Why didn't they shoot?
(this is the third part in the "What happened on October 5th" miniseries, with parts one and two posted earlier)
The strategy of the DOS coalition of opposition parties was in a nutshell to win the presidential election, expose the fraud if it happens and organize protests to counter it and to make sure these protests are not crushed by the armed forces loyal to Milosevic - the Army, the Police or the Special Forces.
Opposition’s message to the Army officers was based on the fact that Milosevic favored the Police to the Army. Once privileged officers of the JNA under Tito, army personnel felt less valued than their colleagues in the Police. This maybe changed a little after NATO bombing , but the poor status of the Army was often emphasized by the opposition which hoped that the Army would not be so willing to defend Milosevic when the time comes.
Although the assumption was that the Army was not prepared and willing to use force against its own people, the opposition was concerned with the possibility that in a chaotic situation of a protest officers get an order to send in the troops because Belgrade was taken by a violent group of traitors and mercenaries preparing ground for NATO invasion.
Because of this possibility message to the Army was conveyed in such a way to emphasize that the opposition was not a fifth column and that the Army should serve the people, not the ruling party. The fact that two of the opposition leaders were retired generals (one of them general Momcilo Perisic served as a Chief of Staff for 6 years between 1992 and 1998) made this message more believable . Otpor on the other hand, in order to counter accusations for treason, openly condemned NATO bombing campaign, always underscoring Milosevic’s responsibility for it. For instance, on March 22nd 2000 Otpor commemorated anniversary of the start of the bombing with posters “Resistance to NATO aggression”. Army reservists, who fought in the war, spoke often at rallies and marches, condemning Milosevic for “betraying Kosovo” and therefore undermining his legitimacy based on nationalism.
However, despite the fact that general Perisic was one of its leaders, the opposition never established communication with the Army generals, and never got any guarantees that the Yugoslav Army would not intervene in the case of a mass protest. One thing however became obvious after the Army votes were counted after September 24th. Generals knew that Kostunica got most of the votes, and that fact largely influenced later behavior of the Army.
The police was a different story. They were not draftees, they were professionals, but unlike any other European police they were hardly used for policing. As a result of wars and UN economic sanctions organized crime in Serbia flourished establishing strong ties with Milosevic’s government which then discouraged any police attempt to fight it. Instead Serbian policemen were sent to war in Kosovo, and when they were back, they were used to suppress demonstrations with an excessive use of force.
In order to understand why the Police refused to use force despite strict orders we have to go back in time.
When Otpor was founded in October 1998 one very important stylist decision was made. Iconography of Otpor, clenched fist and black T-shirts, was not without reason. It was necessary to look dangerous but still remain nonviolent. What OTPOR wanted to achieve was to deceive high government officials and to provide correct information to the police officers.
If the government thought that OTPOR was a revolutionary organization they would send the police to crack them down . Since OTPOR was strictly nonviolent and advocated elections as a tool for change, police would receive different information during interrogations than expected and question the motives of the government. They would of course follow the orders, but over time these orders would look ridiculous. Even if some of them sent reports that contradict government’s assumptions that would only feed paranoia in the inner circle around Milosevic, because some others would send report confirming these assumptions in order to show their loyalty .
The plan worked. Arrests of Otpor activists increased as the organization grew and the accusations of the regime became more and more ridiculous, especially after May 2nd, when three Otpor activists were heavily beaten in Milosevic’s home town of Pozarevac by friends of Milosevic’s son Marko, and then arrested by the police and charged for an attempted murder . Ten days later on May 13th, official of the Socialist party was murdered while visiting Novi Sad fair as a result of a domestic dispute. The regime described this as a terrorist act, accusing directly Otpor as an organization behind it. The crackdown on Otpor followed. Although arrests were taking place before, in the next few months thousands of Otpor activists were randomly picked and detained , which only intensified communication between OTPOR and the police. The situation became almost absurd. By the time elections were held on September 24th members of the Serbian police, except high ranking officers, knew more about Otpor, its goals and methods than ordinary citizens. And Otpor was getting information about the mood in the police after each arrest and detention.
So spreading the circle of those who where subject to repression had two effects: the Police got to know the enemy and found out that the enemy was a bunch of kids that wanted a peaceful change of a non-democratic regime; and the kids realized that it was not really that bad to get arrested; on the contrary – it’s cool. This was the case because the police didn’t torture the arrested activists. Had they been tortured, it wouldn’t have been cool to get arrested .
The question is how was this possible? Essentially this was possible because of two reasons. First, Otpor activists were mostly young, some of them even under aged, and managed to maintain nonviolent discipline – they were nonviolent and they never provoked violent response. This was a result of their passion and commitment, but also was internally enforced in the organization. Second, the organization was loose, the emphasis was on local initiative, street actions were popping up simultaneously all over Serbia and it was impossible for the regime to send their most loyal and most brutal units to counter these acts of protest. They had to rely on the local police, and the local police was not that loyal and was not that brutal.
As a result of this peculiar communication strategy, police confidence in the wisdom of the leadership, was severely eroded. More than ever before they felt abused by the regime, which was so paranoid to send them after children.
Both the Army and the Ministry of Interior had a number of special units under their command. These were elite formations, well paid, trained and equipped and isolated from the population. One of them was especially feared of. This was the Unit for Special Operations JSO which operated as a part of the Secret Police SDB and that served as Milosevic’s death squad. They were responsible for number of assassinations, including the murder of Milosevic’s predecessor, former president Ivan Stambolic, who was kidnapped and killed on August 25th, just few weeks before presidential elections .
Although nobody knew for sure how JSO was going to react in the case of mass protest on thing was certain: with one million people in Belgrade it would be impossible for them to disperse the crowd, since they had roughly 300 men under arms. They could still create mayhem by shooting at the demonstrators and that was a serious concern.
The opposition hoped that the message for the Army and the Police would reach these units too. Even if it did not reach them, it was important for them to realize that the majority of the armed forces were not willing to defend the regime and that in the case of the mass protest they would be alone, like in Romania in 1989, for instance, where Securitate wanted to crush the protests against Ceausescu and ended up fighting the Army which stood on the side of the protesters. The hope was that commanders of these units would realize that they could do nothing to stop the protest.
Next week we shall see how all this played out on October 5th 2000.