TUE, 13 JAN 1998 22:20:26 GMT
If Belgrade welcomed 1997 as the most charming and the craziest city on the planet, 1998 began in it gloomily, as in a place where all hope has died. That is why there are more young and optimistic people gathered in queues for emigrants' visas in front of Canadian and Australian embassies than it was possible to see in the "craziest night" on the Square of the Republic.
AIM Belgrade, 6 January, 1998
The ritual of celebrating New Year's eve - deeply rooted even in places where apparently there is not much reason for celebration and high expectations - this year in Belgrade appeared quite dreary. At least in view of the public gathering at the Square of the Republic, and especially if the whole affair is compared with last year's festivities of half a million blissful and liberated people, mostly participants of the three-month long winter civic protest against the election theft.
Such outdoor celebrations in themselves are not a relevant political affair. In modern Serbia, however, they should also be taken seriously. Large cities in Serbia in which power was won in November 1996 by the at the time comparatively powerful coalition Together - such as Nis, Novi Sad and Kragujevac - celebrated "happy new year" thunderously again in the organization of the local authorities. It was especially festive and exciting in Novi Sad where about one hundred thousand people were waltzing (the mayor and his wife inclusive) and warming up with boiled wine and brandy, coffee and tea. In these cities, the coalition Together - which is officially dissolved on the level of the state - is still in power, and there is almost normal coexistence and cooperation between the Serb Revival Movement (SPO) and the Democratic Party (DS) in them.
In the capital of Serbia and FRY, everything is different: with the help of the Socialists and the Radicals, the SPO removed Zoran Djindjic (president of the Democratic Party and Draskovic's main rival in the unofficial competition for the "first man of the democratic opposition) from the post of the mayor, and after that the Democrats, some because they were thrown out and some of them of their own free will, stepped out from all the local authorities in Belgrade. Of course, discussions lasted for months about who is guilty for the dissolution of the coalition, that is, about who started with "infedility" and "political adultery" first... Be it as it may, since this autumn, Belgrade does not have the city authorities it had elected, but only one of its parts - the SPO which has in a certain sense usurped all the votes which the coalition had got from the citizens. It is true that the officials of the SPO have been repeating for quite some time that the Democrats should propose any of their member for mayor - under the condition that his name is not Zoran Djindjic - and everything would be alright, harmonious as before... The Democrats have no understanding for such conditions, and that is why the status quo persists, that is, the situation in which the "acting", unofficial mayor of Belgrade is Milan Bozic - the closest associate of Vuk Draskovic.
In the minds of the citizens of this city, however, Milan Bozic is just a clerk who is carrying out this job until the real mayor arrives. The reason for this is not the lack of political or other quealities of Milan Bozic (although he is literally become obnoxious to a significant portion of the political public) but that the citizens remember that last winter, freezing in the streets, we had agreed on something quite different... It is therefore quite logical that this year, as daily newspapers and agencies reported, "nobody organized the New Year's eve gathering of citizens at the square of the Republic; which always has a symbolically important role in celebrations and public manifestations of all kinds - Belgrade in fact has no authorities: the coalition does not exist here any more, the SPO was not given the mandate by the citizens to rule on its own, and the Socialists and the Radicals do not have the sufficient number of votes in the city assembly to take over power. But, the Socialists have a sufficient influence to enable the SPO to rule Belgrade undisturbed by offering it discrete "strategic support". All that the SPO has to do in exchange is to return the favour to the SPS on the level of the state, either by sharing the power with the left coalition - as a "junior partner", of course - or by supporting the minority government of the Socialists.
All the political observers agree that bargaining is probably going on right now between these political parties about distribution of power (by the principle "you give us Serbia - we give you Belgrade"), although it is persistently denied by the SPO. The leadership of this rightist-monarchist party would probably have great difficulties in explaining to its profoundly ideologically imbued sympathizers why it has agreed to cooperation with the "Bolshevik regime of godless king killers", but the hardcore voters of the "Left coalition" would not like to see Vuk Draskovic as their equal partner either. That is why both for ones and the others it is more suitable to bargain behind carefully closed doors, occasionally ritually "washing hands" of cooperation with the other party.
Disappearance of the city authorities which the citizens had fought for in winter demonstrations is a symptom of a much broader "defeat of Belgrade" which is felt by all those who live in this city. City transportation has never - not even in the apocalyptic mega-inflationary 1993 - been worse, heating is very poor, city radio-television station Studio B, after a short professional rise, transformed into (awkwardly concealed) loudspeakers of the Serb Revival Movement, the notorious city tax of 3 per cent was re-introduced althouigh just a year ago Vuk Draskovic and his associates called it the "shameful loot of Belgraders", etc. The republican authorities from the beginning of new city administration are doing their best to make life of Belgrade - and other cities where coalition Together won - difficult, even its fundamental operation, and then, when things come to the verge of a catastrophe, to graciously "save" the citizens from the "impotent local opposition authorities"...
They are certainly aware of this Socialists' trick in the SPO, but they have no choice: it would not be difficult to protest against such hypocrisy, but this would lead them nowhere. It should not be disregarded that even impoverished as it is, Belgrade is still a very attractive source of income for those who control it. Since responsibilities (and sources of profit) in the city are divided between the republican and the local authorities, it is clear that it is necessary to operate according to the principle "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours", so that both the "right" Vuk and the "left" coalition are satisfied. And as for the money - it is always found where it should be. If in the beginning of 1997 Belgrade was the most charming and the craziest city on the planet, it has begun 1998 as a gloomy place where all hope seems to have died. That is why more young and optimistic people are gathered in queues for emigrants' visas in front of the Canadian and Australian embassies than there were in the "craziest night" on the Square of the Republic. Certainly the political and the economic situation in Novi Sad or Nis is no better, but at least the sad illusion of survival of what the citizens had fought for last winter has been preserved there. That is why there was a public celebration there, while Belgrade was frowning behind closed blinds and drawn curtains, and of course, drinking to forget. Because memories of defeat and lost opportunities are always very painful.