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South Slavic: July 13, 2000

13 July 2000, Volume 2, Number 26

What Do Serbs Think Of Their Country's Politics?

Omer Karabeg: In today's Radio Most (Bridge), we are going to discuss how fear and apathy, together with the obvious disappointment with the opposition leaders, affect people in Serbia. Their resistance to the regime has been decreasing in spite of the fact that repression is on the rise. Our guests are two Belgrade university professors: psychology professor Zarko Trebjesanin and social psychology professor Bora Kuzmanovic.

Mr. Trebjesanin, do you think that there is more fear in Serbia now than at the time when Milosevic came to power?

Zarko Trebjesanin: Well, I am not so sure that there is more fear now than ever before. The fear today might be compared to that aroused when tanks went into the streets on 9 March 1991. There were other situations as well when repression was extremely brutal and when many people really lived in fear. In any event, fear is obvious and widespread today.

Bora Kuzmanovic: My impression is that fear was very strong at the end of last year and earlier this year. Deputy Prime Minister [Vojislav] Seselj was then calling the opposition "traitors," saying that all possible measures should be taken against them. It seems to me that fear was very strong then but that the situation subsequently calmed down a little. Now fear has been on the rise again after the announcement of the new law against terrorism and after the threats to [the student movement] Otpor (Resistance), which the authorities have dubbed a fascist organization.

Actually, two things inspire fear. On the one hand, there are verbal accusations that the opposition is guilty of treason, that they are a fifth column, violence-prone, and pro-fascist. On the other hand, there are acts of repression such as arrests and beatings. What has actually happened is that verbal threats have turned into physical acts that have further increased fear.

Omer Karabeg: Professional thugs are on the scene now. It seems to me that by spreading fear, the regime wants to kill the will for a revolt. Do you think that Milosevic's regime has already become similar to the Stalinist type of regime?

Zarko Trebjesanin: I think that this regime is nearing its death throes. But I would not say that the repression is here like it was in the Stalinist era.

I think that what we have here is repression that is getting out of control. For instance, while the citizens were beaten up in front of the Belgrade City Assembly, some policemen tried to force their way into the building. Probably they were not told to do so. Therefore, I have the impression that repression sometimes simply gets beyond the control of those who issue orders. Of course, all those things create a very dangerous situation since repression and violence generate still more violence, and things could easily get completely out of control.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Kuzmanovic, do you think that Milosevic's regime is becoming similar to Stalinism?

Bora Kuzmanovic: This is a repressive, authoritarian regime, but I would not know whether to say it is Stalinist or not. I would rather call it a mixture of different types of regimes, older than Stalinism, like, for instance, the South American and Asiatic [authoritarian] types.

I do agree that they resort to repression because that is their final recourse. However, I think that they use repression as a temporary measure, hoping that they will eventually find a better way to stay in power.

Together with the spread of fear, they use propaganda about our country's successful recovery after the NATO bombing, as well as about the allegedly important international role of the Serbian regime. They claim that this regime opposes those who wield power in the world, the new world order, etc.

I have the impression that they are preparing themselves for elections and therefore count on fear to intimidate a part of the voters. Another part of the voters is to be won over by so-called positive propaganda, but I don't think it will work.

I think that what we have here are two sorts of fear. One is the citizens' fear of the regime. The other is the regime's fear of the opposition and the citizens. The point is that the regime has the stronger means to turn its fear into a force for its own self-defense.

Omer Karabeg: Do you think, Mr. Kuzmanovic, that the law against terrorism will serve to legalize repression?

Bora Kuzmanovic: I do believe so. There is some talk that prosecutors will have sweeping authority, that preventive arrests will be allowed without a special warrant--which is against not only some existing laws but the constitution as well. It thus will be not a law aimed at suppressing terrorism but will serve as an excuse for institutionalized state repression against its own citizens.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Trebjesanin, do you think that the law against terrorism will lead to a rise in fear because it will make repressive measures legal?

Zarko Trebjesanin: I think that the regime has nearly achieved its goal, since not only is fear spreading among the people, but there is also an anxiety that is even more dangerous than fear. The point is that fear is oriented towards something concrete or something that can be identified, while anxiety is a more vaguely-based fear of something that has not yet become concrete but is seen as terrifying. We already have one foot in an Orwellian system, and when the law comes into effect we will be there with both feet.

Anxiety makes us imagine what sorts of repressive measures might be introduced with that law. It is, therefore, understandable that some people have started leaving public life. Being in politics has been a dangerous profession, and now it is becoming life-threatening.

I think that the law will also help spread apathy and make people withdraw into themselves. They will accept the philosophy that everybody should cultivate his own garden instead of thinking about the public interest.

Omer Karabeg: It seems to me that, at this moment, only a part of the most militant students, members of the Otpor movement, are fearless. Apart from some rare exceptions, their professors have not joined them. Are professors of your Faculty of Philosophy frightened, Mr. Kuzmanovic?

Bora Kuzmanovic: I must say that, among the professors of the Faculty of Philosophy, there are many who are afraid of possible repression. Older people still remember times of repression and fear that this time might be even worse.

The fact is that many professors did give up and sign their contracts when the university law came into effect, [even though that legislation ended academic autonomy and subordinated the university to politics.] Many professors did not join Otpor although some do support it. I must say nonetheless that there is quite a strong group in the Faculty of Philosophy who are ready to oppose the regime.

Zarko Trebjesanin: I do not think that you are right, Mr. Karabeg, when you say that members of Otpor are fearless. I am a member of Otpor but I am afraid, too. Therefore, the point is not whether one is afraid or not. Fear is a universal feeling, we all fear. It would not be normal not to be afraid. The point is whether we are going to be overwhelmed by fear, which would make us unable to oppose violence.

The question is whether or not we are going to let fear paralyze our activities and make us forget about moral standards. I believe that there are still enough people who are not going to be overwhelmed by fear and who will not violate basic moral standards and human values.

But people here do not believe that they can achieve a lot by opposing repression. They are disappointed with the opposition leaders. People feel that they have been somehow deceived and abandoned. The best metaphor for this situation is--according to some--the scene with the leaders of the opposition well protected in the City Assembly building, drinking whiskey while the police were beating the citizens in front of that building. People are not ready to endure beatings and expose themselves to brutal repression when they do not know what their leaders are up to and whether sacrifice would serve a good cause.

Omer Karabeg: You think that apathy, as a consequence of the disappointment with the opposition leaders, might be a stronger force for giving up the fight than fear--because people can simply see that the opposition leaders are getting rich and have a good life, together with their closest collaborators and advisors?

Zarko Trebjesanin: People do not see [their leaders as having] a clear strategy, they cannot understand what the opposition leaders really want.... The citizens are completely disoriented and confused. One should not expect them to try to overcome their own fear without being certain what will come out of it, whether it will make a difference at all.

Bora Kuzmanovic: I think that apathy is a more important reason than fear for the passivity of the citizens. Apathy is, to put it simply, discontent mixed with feelings of helplessness and of distrust toward the present opposition leaders.

I think that there is one more thing involved, and that is that the well-known forms of protest and expressing discontent have run their course. There were several efforts [this year] aimed at restoring old forms of protest such as street demonstrations and street walks, but people remember that they led to nothing. Everybody is waiting for a new form to emerge, but the citizens do not know what it might be. Nor do the opposition leaders know what to offer people.