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Serbians win reinstatement of elected opposition members, 1996-1997
The 1996-1997 protests in Serbia were an important step forward in the expressing the voice of the Serbian people and laid the groundwork for a broad, popular nonviolent movement that would eventually lead to the overthrow of longtime Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. The campaign, which stretched from November 1996 to February 1997, was a public condemnation of Milosevic’s annulment of an opposition party victory in the November 1996 parliamentary elections.
Following the November 17th elections in Serbia, President Slobodan Milosevic annulled the elections results when the Zajedno (translating in English to “together”) opposition party appeared to win in 32 municipalities, most notably in the capital of Belgrade, which would be under non-Communist control for the first time in over 50 years. Almost immediately after Milosevic dismissed the election results, opposition supporters began forming protests across the country, with the first protest starting in Nis. The largest occurred in Belgrade, as crowds of up to 20,000 formed to protest Milosevic’s arrogation of the election. Zajedno played a central role in organizing and encouraging demonstrators, issuing invitations to the public to attend demonstrations in central locations across Belgrade. At the same time, Serb students began organizing in a protest committee, planning daily marches at noon through Belgrade, writing and distributing leaflets with background information and reasons for the protests and encouraging others to join them. The students proved a valuable resource for Zajedno, as student committees placed an emphasis on nonviolence, appointing members to walk along the outskirts of the marches to ensure that protesters did not get into skirmishes with police.
As protests continued into December, the Milosevic regime began attempts to stifle the protests. In early December, two independent radio stations were briefly taken off the air when government officials questioned the authenticity of their licenses. Seeing the strong public responses to this action during protests, the radio stations were quickly reinstated. The state infrastructure also supported Milosevic, and on December 8, the Serbian Supreme Court upheld Milosevic’s annulment of the elections, further antagonizing protestors and opposition party members. The regime also tried to portray itself as populist by organizing a counter-demonstration on December 24 in Belgrade. To do so, it bused in rural Serbians, many of whom worked at state-owned factories and had little knowledge of the street protests given the media blackout on the elections and controversy. These “supporters” were then forced to march along a major protest route, while 20,000 police militia surrounded them. The counterdemonstrators ran into a protest of nearly 300,000 opposition supporters, and chaos quickly ensued as the groups traded barbs, although physical violence was fortunately limited. Opposition leaders widely criticized the Milosevic regime for hoping to spark violence by planning the demonstration at the same time and in physical proximity to the opposition protests.
Third parties began to get involved when a delegation from the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) visited Serbia to conduct an election review. On December 27, the OSCE delegation announced findings confirming the opposition victories, but with few ways to act on their findings, they could do little to elicit change from the regime. The United States and several European countries, noting the continued obstinacy, began to raise the idea of possible sanctions against the Serbian government. In the face of mounting pressure from abroad, and continued protests in the streets into the New Year, Milosevic tried to placate the opposition.
On January 8, Milosevic announced the government’s recognition of an opposition victory in Nis, where protests first began in November. However, Zajedno was quick to reject this gesture, continuing to demand a full recognition of all its victories across Serbia. On January 14, electoral commissions in Belgrade and other Serbian areas issued another call for the further seating of elected opposition candidates, as protestors redoubled their efforts.
Most notably, protests continued to remain nonviolent in the face of increasing police brutality. Following the tensions of the counter-demonstration in late December, the traffic police officers that had previously guarded protests were replaced by riot police, who were far more willing to use physical force to repel protestors. Protestors used numerous tactics, from dramatic reenactments to posing for pictures with police officers to try and maintain a peaceful environment at rallies. Zajedno also engaged other civic groups, such as the Serbian Orthodox Church to help achieve gains during protests. After Milosevic conceded defeat in five smaller Serbian cities in mid-January, the Orthodox Church led a march in Belgrade on January 24 that became the largest religious procession since World War II. In a sign of the Church’s tremendous social capital, riot police withdrew from a long-protected section of Belgrade to allow the passage of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle.
As the Milosevic government seemed to be increasingly backed into a corner by domestic and international pressure, it lashed out in a final attempt to quell protests. Starting on February 2, police began violently cracking down on protesters in the most violent responses since the protests began roughly 75 days earlier. The crackdown did not deter protestors, who continued to arrive for daily protests. Realizing the futility of the attempt and deciding to end the crisis rather than risk a spiral into civil war, Milosevic announced a formal recognition of the opposition victory on February 4, giving Zajedno and the rest of the opposition the victory they had so desperately fought for. A week later, the Serbian Parliament confirmed the transfer of power in several districts to Zajedno, paving the way for the opposition to move into their rightful seats in government.
Ultimately, the 1996-1997 protests not only earned a symbolic political victory for the opposition, but also displayed the power of the nonviolent action and laid the groundwork for the future nonviolent campaign that would lead to Milosevic’s overthrow (see “Serbians overthrow Milosevic (Bulldozer Revolution), 2000”). Many of the leaders of the later campaign began as activists during 1996-1997 campaign, and Milosevic’s inability to develop an effective response to widespread nonviolent protests revealed a chink in the regime’s armor.