Human Rights in Serbia Today

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

Suzi Weissman interviews Nicola Barovic

I CONDUCTED THE following interview for Pacifica radio KPFK’s “Beneath the Surface” on August 22, 1997 with Nicola Barovic, who is married to Borka Pavicevic, the Serb democracy activist whose account of the movement against the Milosevic regime appeared in ATC 66. Both have continued to be very active, and he has now been targeted, and beaten. Nicola ended up with broken ribs, a concussion, and apparently needed surgery for the wounds. The transcript has been edited and abridged for publication, as a snapshot on the continuing turmoil and repression in Serbia. –Suzi Weissman

Suzi Weissman: Welcome to “Beneath the Surface.” As one of our regular Balkan Updates, I’m speaking with Nikola Barovic, a human rights lawyer in Belgrade, Serbia. Nikola, I understand that there has been an incident and that you have been beaten up. Can you tell us what’s going on and what led to this?

Nicola Barovic: Since the winter demonstrations all over Serbia and Belgrade, the government feels unstable and unsure. A very chauvinistic and very extremist party led by Vojislav Seselj who is well known to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, under government protection (has formed) a seemingly uncontrolled group to spread terror in one part of Belgrade, named Zemun.

They are expelling families from their apartments by force, irregularly, in violation of the laws, even when that poor family has received a decision from the Court to be allowed back, overturning the illegal eviction; then the Police don’t want to give assistance to the Court administration.

SW: Are the evictions based on their ethnicity, or on their class?

NB: It’s partly ethnicity, but also half the people who have been under this terror are Serbs. My conclusion is that the Government wants to show that terror is possible even in the big city, not just in some villages on the borders. I think the Government wants to make revenge to any of the citizens who were demonstrating against the government’s stealing of the elections last winter.

SW: Let’s refresh the listeners’ minds. There were spectacular demonstrations which went on for, was it three months? On a daily basis.

NB: Three months. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Belgrade and also in each big city in Serbia.

SW: Now, that was because Milosevic stole the elections. But now you are talking about Seselj….

NB: Seselj is a leader of a party which is very extremist…

SW: And it’s called the Radical Party? Is this formation what we often call a red-brown alliance, as appeared in the former Soviet Union, where former Stalinists allied with Fascists?

NB: Yes. It could be called that way. It was called, in Croatia, an “uncontrolled group” when the Government in Zagreb was always answering the quest about who was burning down houses. Now the Government in Serbia is using that excuse, “it’s not done by the Government” but by that radical extremist party.

But the moment that the Police didn’t want to assist and help the Court to realize the decisions [to reverse the evictions] then it became completely clear that the Government is behind that terror. Everyone in Belgrade agrees that the Government wants to show, in Zemun, that terror is possible even in the big city.

SW: In a way, I think what you are saying is that there is almost a collusion between the right-wing Radical Party and the Milosevic party.

NB: Yes. They are working together–that’s very obvious.

SW: And you see this as strengthening Milosevic’s power? What kind of support does the Serbian Radical Party have, how much support does it have in the population?

NB:  It was about 15% in the last election. It’s something like Le Pen in France.

SW: And Milosevic’s party, what kind of support does that have?

NB: They have approximately 20% at this moment.

SW: So even combined, they are not the majority. But they have power.

NB: They have power. We have to keep in mind that in all ex-Yugoslav republics, I mean, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina all together, we still have what we were calling during Communism the “Party State.” Literally, there are more parties than one. But the ruling party in each of these countries, in each of these new states, is controlling everything as it did during totalitarianism.

You can now say whatever you want–but they control the military, the air force, the police, the enterprises, the economy, kindergartens, hospitals, teachers–so opposition parties in this state are really facing not only the ruling party; they are challenged by the party state.

In that sense, even if they have more voters than the ruling party, it’s impossible for them to win. Really, it’s impossible for them to have really fair elections. That’s the problem.

SW: The only difference from before is that there is more freedom of speech, but you are being victimized precisely for exercising that freedom?  

NB: You are completely right. On one hand, we have more freedom of speech. But, on the other hand, no one has security or freedom for human life, and for the future. Especially if someone is a minority in one of those states.

SW: So, I think we understand a little bit of the background. Were defending the people who were evicted?

NB: I represented a few of the families in Zemun in the beginning of July. At the middle of July, one of the local TV stations which covers really 50% of Serbia, organized an open talk on live TV between me, as the representative of some families, and Seselj who is at the same time lord mayor of that country.

During that TV program, it was obvious that he was really lying and that he just based his position on the fact that he has the support of the Police…As the program came to the end, it was becoming more clear that he is under the control and in correlation with some branch of the Police and the Milosevic government.

SW: So, he’s acting like [part of] a goon squad?

NB: Yes. Then, in the building of the TV company, his guard attacked me physically. I didn’t expect that, I must say. I was sitting with one of the journalists from the TV center and drinking coffee and I didn’t even see them when they entered the room where we were sitting. As I was seated, the bodyguard hit me with his foot and then a few times with his hands. In the moment when I stood up, they walked out.

After that, the reaction in Belgrade and whole of Serbia was unbelievable. During the TV debate, Seselj was attacking a small boy [a 7-year-old member of the evicted family] as if he were a Nazi and ‘enemy,’ and he was asking who is coming to whose funerals, and he was insisting that he had a right to expel the families from their apartments. Right after that was when they attacked me.

The public response I don’t think they expected. They had gone too far, Seselj and the Government. It happens that a professor of theology, and communist veterans of the second world war, and a nationalistic party and a very liberal reform party that has completely open points of view, all came together to begin to defend a ‘basic citizen’s right,’ basic human rights.

SW: So this has turned out well because it’s galvanized support against the government and for basic human rights.

NB: Yes. And that’s unique after the winter–the first time that the whole opposition and the very different NGO organizations and groups of citizens like ex-communists and theologians are together and shared the same point of view in defending human rights.

ATC 71, November-December 1997