Serbian students try to avert face-off of protesters

March 26, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

BELGRADE,YUGOSLAVIA — BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Serbian student leaders and intellectuals, concerned that simultaneous gatherings by pro- and anti-government forces tomorrow could lead to a repeat of violent street clashes in central Belgrade, urged both sides yesterday to reschedule their events.

"[The] gathering of the great number of people, supporting two politically opposed sides in the center of Belgrade, could initiate severe confrontations and lead to bloodshed," said a student-sponsored petition that gathered 25,000 signatures in the major cities of Serbia.

While analysts traditionally have blamed relations among Yugoslavia's patchwork of Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and ethnic Albanian minorities for destabilizing the country, it is the divisions among the Serbs themselves that have shaken Yugoslavia these last few weeks.

Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party (successor to the Communist Party) scheduled a rock concert at the Terazije Fountain, site of student demonstrations earlier this month, after learning that the opposition parties planned a protest at the nearby Republic Square. The only change in plans yesterday was to make the program classical music.

The students' petition, which carries signatures of the republic's most popular writers, artists, musicians and actors, bitterly denounced the Socialists' intended use of the Terazije Fountain, which the students claim as their own, and called for a change of location.

The petition also appealed to the United Opposition of Serbia to wait at least three hours after the concert ends before beginning their protest at the nearby Republic Square.

As Serbs choose up sides in the developing face-off, the camps divide roughly as follows: those who back President Milosevic and his Socialist Party; those organized in opposition to him; and the students who stand as self-appointed referees.

"This is the conscience of the Serbian people, what we are doing now," said Boris Staokovac, 27, a medical student and one of the leaders of the student movement.

But if the students' trials in simply gathering signatures for their petition were any indication, persuading Serbs to walk away from a good fight may not be easy.

At the Terazije Fountain on a bright Sunday, with their trademark black and white stuffed teddy bears presiding over a folding table, the students' petition ignited arguments crackling around the fountain.

"I have two sons your age, and I would never let them demonstrate the way you do," one woman blasted. "You should all be sent to work in the coal mines."

No sooner had she gone than another passer-by, a stout blond midget, dropped 10 dinars (90 cents)into the kitty to finance the students' newspaper ad, then tore into them.

"They were right to send in the tanks," she shouted, referring to police violence at a March 9 demonstration. "You can't just go breaking windows and destroying property and not expect a reaction."

The students, whose group is called Forum of the Terazije Parliament, share the Serbian nationalism of Mr. Milosevic and that of the opposition parties. But they are against the use of force to maintain Yugoslavia as a federation if some of the five other republics want to break away from Serbia.

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