Serbia in the 1990s: An Introduction to [Nonviolent] Protest in Eastern Europe

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on any of the topics or subjects discussed below. 

By Braden Longstreth

There is a prevailing idea that social beliefs are determined by political boundaries. In the US, pundits often talk about the difference between red states and blue states and an increasingly divided and polarized America.[1] It promotes a level of antagonism between traditionally liberal and conservative states, yet every state is made up of a wide array of people with beliefs from every point on the political spectrum.

A map of the 2020 election with each state colored to the proportional share of the vote each candidate received.[2]

When the governor of a state like Texas, which has voted for Republicans for president every year since 1972, authors a bill targeting transgender children and their parents, many from the opposite end of the political spectrum are quick to call the state of Texas backwards. People suggesting that transgender people “just move” out of Texas, or that something like this was destined to happen in a red state, ignores the millions of people across the state of Texas who oppose this type of discrimination against transgender people and those who have taken to protesting this bill.

A similar idea of politics was fostered during the Cold War. It is painted as a time of absolute nationalism, and each cultural victory like the space race or the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics seemingly united entire nations. The hegemonic fight between capitalism and communism is often characterized by total allegiance to the government. However, the idea that people at this time did not protest their governments, particularly people in Eastern Europe, provides a very incomplete picture of the landscape of this region.

In 1984, the Yugoslav city of Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics. The International Olympic Committee selected Sarajevo over the Swedish city of Göteborg and the Japanese city of Sapporo, in part because they wanted to champion Sarajevo as a beacon of multiculturalism. [3] The country of Yugoslavia was founded in 1918 in the wake of World War I in what used to be the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The country would eventually dissolve into six separate nations: the majority Catholic nations of Croatia and Slovenia, the majority Eastern Orthodox Christian nations of Serbia and Macedonia, and the majority Muslim nations of Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fact that a Slavic national identity was able to keep Yugoslavia together was seen as a resounding success by the international community. Following the death of President Josip Tito, however, nationalist cracks began to show. Eight years after the 1984 Olympics, Yugoslavia was split into six different countries and Sarajevo was entrenched in warfare. In the same year as the Sarajevo Olympics, a man named Slobodan Milošević was elected to the Belgrade League of Communists City Committee.[4] By 1987, he was the president of Serbia and he had consolidated the media to be under his control. [5] His political ideology was very nationalistic. He wanted to be another great unifier of the region, yet ethnic divisions of Bosniaks and Kosovars came to play a dividing role that Slavic identity alone could not overcome.[6] Milošević organized a series of protests attacking the governments of autonomous regions, promising to unite Serbia from its northernmost village of Horgoš to its southernmost point at Dragaš.[7]

A quote: 'The crisis that hit Yugoslavia has brought about national divisions, but also social, cultural, relgious, and many other less important ones. Among all these division, nationalist ones have shown themselves to be the most dramatic. Resolving them will make it easier to remove other divisions and mitigate the consequences they have created.'
An excerpt from Slobodan Milošević’s Gazimestan Speech [8]

The speech was given on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, where Serbia fell to the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Orthodox Christianity is a large part of Serbian identity, and many Serbs felt for centuries that the Muslim Kosovars sold out the Serbs to the Ottomans. Milošević’s speech here is credited with galvanizing the Serbian population towards war.

In 1992, war broke out in Bosnia. While Bosnia was majority Muslim, there was a sizeable minority of ethnically Serbian Orthodox Christians living in the country. The stated aim of the Serbian government was to protect the Serbian minority contingent, yet when Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in April of 1992, the Serbian military lay siege to Sarajevo, starting an occupation that lasted nearly four years. [9] As the war raged on, the international community sought diplomatic actions, but in the summer of 1995, disaster struck. Serbian forces came to the eastern Bosnian village of Srebrenica, which had been designated a UN safe zone, and massacred roughly twenty-thousand people, with thousands more displaced. Serbian General Ratko Mladić vowed to “take revenge” on the Muslim population, and the Serbian leadership promised “blood to the knees” at Srebrenica, both intending to expel the Muslim population to ensure a Serbian majority. It was the ethnic Serbian majority, however, that opposed Milošević and that helped lead to his eventual downfall.

Otpor, a student-led nonviolent organization, played a huge role in the movement to overthrow Milošević. The movement began with creative street theater, running public plays that mocked Milošević and his government. The movement continued to grow, and by 2000, Otpor was a political group that had organized in over a hundred towns nationwide, recruiting members and forming coalitions to run against Milošević’s party in the 2000 elections. [10]

A crowd of protesters in Belgrade
Protesters in Belgrade, Photo: Srdjan Veljovic

Otpor was started by young, educated progressives, and the mediums they used to protest like comedy television and Rock n’ Roll music were despised by the Serbian government, specifically because they showed the cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic nature of its citizens.[11] The popular resistance against the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing has persisted, even twenty-five years later. In November 2021, two women were arrested when they threw eggs at a mural of Ratko Mladić, the man who carried out the Srebrenica Massacre.[12] Following their arrest, hundreds gathered on the street to protest the police, and other activists threw paint on the mural.[13] [14]

Whenever conflicts like this take place, it is important to remember that a nation’s citizens and its politicians are different, and they can hold markedly different beliefs. Eastern Europeans are not without agency and are not beholden to autocratic rulers, and it is always important to take account of the work of those seeking justice. The relationships of Eastern European countries with each other, as well as with the US, are still often contentious. It is a region that many people continuously misrepresent, and when conflicts arise in this region, it is important to examine the nature of the conflict and the reactions around it.

[1] Alan Ehrenhalt, “What Painted Us So Indelibly Red and Blue?”, August 3rd, 2021, Governing.

[2] Purple States of America”, Accessed February 28th.

[3]Sarajevo ’84: the human legacy that has stood the test of time”, June 21st, 2019, IOC.

[4] “BBC Summary of World Broadcasts; 18 April 1984, Wednesday; Belgrade LC City Committee officials elected; Source: Yugoslav News Agency 1229 gmt 16 April 1984.”

[5] John B. Allock et al. “Serbia” Encyclopedia Britannica, (accessed October 29, 2021).

[6] Robert Thomas, The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s, p. 9 (Columbia University Press, New York: 1999).

[7] Ibid, Robert Thomas p. 45.

[8] Milošević, Slobodan, “Slobodan Milošević’s 1989 St. Vitus Day Speech,” (speech, Gazimestan, June 28th, 1989), Political Speeches.

[9] M. Cherif Bassiouni, “Annex VI – part 1/10 Study of the battle and siege of Sarajevo”, DePaul University.

[10] Lester Kurtz, “Otpor and the Struggle for Democracy in Serbia (1998-2000)”, February 2010, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

[11] Florance Hartmann, “A Statement at the Seventh Biennial Meeting of the International Association of Genocide Scholars” July, 2007, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

[12]Serbia’s police detain activist throwing eggs at war criminal mural” Dec 16, 2021, Euractiv.

[13] Milica Stojanovic, “Ratko Mladic Mural Hit by Paint Attack in Belgrade” November 10th, 2021, BalkanInsight.

[14] That is not to say that the event was without supporters, as counter-protesters shouted insults at the initial protesters.