20 July 2000, Volume 2, Number 27
What Do Serbs Think Of Their Country's Politics? - Part II
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. Part I appeared on 13 July.
Zarko Trebjesanin: I think that citizens often ask themselves whether it makes sense to resist if in practice they cannot achieve anything. Let me just remind you of the 1996-1997 protests. There were brutal police actions then as well. Several times, citizens were severely beaten by the police. And what happened after that? The number of people who took to the street the next day would be 30-50 percent greater.
Citizens reacted that way because they felt that they were strong, that they had a clear goal in front of them--to fight the election fraud..... But this time, after the police resorted to brute force, the number of those willing to protest decreased.
I am certain that fear is not the reason for that. The [reason is that the] citizens have realized that the opposition is disunited, that the parties do not know what they really want, that they do not have a unified strategy. The [people] do not want to be sacrificed like pawns in a game whose purpose they do not know.
Bora Kuzmanovic: My impression is that there is a certain polarization among the population. The minority thinks that radical measures are needed, fearing that this government will last forever unless it is overthrown the same way it retaliates against its opponents, namely with the use of force. There is a growing number of those who think this way, but I think that they are still a minority.
The majority thinks that the regime is somehow crumbling under its own weight, that it is coming to an end, and since the end is near, they do not think that it would be wise to dash headlong and pay a high price for [what will happen fairly soon, anyway]....
A significant number of citizens expects something to happen within the regime, as, for instance, if the army or part of it refuses to take orders, or maybe the police turn against the regime, or a group of people emerges within the regime to organize some sort of coup.
But this regime will not let that happen. All those officials who previously tried to take a more liberal stand and who opposed repression were quite easily discarded. We could make a long list of those who once played a role in the regime and who disappeared, either by being discarded or marginalized.
Omer Karabeg: Police cruelty has lately been particularly pronounced. Many policemen seem to enjoy beating protesters. On the other hand, the police are common people, underpaid, or maybe only slightly better paid than other citizens. Mr. Trebjesanin, how do you explain that cruelty? As if those men did not ask themselves what all that violence could bring.
Zarko Trebjesanin: This is a very important question. Some of those policemen were shouting "traitors" and "you should be ashamed" while cruelly beating the young people from Otpor. I have the impression that some of the police believe the regime's propaganda stories. They actually believe that the ultimate fight against traitors is taking place here.
An ideologically obsessed person is capable of being extremely brutal. He does not act as a policeman who goes by the book and carries out orders. He thinks that he is fighting an important battle in a holy war against traitors.
Therefore, I think that things being said about the opposition by the highest state and ruling parties' officials are extremely dangerous because, unfortunately, in this region, a verbal conflict can easily turn into an armed one.
Bora Kuzmanovic: I have also noticed this ideological passion. A terrifying photograph was published in the newspapers of five policemen beating a young man or woman--that could not be seen clearly--lying on the street.
However, indoctrination is not the only reason for the police brutality. Some of them might have had a doubt or two and started asking themselves whether they are doing a wise thing by exposing themselves so much to protect the privileged. To remove those doubts, they beat those who want them to face the truth. That might also explain the brutality, otherwise it is hard to understand why the policemen would act with so much passion.
Omer Karabeg: Even more so since they beat young people, students, almost children. That is simply unexplainable.
Bora Kuzmanovic: They do not only beat unarmed children, they also beat old people. I know that some elderly professors were beaten up as well. There are also elements of group psychology here, since a crowd of policemen acts as a group, they encourage each other. The individual disappears.
Omer Karabeg: Let us say something about another sort of fear. Besides the fear of being interrogated by police and beaten up by hired thugs, there is another fear, even more widespread, concerning the loss of a job and the miserable wages it brings. To what extent does that fear affect people and make them abstain from protests against the regime?
Zarko Trebjesanin: There is a whole range of different sorts of fear. There is a fear of physical violence, fear of beating, finally the fear of death. People also fear that they could lose their jobs, that they will be left without resources. However, there is one more sort of fear that one should not underestimate and which is characteristic for small towns, although it exists everywhere. I am talking about the fear of being labeled as traitors, foreign hirelings, terrorists, and hooligans--to be put beyond the pale. For many people, that is a harder punishment than a beating.
Omer Karabeg: Would not it be normal that those who stand aside, who are passive, who fear and who do not want to take part, admire those who are brave enough to fight the regime?
Zarko Trebjesanin: We might talk about that too, but, to be frank, I do not see a difference between the two patterns of behavior. I used to be approached by some people who encouraged me saying: "Go on, we are with you," or "Don't give up," "Congratulations," "I admire you," but they were not there to support us when we were expelled from our faculty.
Bora Kuzmanovic: I think that the fear of losing basic conditions for life is really a strong one. I have heard a wise man say something like this: "A man with a DM 70 wage fears losing these DM 70. Someone with a DM 400 wage calculates how to earn DM 600 or 1000."
Therefore, when the subsistence-level is crossed, a fear emerges that things could get even worse. I think that the regime is aware of that and is playing that card by [quietly] spreading the message. They do not spread fear openly, they do not say: "You will all lose your jobs." However, there are cases where people were labeled fascists or traitors and then lost their jobs.
On the other hand, we should not overestimate human nature. Most of us are not brave. People admire brave men but they are not really ready to be brave like them. It is true that they would encourage you by saying: "It is good that you fight them," but most of them are not ready to take a risk until a clear alternative is articulated by an organized force that will incite the rebellion.
There is a critical point for change when people start resisting massively. Until that point is reached, there is permanent fear. The trouble is that it is very hard to foresee the critical point when the fear disappears and people start going out to protest.
I think that mass activities, mutual encouragement, and dispelling fear are the only remedy for the present apathy. Finally, even the most repressive regime can never arrest all the people. A satirist once said: "The more crowded the prisons are, the closer freedom is."
Omer Karabeg: The uprising will start when people understand that there is nothing left to lose.
Bora Kuzmanovic: Yes, when they understand that there is nothing left to lose and when they clearly see what can be achieved. Somebody has to formulate that, to say it. However, there is no such force in sight. There are no individuals nor groups, except for a few honorable exceptions such as Otpor or some minor parties that keep trying to offer hope to the citizens. Citizens need hope in this desperate situation.
Omer Karabeg: Mr. Trebjesanin, it is usually said that things will change when the lowest point is hit. In Serbia, that moment seems not to have arrived yet.
Zarko Trebjesanin: You are right, but the trouble is that no one knows where the lowest point is. We were certain several times before that we had reached the bottom, but it turned out that an abyss had meanwhile opened in front of us, making us fall deeper and deeper into it.
We seem to be unable to reach the bottom and push our feet against it so that we can finally start going upwards. This is what makes most of the people unwilling to take an active role, and what keeps them in a state of true despair.