The Church’s Role in Serbia’s Peaceful Revolution

For years the Serbian Orthodox Church issued appeals for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to retire from political office and supported efforts to create a democratic government. At last, with astonishing speed, dramatic change happened, with the Church playing a major role, even while remaining independent of political parties. In addressing the Serbian people, the Church repeatedly called for peaceful resolution of conflict, recognition of democratic processes, and for the rule of law. When it became clear that Milosevic and his government would not recognize the opposition victory, the Church weighed in at the crucial time by recognizing opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica as “president-elect.” Here is a day-by-day chronology of events leading up to the change in government and the church’s response at critical junctures.

July 6: The Yugoslav parliament, dominated by Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party, changed the constitution to allow for direct election of the Yugoslav president and multiple terms. It also reduced the influence of the Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro in Yugoslav federation affairs. The changes were attacked by the opposition, which recognized them as ways for Milosevic to extend his hold on power past his July 2001 term expiration.

July 24: Parliament passed laws implementing the constitutional changes.

July 25: Most opposition parties agreed to participate in upcoming elections as a coalition despite doubts about the possibility of fair elections. Montenegrin leaders opposed to Milosevic indicated they would boycott the elections.

July 27: Elections for Yugoslav president and parliament were set for September 24. It was assumed Milosevic had an advantage in quick elections.

August 7: A coalition of 18 opposition parties – the Democratic Opposition of Serbia – joined together to nominate Dr. Vojislav Kostunica, a moderate nationalist with strong democratic credentials and a clean reputation, to run against Milosevic for the Yugoslav presidency. The largest opposition party, Vuk Draskovic’s Serbian Renewal Movement, decided to field its own candidate, threatening to split the opposition vote. Montenegrin leaders opposed to Milosevic continued with their plan to boycott the elections as unfair.

August 16: Kostunica blasted a U.S. plan to funnel aid to his opposition coalition as “flagrant interference in the internal affairs” of Yugoslavia. He also warned that Milosevic would attempt to win the election “by having all sorts of candidates running to disperse votes, by stealing votes and so on.”

August 28: Bishop Sava of Sumadija met with members of the G17 group of economic and technical experts which were often critical of the Milosevic regime. Bishop Sava stated for the record that the “Church is utterly dissatisfied and disappointed with the actions of the State, especially with the ignoring of all requests submitted by the Serbian Orthodox Church.” He cited in particular the refusal to return Church properties and parish records confiscated following World War II and the refusal to allow religious education in the schools.

September 4: Patriarch Pavle issued an “Appeal on the Forthcoming Elections and the Situation in Montenegro” in which he called all to pray for “peace, to do their utmost in their surroundings so as to abate political tension and to eradicate chauvinist narrow-mindedness and exclusivism, racial and ideological hatred, political fanaticism, and clan and tribal psychology.” He asked for reconciliation between Serbia and Montenegro and a rededication to unity. He also asked “the authorized state bodies to do their utmost so that the approaching elections should be regular, fair, free and recognized by everyone.”

September 6: Serbian Patriarch Pavle met with George Papandreou, Foreign Affairs Minister of Greece, who praised the Church’s “fight for an open and democratic Serbia” and told the Patriarch that he felt certain “the European Union was ready to welcome Serbia as an Orthodox and democratic country.”

September 15: The Holy Synod of Bishops expressed:

“its extreme worry about to the general situation in our Fatherland and among our people concerning the nearing elections which represent, without any doubt, an important moment in the overcoming of accumulated problems, and it therefore appeals to all the participants to do their utmost so that the elections should pass in mutual tolerance, as a fair expression of the people’s will, and with full observance of evangelic and democratic principles which are generally recognized by the civilized world. At the same time, the Holy Synod of Bishops appeals to the representatives of the current authorities to refrain from exerting pressure which intimidates people in the pre-election campaign and prevents them from electing, freely and according to their consciousness, authorities who will be recognized by everybody in the country and abroad.”

September 19: Patriarch Pavle reiterated the appeal of September 15 while distancing the Church from an endorsement of Milosevic made by Bishop Filaret of Mileseva: “The statement of Bishop Filaret does not represent the attitude of the Serbian Orthodox Church but the personal opinion of this bishop.”

September 21: On the eve of the elections the Synod made a final appeal for calm and recognition of the rule of law:

“so that the results should express the true will of the people. Those results must be accepted by all the participants, since we know that in the whole civilized world, power is lost or gained only and exclusively through free and democratic elections… If someone tries to alter the people’s will, there is the danger of unpredictable consequences… All responsible people of good will – those now in power and those who are not – must do their best to ensure things do not come to fratricidal slaughter.”

September 24: Elections took place. By the next day, based on precinct counts, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia and Kostunica claimed an outright victory over Milosevic. The electoral commission, packed with Milosevic supporters, stalled on declaring the results.

September 26: Patriarch Pavle received Kostunica, who reported the results and expressed concern as to the acceptance by the government. A church statement about the meeting said:

“Patriarch Pavle thanked Dr. Kostunica for his attitude and behavior… and for the striving of the Democratic Opposition to make the elections and the post-electoral period pass in a peaceful and dignified manner. In the whole civilized world politicians lose and gain power solely and exclusively through free and democratic elections. His Holiness expects the parties in power to accept the will of the people shown in the elections, thus contributing to the good of the people and the state. Patriarch Pavle invited all the people, including the army and the police, to defend the interests of the people and of the state and not of individuals.”

That evening, the Electoral Commission announced results which gave Kostunica less than fifty percent of the vote and called for a runoff election. Kostunica rejected the report as a fraud and announced the opposition would not accept a runoff because it would be “endorsing theft.” Popular street celebrations of the opposition victory turned into protests.

September 27: The Patriarchate’s news service published messages of congratulation to Vojislav Kostunica on his election as president from His Eminence Metropolitan Amphilohije of Montenegro and His Grace Bishop Sava of Sumadija. Metropolitan Amphilohije’s message expressed the hope that the election would reestablish unity between Serbia and Montenegro. Bishop Sava’s message reiterated verbal congratulations given to Dr. Kostunica the day after the elections and welcomed his “wisdom and sense” to be used for “the benefit of all the citizens of our afflicted and distressed country that was wanting everything and most of all freedom.” He added that he was “especially joyful about the fact that this country has gained its first faithful [Orthodox Christian] president since World War II in your esteemed self.”

September 28: In a statement reported throughout the world, the Church recognized Dr. Kostunica as the “President-elect of Yugoslavia,” and invited him and his fellow elected officials to take their lawful offices. The statement called for a peaceful transition so that the future would be blessed by God. In issuing this statement, the Church rejected the electoral fraud being perpetrated by the Milosevic government and aligned itself with the lawful results of the elections. Kostunica sent the following message to Patriarch Pavle in response to his public recognition of him as President-elect:

Thank you for receiving me two days ago in such a kindly manner, although without previous arrangements. I would like to state some of my intentions regarding the paternal requests directed to me and my co-elected fellows in today’s statement of the Holy Synod of Bishops. First of all, you can be sure that every step I take will be peaceful and, as much as it is within my rather small power, dignified. I hope you believe me when I say that I care for peace, for our afflicted country and our troubled people, as much as for freedom. I also hope you believe me when I say that I will strive to behave most responsibly, always having in mind the words of the New Testament. I believe Your Holiness would not mind if I feel free and maybe, in a couple of days, again ask help with conceiving further measures to defend the electoral will of the citizens. The responsibility is really too huge a burden for an ordinary mortal, and therefore your paternal advice would be really precious to me.

September 29: General strikes and large demonstrations throughout Serbia sought to force Milosevic to admit defeat. The opposition filed a formal protest with the election commission over its ruling that a second round of voting was necessary. The opposition vowed to keep pressure up on Milosevic to recognize his defeat through peaceful means and civil disobedience. State-run news sources ignored the protests and refused to discuss the elections.

September 30: The electoral commission rejected the opposition’s appeal.

October 2: Strikes and protests picked up steam throughout Serbia. Coal miners at the Kolubara and Kostolac mines stopped production, threatening power supplies. Riot police attempted and failed to break the strikes. Shops were closed with signs saying “Closed due to theft,” a reference to the elections. The Church’s news service published congratulations from Bishop Georgije of Canada to Dr. Kostunica on his electoral victory.

October 3: Portions of the state-run media began to take an independent line, while many media companies suffered strikes and walkouts by staff.

October 4: The Constitutional Court heard the complaint of the Democratic Opposition that election results had been falsified by the government. The Court later that evening voided the election results and called for a new vote. The opposition was outraged. Large demonstrations and extensive strikes threatened to paralyze the country. The opposition gave Milosevic until 3 PM October 5 to concede defeat. A large contingent of police was sent to break up the strike at the Kolubara coal mines, the largest in the county. The miners held firm in defense of their votes. Patriarch Pavle made a statement on the radio asking the army and police to respect the will of the people and maintain peace in accordance with democratic principles.

October 5: People began to come to Belgrade from all across Serbia to demand justice, pushing aside police roadblocks. Thousands of people went to the Kolubara mines to stand with the miners and protect them from police attacks. His Grace Bishop Sava of Sumadija, whose diocese includes Kolubara, sent the following letter to the strikers:

For centuries the Church has been praying daily for you, since you earn your bread in the most difficult way. Every day, in morning and evening services, the Church mentions distressed people, miners as well, which means that you have always been on our minds. In these very important days, we are especially worried about you, our diligent and industrious brothers, you who provided means of life in these very difficult conditions for you and your family and at the same time granted means so as to adorn our glorious Kolubara with seven new churches. In that way you proved your loyalty and devotion to the Serbian Orthodox Church. We would like to greet you and tell you that we are with you, we support you in winning freedom about which it has been spoken for 50 years, but which did not exist. We appeal to all our children in the army and the police not to fight against their brothers and thus incur God’s wrath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Mat. 26:52). Do not let anybody’s blood be spilt, since spilt blood cries to Heaven and falls on those who shed it and their descendants. Greeting all our miners, we ask them to endure till the end knowing that the whole Serbian people are with them in this troublesome time.

Half a million people gathered in the streets of Belgrade for a 3 PM rally to demand the will of the people be respected. Bishop Artemije of Raska and Prizren, as president of the Serbian National Council of Kosovo, sent the following message to the Belgrade rally:

To the elected President of FRY by the will of the people, Dr. Vojislav Kostunica, and the rebelling Serbian people gathered at the pan-Serbian meeting in Belgrade: Brothers and sisters, Serbian people: It is with regret that we are unable to be physically with you today but we assure you we are with you in prayer and thought. Everything has been said by now, everything has been seen by now, and the only thing which remains for us to do is to urge you: Persevere in your defense of the freely expressed will of the people and save Serbia.

When the 3 PM deadline passed without a concession from Milosevic, the demonstrators stormed the Parliament building and the studios of Radio-Television Serbia. Police in both instances put up light resistance and then withdrew, with some joining the demonstrators. Within hours state-run media abandoned the regime’s line and began serious coverage of the crisis. Patriarch Pavle again called for the electoral will of the people to be respected, for the police and military to support the peaceful transfer of power, and for peace. As it became clear that the police and military would not attempt to put down the crowds by force, the people understood that a new day had dawned for Serbia.

By the evening of Thursday, October 5, the demonstrations had turned into celebrations of victory, and Vojislav Kostunica was able to address the crowd saying, “Good evening, Liberated Serbia!”

Only two people lost their lives, one by heart attack and another in an accidental fall. Fewer than 70 were injured, few seriously.

October 6: Patriarch Pavle met with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov at the Patriarchate, following the Minister’s meetings with Kostunica and Milosevic. The Patriarch emphasized the Church’s desire to see the will of the people carried out in a peaceful and responsible way.

The Patriarch and the Synod sent an open letter to the head of the Yugoslav Army, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, saying:

In this extremely difficult period for our people and our state I approach you, in the name of the Serbian Orthodox Church and in my personal name, with a request to do your utmost so that our Army should respect the people’s will and stand with its people. Lieutenant General, I kindly ask you and our national Army to accept publicly what all our people and the democratic world has accepted, and that is the fact that Vojislav Kostunica is president-elect and president of the Supreme Defense Council of our Army.

He appealed to the army to stay “on the right side of the people’s will, truth, justice and law.”

At 5 PM many thousands attended a prayer service “for the salvation and reconciliation of the Serbian people” on the plaza in front of the great St. Sava Church. At the conclusion of the service Patriarch Pavle addressed the people with these words:

Dear brothers and sisters, We have prayed to God, the only Giver of peace and love, to multiply peace, love and brotherly accord in us and among us, especially now, when our State should undergo a general transformation, experience the lifting of sanctions and establish relations with the world, all of which we have wanted and expected for so long. We have also prayed to God to give us the gift of the ability to repent, forgive and reconcile and to remove from our hearts and minds any thought of hatred, revenge and conflict.

We would like to thank all the faithful children of the Serbian Orthodox Church for showing the kind of responsibility that was so much needed in this difficult period, having heeded our words of advice and the appeals of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Let us pray to God to receive in the Kingdom of Heaven the souls of the people innocently killed yesterday, and to grant quick recovery to those who sustained serious and light injuries.

Once again we ask all the state organs of Serbia, Montenegro and Yugoslavia, and especially the army and the police, to accept as soon as possible the people’s will expressed by the elections on September 24, and to recognize the newly elected president Mr. Vojislav Kostunica as the whole democratic world has already done. That is the only precondition for legal order to be established, and for our afflicted country to tread the path of rebirth and reconstruction. We pray to God that in the coming days all of us should behave in the spirit of Christ’s words: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them,” and we pray that He should grant us evangelic courage, firmness, wisdom, feeling of responsibility, accord, goodness and love. Amen. God grant it.

The day was crowned when Slobodan Milosevic conceded defeat. Yet he caused consternation by announcing his plans to remain a force in politics.

October 7: Dr. Vojislav Kostunica was sworn in as president of Yugoslavia.

October 9: Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica visited Patriarch Pavle at the Patriarchate, where church-state relations were discussed.

October 10: Patriarch Pavle appealed to “the new state authorities to take full responsibility for everything that has been happening in our county and energetically stop unruly individuals who can inflict serious material and moral damage – by their irresponsible and lawless behavior – both to the state and to individuals, which could present us to the world in an inaccurate way.”

October 11: Bishop Artemije of Raska and Prizren, representing the Serbian National Council of Kosovo, meeting with Kostunica, asked the President to do everything possible to improve the situation of the Kosovo Serbs. Plans were discussed for a future meeting of the two at Gracanica Monastery. The same day, Patriarch Pavle met with the President of the European Union, Romano Prodi, and External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten at the residence of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Vienna. Prodi praised the work of the Serbian Orthodox Church in furthering good relations among all the peoples of the Balkans and in the recent events in Yugoslavia. “After years of corruption and sanctions people have been driven to the edge of existence,” said Pavle. “We are concerned about the winter. People are without heating oil. Emergency aid is needed for the survival of the whole population. The level of medical care in hospitals is very low and support is needed in these areas where people are vulnerable.”

October 12: After first accepting the formation of a new government and new elections in December, the Socialist-dominated Serbian government [separate from the Yugoslav government headed by Kostunica], which wields most internal power, reneged, leaving many key positions in the hands of Milosevic supporters. The Army also warned against a purge of top officers loyal to Milosevic. It became clear that the Democratic opposition to Milosevic was far from consolidating its power and that a struggle for control was still in progress.

October 16: Democratic Opposition of Serbia and Socialist party representatives agreed to an interim Serbian government which would rule Serbia by consensus among the parties, weakening the Socialist hold on Serbian government. The election of a new parliament was set for December 23.

This chronicle was assembled by Fr. Rade Merick, editor of the journal The Orthodox Path.