them simply to be able to come to terms with their own past, because that understanding is the precondition of their own self-respect. We want to regain self-respect, but we cannot regain self-respect if we live in denial, without facing the mere fact that on our behalf a lot of horrible crimes were committed," added Ms Licht.

That is why, she said, the international community should refrain from "openly racist" labeling. "The Serbs, the Chinese, the Russians," she angrily recalled the designations so often encountered in the media coverage during the war in Kosovo. "This openly racist attitude on the part of the international community is the most dangerous thing."

Licht also advocated development of direct partnerships and gave an example of the long-standing relationship between Novi Sad and Dortmund. The German city continued to provide humanitarian aid to its Yugoslav sister city even during the war and is about to spend DM 60 million to help repair Novi Sad's damaged infrastructure. The aid includes the rebuilding of one of the city's bridges as well as the build up of its public service sector, such as health administration.

"This could serve as a model for future projects and a model for funneling EU funds to cities run by opposition politicians," she said. "It would send a message that there is no isolation policy on the part of the West and would provide serious support for all those who were strong enough to start the change."

Judging from the comments of the participants, the conference succeeded in its goal of establishing links between Serb democratic forces, NGOs and businesses and their Western counterparts. Moreover, the participants sent a clear message that the international community has had, and still has, a narrow view of Serbia and is simply not aware of the size and dedication of the democratic forces there.

Summed up in the words of Dusan Mihajlovic, the president of the opposition New Democratic Party: "The conference was the first step in the right direction. People were talking to each other. It's always better to talk than to look at each other through the sight of a rifle."

Ladka Bauerova, 30 July 1999




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