By Peter Annear
PRAGUE — A sea change may be occurring in popular sentiments among the national groups locked into Yugoslavia's low-intensity civil war.
British journalist Laura Silber recently visited the village of Ivanovci in the central Serbian region of Sumadija, about 90 km south of Belgrade, where she spoke with peasant farmers "who appeared frightened rather than exhilarated by the warmongering of Mr Milosevic. Indeed, they feel betrayed by his failure to rectify the disastrous position of agriculture in Serbia."
As a result, many peasants have switched their loyalties to Vuk Draskovic, who heads the right-wing Serbian Renewal Movement, which wants "peace without the red star".
The centrist Democratic Party has also joined the campaign against the Milosevic government, accusing it of provoking an unnecessary civil war. It is sponsoring an initiative for opposition parties from all six republics to meet for negotiations on the crisis.
In an interview with Green Left Weekly, Vedran Vucic, a member of the International Secretariat of the Prague-based Helsinki Citizens Association, confirmed that changes in public consciousness in Yugoslavia may be producing a new opening for democratic and progressive changes. Vucic is Croatian.
"Some things that seemed impossible a few months ago are now becoming a reality. Many people in Croatia and Serbia who previously supported their governments are now involved in peace groups and have virtually said of the ethnic hostilities, 'That's enough!'.
"In Serbia many people are now saying, 'OK, I am young and I like Serbia, but I don't like democratic flowers that grow only on graves'. Many Croatian police have left the force saying, 'You promised us many things, but we didn't find them — we only want to be policemen, not warriors'."
It is difficult to stop the civil war, because it is mainly a war between extremists, not between official groups, said Vucic. Graffitied around Prague are the red-and-white checkered board with U inside (the symbol of Serbian Chetniks) and "NDH" (the World War II Croatian Ustasha state) — left behind by Serbs and Croats who came here to buy the weapons of departing Soviet troops.
Vucic said it is hard to be an oppositionist in Serbia or Croatia because the extremist groups threaten and harass oppositionists.
The new police force created by the Croatian government includes many officers who are untrained in ensuring citizens' security and others, by the government's own admission, who are former criminals. In Serbia, oppositionists can lose their jobs, their lives may be threatened, and their children are in danger of being beaten.
The transition to a peaceful resolution will involve the disarming and the dissolution of the extremist groups, he said. The larger problem of the civil war will be tackled in two ways, from above and from below.
"From above, there are two discernible developments. One is the increasing social crisis and the consequent emergence of new demands and new parties directed towards solving the real social and economic problems. Second is that many people will demand new elections in Croatia and in Serbia to replace the current governments.
"In the major towns, people overwhelmingly voted for centre and leftist parties, but in the suburbs and villages (where social conditions are much worse), they voted for extremists. Now these declassed strata of society will say, 'Before the elections we perhaps had bad streets, but now we have a cemetery full of our young people'.
"Before elections, the HDZ [Croatian governing party] declared elections would be held one year after the 1990 elections. Then, in preparing the new constitution, they said elections will be a year after passing the constitutional law. The constitutional law, however, provided that elections would be declared one year after confirmation of the constitution. There is a joke that two people meet on the street and one says, 'When will the elections be?'. The answer is, 'One year after your question'.
Vucic says that in the next period such jokes will be replaced by popular demands. "From below, several peace and conflict resolution actions have been launched by different civic groups. For example, the HCA plans to hold a peace caravan and gathering in September supported by our friends in Italy as well as people from Corsica and from Germany.
"Demands for a liberalisation of the government-monopolised mass media will also increase. For example, in Split, in southern Croatia, one TV program and several radio stations have endeavoured to become independent of government control. In Serbia too there is pressure for greater democracy.
"Democratic sentiments are also apparent in Bosnia-Hercegovina, where a rock-and-roll peace concert organised by the HCA and green groups in Sarajevo drew tens of thousands."
The Serbian and Croatian governments are sliding into crisis because they have not wanted to support the violence openly, but extremists in each government are pressing for a declaration of war. The recent reshuffling of the Croatian government is a sign of this crisis.
Vucic discerns two phases in the post-Communist political process. "In the first phase, which could be called 'plebiscitary democracy' and which may be now drawing to a close, people are attracted to referendums, to a sort of emotional expression of feelings that had been inhibited under the Communist regime. People simply feel that they now can do everything that before they could not.
"At the same time, the process of introducing some kind of liberal democracy has begun, accompanied by the import of huge amounts of capital. That means privatisation and the formation of new elites, while the workers' part in the new society apparently must wait for better times. Daily, more and more people are saying, 'OK, yes I am a Croat (or a Serb, or Slovene), but I am also hungry'. For half the cost of the armaments recently purchased by Slovenia, for example, the government could have created full employment in the republic.
"The second phase of this political evolution will see the emergence of parties — liberal parties and Social Democratic parties — that want to find solutions to the real problems of those republics, and only on that field will the independence of Croatia and Slovenia be really decided. The question is: will they be able to offer new alternatives to solve the economic and political problems?"