Zoran Djindjic

In His Own Words: Zoran Djindjic

In January, 2001, Zoran Djindjic became prime minister of Serbia after his victorious effort leading the Kostunica presidential campaign. He was assassinated on March 12, 2003 by a gunman with ties to the Serbia Secret Police.

Who were the major players in this struggle — your generation, young people, both?

In a technical sense, all of them participated. But in some central sense, I think young people. I think it was crucial even on [the] 5th of October, but also before that. People around Milosevic were pressed to kill their children. It was in a symbolic way — to push them to go to other countries, to leave Serbia. 400,000 young people left Serbia in the last 10 years. And it was [a] problem for the parents and it was a problem for the police parents and parents in his party.

He pushed them. The system and his government were confronted with young people. And it was a very, very hard choice on this day to shoot the people knowing that maybe your children [were] there. And I know most generals in the police - their children, they were among the demonstrators. And Milosevic created a system and he was not able to fulfill [the] elementary wishes of young people. And his government, his regime was based on people between 50 and 70. They were [the] old generation.

And he confronted in a very radical way, this old generation with their children, hoping that they would sacrifice their children to protect power. And it didn't work. And in some sense it [was] ironic. Because communism in Yugoslavia was born by confrontation between young people and their parents. And it was proof of loyalty to the party if you could kill your father. You are a young revolutionary and your father is a conservative and a reactionary bank official or something, in the beginning of this communist revolution. And this party was a very small group built on this loyalty — you are ready to kill your parents because of your loyalty to the party and the ideology.

And at the end of this process, we have Milosevic with his attempt to order his supporters to go against their children. And it didn't work. And I think Otpor was very important. Otpor organized these young people, but Otpor was only a network... and maybe 70% of these people were young people. And on this day in Belgrade, of the 700,000 or 800,000 people, I think more than half were young people. And it was, I think, crucial for this energy.

In the last few years we had big rallies, with huge energy, but not [such] clear confrontations. And the people around Milosevic didn't see that as a confrontation against their children. They saw that as a confrontation with the opposition. The opposition is something against the regime, against government. They are a part of government. And they were ready to protect the government. But now it was a real fight between Milosevic as a dictator, a lonely dictator, and Serbian society, represented by children.

And of course it was part of our strategy to ridicule Milosevic and to bring him so far that he must declare war against the young generation. And Otpor played a role, but not only Otpor. Other students and organizations of young people in Serbia also played a very important role.

Why did you put such emphasis on nonviolent methods?

We used Gandhi as a guideline. And our basic proposition was if a very large amount of people are ready to show peaceful resistance to the government for enough time, no government is strong enough to resist. And it was Gandhi's idea — peaceful resistance — by showing that we are not accepting. We don't want to accept this government. Just showing that we don't want to accept. This government doesn't express our wishes, not in a political sense, or in a moral sense. Just to say, we don't accept this government and if the majority of people are ready to show this daily, the government cannot resist.

The idea wasn't to bring Milosevic on a moral problem. We knew that he could not be taken. He could not be influenced by this moral point of view. But we knew that the people around him would be. We knew that Milosevic can resist only with support from [the] police and army. And we knew if we can affect [the] police and army around him - and bring them to think: should they support Milosevic or the people? — that he cannot survive. And it was very important for us to find symbols of this very wide national resistance and to show to the police and to [the] army that it's not just opposition against government, but it is people against Milosevic. And the symbols of these people were students and young people and mine workers.

And of course, Gandhi is absolutely a model of how to do that. If you have a dictatorship, you can upset the dictatorship by using violence. But we didn't have this kind of violence; or by foreign intervention, but we didn't want foreign intervention; or by organizing the majority, in the sense that the majority is the moral winner. Before the dictator is upset, the majority must show that it is stronger than the dictator.

We tried to do that in '99, but we didn't affect the people around Milosevic. The police and army were stable at this time. And what was very crucial this year was that we succeeded by influencing the police around Milosevic. Not as supporters of the opposition, but as supporters of this kind of nonviolent resistance against a dictator who is ready to kill his own people to stay in power.

It was too much for these police officers who were ready to kill other people over the past ten years. They are not just police officers - they are people from special forces, from police involved in very dark events from our past. But it was the limit for these people to kill their own children on the streets.

Our strategy was to push Milosevic so far from normal life that he became a symbol of the sickness of this society — Milosevic, his family, and the circle around him. By the end, they were a symbol of extremism. And I think it was Gandhi's idea also to compare normal people to something not normal, something extreme, something not acceptable for normal people.

What did the opposition learn about nonviolent methods in the protests of 1996-97?

Two lessons. One [was] that we must have a very clear strategy and we didn't have this. We just had a routine — protesting, protesting, protesting and hoping something [would] happen. And it was very risky. Milosevic was able to wait. He didn't care about the economy, three months of strikes. His problem [was] just his power, and if we [were] not strong enough to replace him by using violence, he [didn't] care.

What is your opinion of the NATO bombing campaign?

Absolutely, it was a tragic event. I was surprised that the Serbian opposition survived that. My expectation was that after the NATO bombing it would take five years to have a Democratic opposition again. Fortunately it didn't, but it was designed absolutely to mobilize people's support around Milosevic. We don't have any case in history that after this kind of intervention, a dictator is weaker. This type of intervention makes dictators stronger because the people feel that it is an attack against their country. And they are not sophisticated [enough] to find out who is to blame.

They see bombs, and the bombs are American bombs, and the Americans bombed us, and it means that we are victims. Milosevic was president at this time. It means we must support our president to protect our country. That is normal, normal people do think in this way.

And this bombing didn't have any strategy. It wasn't part of a plan. It was the wrong estimation that Milosevic will accept an agreement after three days of bombing. He didn't accept and after that it was an [open-ended] game. Nobody knew what would happen after a hundred days of bombing or two hundred days of bombing. It was like Iraq. We will bomb and see what will happen.

And fortunately, we survived as opposition, but it was a miracle. It was not normal. It was not logical. And ironically the people from the Western countries tried to convince us that the bombing helped us. It [was] aid to the Serbian Democratic forces — to bomb Serbia and to bomb bridges and to bomb buses and to bomb factories? It [was] stupid.

And in the cities with opposition governments — Novi Sad, Nis, Cacak, Kragujevac — there were bombs. In Pozarevac, Milosevic's city, a symbol of Milosevic, not one bomb. I don't want to say that they should bomb Pozarevac. But it was very ironic to bomb Nis, a city with 60% of votes for the opposition in '96, a mayor who is Vice President for the Democratic Party, a poor city against Milosevic with 50 bombs in 50 days.

I don't understand the reason, but I don't think they had strategy. That it was just without [a clear] idea, just to continue and not to have resolution. Just to hope something [would] happen. It is kind of Milosevic's politics. To start something and to hope something will happen.

How did DOS come to exist, and how was Kostunica picked?

We had three phases. The first phase was until August, when Milosevic called elections. In June and July, we didn't know about the presidential elections and when we conducted polls, Kostunica had 4%, Milosevic 18% and all the others 2,3, or 4 percent. And 60 to 65% of people were dissatisfied with politicians in general. And no politicians had [any] credibility. But we knew that Kostunica had the potential to increase his rating and it started when we chose him as our candidate. It was the first time in ten years that the opposition had a single candidate. And 18 parties. And it was a symbol and a signal for the people that the opposition was united.

And to have a candidate, that is a very serious decision. And we made this decision. And five days after that Kostunica won 15% percent. In one week from 4% to 15%. And after that, he continually rose and by the end had more than 50%.

But [the] second problem was that the people didn't believe that he could win. People believed that he had 40%, but at the same time, only 20% of people believed that he [could] win. They knew that Milosevic [had] only 20%, but in some way, despite this very low rating, he [would] arrange to win, to manipulate something. And our strategy was to show that we are strong. Not to show that Kostunica is popular, but to show that we are well organized and prepared to protect victory.

And in that last seven days, our main issue was control. And we tried to convince the people that we [had] control [election monitors]. Milosevic cannot steal. You must trust us and you must go to vote because we will protect your votes. We have control. And the last phase of the campaign was actually showing that we have control. And we had control. We had 20,000 people [polling station observers] trained to control.

How did you convince people their votes would be counted accurately?

Because all the people in Serbia said, "Okay, in the polls Kostunica will win, but on the ground Milosevic will win because he will steal. It's clear, he's a dictator. He will not accept defeat through elections. He can accept defeat only by violence." And on the ground people saw that we [had] control. There's 10,000 [polling places] and there's between six hundred and a thousand people [running] these ballots places, each with two people for control from our side.

And we [had] enough time to inform the people that we [had] control. And these 800 people knew that if they [voted] for us, we [would be] able to protect that. And in the last ten days, or seven days, I think that the majority of the people thought Kostunica [would] win and believed that he [would] win. Not just theoretically, but practically — that he can protect his victory.

What was your campaign strategy?

Our fundamental strategy was to focus on [the] future and to say there is no future with Milosevic and our future is the children. And our message to the people was, Serbia will participate in the world and get back to the world, or your children will go to the world. There's no other way. We will be part of the world, or your children will be part of the world without you. And Milosevic is an obstacle for Serbia to be integrated in the world.

And the world, that is the economy. The world is not politics, not ideology. All of that is suspect in Serbia because of the war in Kosovo last year conducted by the most developed countries. The Western world for us is the economy, of course, and living standards and salaries and employment. But the substance of the campaign and the form of the campaign was that Milosevic is evil. He is an obstacle for us. He has the key to the door leading to the world.

And we had another story. It was [a] real story about the world as a market waiting for us to come buy something for money. And we are in prison and we cannot go out because Milosevic is this man keeping us in prison. But his story was the contrary — that the world is a conspiracy and full of dangers. And he is protecting us. He and his people are protecting us and we are [the] last free nation in the world.

The situation is the same. But if you can define the situation as prison, you can mobilize people against him. If he can define the situation as protection, as some kind of medieval fortress, the people will accept all that happens; low salaries and unemployment and poverty, because that is the price for freedom and dignity.

And we knew we cannot have full news stories. We must just return his story. Because after ten years of this kind of propaganda, you cannot just say, "It is stupid to be a nationalist, it is better to be a citizen of the world." The people don't understand this new language. And we just returned his story and we said, "He doesn't protect us. He is the man who took us to prison. And Serbia is not the last free space in the world. Serbia is [the] most unfree space in the world. Serbia is Cuba. Serbia is an island of violence in the middle of peaceful Europe."

Was there a different strategy after the election on September 24?

I think that the crucial phase was between [September] the 24th and [October] 5th, not before. Most of them [people in the regime] expected Milosevic to win before the 24th. The majority of them were dissatisfied with this government, of course, but they had interests. They were very privileged in this government, and they didn't have any guarantee of what would happen to them after the possible change. They were not ready to cooperate before the 24th.

The 24th was a surprise. We had won. We knew that we [would] win. We knew, and we knew that Milosevic [would] not accept. And our advantage was we were prepared for [the] second step. That he... will not accept our victory, and he will try to manipulate after that. And in a normal case, if you don't expect... that, you would not be prepared. You would show uncertainty in making decisions. But we were prepared. We knew that he [would] try to cancel and to reject the results and to organize a second round. And our decision was not to participate. And to show the people around him a clear alternative.

And his idea was to manipulate this second round and to just cancel elections. To say, "It is not possible to see who has won, we will organize [new] elections in six months." And over this six months he would kill us. It was clear.

But our strategy was to create a very radical alternative: be with Milosevic against the people, or stay with the new, elected president and with your people. And between the 24th and the 4th of October, we negotiated with people from the police, not from the army. We didn't have access to the army. We tried, but the army has special status in Serbia. They are not part of society, they are apart. And it is not so easy to make contact with them. We, of course, had contact with some persons, but not with the [command] structures.

And in the police we had contacts to the people representing some units and we knew that some units [would] not act against the people. If Milosevic orders them to use violence, they will not use violence. We knew that they [would] not use violence. But on the 5th after we went into the city, we met them, and they said to us that they [would] protect us. It was the second step. The first step was to guarantee that they [would] not use violence if Milosevic orders it. After these events they were ready if Milosevic used violence through army intervention, they would protect us against the army intervention. And it was finished. After these guarantees, I knew that Milosevic was finished.

Did the people who came to the Federal Parliament on October 5 know that you had made agreements with police?

Of course, absolutely nobody knew. Not all people from DOS [the coalition, Democratic Opposition of Serbia] knew that. Because it was a very sensitive thing... And we had people prepared for possible conflict with the police. We didn't know how [the] police would react. We knew that some part of police [would] not react against the people, but we didn't [know] about all parts of police. And we were prepared for two, three, four days of struggle...

Our idea was to bring these people into this city square to demonstrate for one hour. And we had our people inside of these buildings. They were prepared to open the windows from the backside and to let our people come into these buildings and to take weapons from the security people in these buildings, in the Parliament building. And to open the door and to have two or three thousand people in Parliament. And to start with protests and to ask for Milosevic's resignation.

We expected more violence, but not at the beginning. We expected we would take these buildings, and we would start with the occupation of these buildings and with our proposal to Milosevic and his government. And we expected Milosevic would try to attack us with the army or the police. We were sure that we would resist, but we counted on some hundred deaths. People in the demonstration and police. And we knew after that Milosevic [could not] survive.

But it happened for us very quickly. We were surprised with the speed of this development and we were surprised that nobody from the police intervened. Not only our people in the police, but nobody in the police was ready to intervene. And it was a surprise for us, but it was partly a consequence of these ten days of high, extreme pressure in all of Serbia. The general strike with the traffic blockade, with daily rallies in all the cities. The police were very, very confused. They got messages from all parts of the country — that it is not the opposition, it is revolution. It's in small cities, in 50 cities at the same time, blockades. And other people were absolutely ready to upset Milosevic.

It was crucial that we left enough time for these people in [the] regime to understand what is going on. It was not just [a] one day revolution, but it was ten days with daily increasing this pressure — and Serbia was [blockaded.] By the end, it was absolutely clear that [the] majority [was] against Milosevic.

We are a traditional society and two symbols are mine workers and students. Symbols of having rights. You cannot use violence against a mine worker. It is a symbol of social solidarity. You can use violence against the opposition, against university professors, but not against students. Students are a group understood. For most people, students are the future and they are not waiting for or fighting for power, for positions in the government. They are fighting for the future. And to have students and mine workers on our side was very important for the people [around] Milosevic.

On Milosevic's confrontation with mine workers and students:

Milosevic doesn't care about this kind of pressure, he doesn't care. If he has enough electricity and Serbia doesn't have enough electricity, that's a problem for Serbia. I think he was not a normal president taking care of the country and the people and of the consequences of his orders. It was more provocation for his ideology. He's a leftist and his wife is on the extreme left. And if the mine workers are against them, there is something wrong. That is crucial for them and they were so nervous about it that they sent the army to prevent it. And it was a mistake, of course.

It was mistake to confront the students and the mine workers. It was a huge mistake, but we counted on this mistake. We did [everything] to push Milosevic to make mistakes. And we knew if he made mistakes in these ten days — the biggest mistake was not to recognize [the] elections. It was very simple for him to say, "Okay I lost the presidential elections, but I have the government in Serbia. I have the police. I have television," but he made a mistake. It is normal to expect a dictator to make mistakes.

And it was a very risky game. But we counted on Milosevic's character. That he cannot accept defeat, personal defeat. And we made these elections a personal issue for Milosevic. His personal fight. It wasn't necessary for Milosevic to say, "Okay those are just elections. Even I can lose elections one to ten. I won five elections and I lost one election. Okay, but I will win the next elections in Serbia." It would be the end for us. But fortunately he wasn't very realistic. He was very nervous [about] our campaign.

We moralized this campaign and made a referendum about Milosevic--not about the presidency, but about him personally, his character, his family. And it worked. Fortunately, it worked and at the end he didn't have control over himself.

Excerpted from an interview with Steve York: Belgrade, December 1, 2000.