Demonstrations that bring down governments
Note: A slightly different version of this appeared as the weekend editorial in the paper..
I’m watching the demonstrations in Iran with the oddest feeling I’ve seen this movie before. In fact, I think I was an extra in a street scene.
In late 1996 I was living in Sofia, Bulgaria, and working at the Institute for Foreign Languages as an English teacher. It was interesting work, my students were a delight to teach, and the country was very beautiful.
Unfortunately, the work was rewarding only in the spiritual sense. I was getting paid in the local currency, Bulgarian leva, which was inflating at the rate of about 10 percent a day. My last payday amounted to $40 for the month, which became $36 dollars by the end of the day without me spending any of it.
On top of that, government offices would not accept their own country’s currency for fees and permits.
About that time, I heard that a friend of mine, Tomas Krsmanovic, a Serbian dissident, was being leaned on by the secret police. After communicating with a dissident-support network I worked with, I decided to relocate to Belgrade, on the theory that if I lived in Tomas’ lap, the thugocracy wouldn’t want to murder him in front of a foreign witness.
What was happening in former Yugoslavia were demonstrations in the capital, Belgrade, and many other cities around the country, to protest electoral fraud attempted by the government of Slobodan Milošević after the 1996 local elections.
Before I left, I marched with the people of Sofia down the yellow brick road (I’m NOT kidding) past the government offices, in a protest that brought down the last communist/coalition government.
A British traveller told me, “You ought to head to Albania, you’re on a roll!”
Within 24 hours I was in Belgrade in the middle of their demonstrations.
My friend helped me find jobs at two language schools and a room to rent (payment in Deutchmarks.) The lawyer of one school helped me get work and residence permits in order. (She was, by the way, a lovely young woman who bore, with reasonably good humor, the name Biljana Dracula.)
The demonstrations in Belgrade went on for 96 days and nights from November 1996 to February 1997, when Slobodan Milošević recognized the opposition victories.
Every night an estimated 17 percent of the city’s population (about 1,182,000 though it was hard to tell with war refugees and constant in-migration from the countryside) were on the streets marching, singing and making as much noise as they could during “pandemonium half-hour” when the official government news was broadcast. People not on the streets made noise from their apartment windows and balconies. Construction of homemade noisemakers was a thriving cottage industry.
I marched with students, working people, elegant ladies with furs, and little, old Babushkas beating on metal soup bowls. I couldn’t help it, the demonstrations were impossible to avoid. After work I just took the first demonstration heading home.
The government lined the streets with heavily armed paramilitaries recruited from Bosnian Serb refugees who had no connection with the local people – because the army announced they would not leave their barracks or fire on civilians.
The president’s wife, Mira Markovic or “the Red Queen,” made no secret she wanted the paramilitaries to fire on the demonstrators, but ultimately couldn’t find anyone willing to give the order. The order went down as far as it could go, to a vice-police chief who refused even after they had his son beaten up.
Finally, they had to cave in to the demands of the protesters, and the regime’s days were numbered. In revenge, they had the vice-chief murdered with machine guns Chicago-style, in a pizzeria not far from my work.
Milosevic had to resign from the presidency of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 2000 and ultimately died in prison while on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity.
That’s how tyrannies fall, and that’s what we should watch for in Iran. Whether the demonstrators win this round or not, my gut tells me this is the death rattle of a dying regime.
Maybe later than sooner – this regime may indeed be willing to shoot down demonstrators by the hundreds. But if it does, it’ll never be able to pretend legitimacy again, and our diplomatic president will have a really hard time explaining how his silver tongue will fix everything.
Leave a Reply