Protesters grow weary in Belgrade Students shut down schools, but regime ignores demands

December 11, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE -- These are days of rage for Dragan Gagia, civil engineering student turned whistle-blowing protester.

For three weeks, Gagia has boycotted classes at the University of Belgrade and hit the streets, joining tens of thousands of other students who are marching against the rule of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

But with each day that passes, Gagia and the other protesters are growing weary, as their marches fail to move a regime that used the courts to annul results of last month's local elections.

The students at the University of Belgrade are entering the caldron of Serbian politics as foot soldiers against Milosevic. With a slogan of "No Students, No Lecture," they've shut down the university, turning their attention to protests.

The country's main university has always played an influential role in Serbian political life, educating nearly all the ruling class, including Milosevic and his influential wife, Mirjana Markovic, as well as much of the opposition party leadership.

Like many of the leaders of this country, the student protesters have their share of impassioned nationalists who carry the flag of Serbia.

And like most of the political parties in this city, the students have a few intimidating security guards who block the doorways of the protest headquarters at the philosophy school. There's also a whiff of paranoia among the student leaders, who have tacked up in their offices signs that say "Trust No One."

But most of the marchers are like Gagia, young men and women yearning for a more open political system and a more flourishing economy.

"Too many young people have to leave for jobs," says Gagia, wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins cap. "We need to create jobs here.

"We have to rage against the system, rage against the hypocritical government," he says. "We're not part of the machinery here. We must go to a better life."

These students are taking great risks. Thousands of the university's students appear to be peacefully demonstrating against a regime that has often used violence to silence its foes.

Students' demands are simple.

They want the government to reinstate results of the Nov. 17 dTC election that gave opposition parties control in 14 of Serbia's 19 largest cities before the results were voided by Milosevic's regime.

From their gathering point by the Plato Bookstore in front of the philosophy school, the students fan out each day, clogging streets, blowing their whistles of derision, demanding change.

They may have been born and raised in Serbia, but they also look to western slogans and advertising for their inspiration.

"Hasta La Vista Communista," proclaims one poster taped to the window of the philosophy building. Another says, "Free Your Minds." There's even a Nike swoosh symbol with the words, "Strike. Just Do It."

The students are also using their computer skills to outfox the state-run media and get their message out to one another -- and to the world.

In a windowless room in the basement of the architecture and engineering school, students type information onto Web pages and answer electronic mail.

"The government says we're destroying things," says Ivan Djordgevic, an anthropology student who is among the scores of protest leaders. "But we're out to build things, build the country."

These students appear to have little respect for any of the country's political leaders. A survey answered by 700 of the protesters shows that virtually all believe that Milosevic is responsible for the present crisis.

But asked who can solve the crisis, only 30 percent say the leaders of the opposition could. Most don't even come up with an answer.

"According to the students, there is no one person or institution who can lead us out of the crisis," says Mihailo Jojic, who is compiling the survey results for the Institute for Sociological Research.

"What are the students' expectations?" Jojic says. "Something like reserved optimism.

"They know they have a symbolic role. But they know they cannot push democratic reforms through. They are only students."

But the students are discovering they have some power to use symbolism to apply pressure to the government.

They planted a palm tree in frigid Belgrade to promote peace. They built a wall of bricks to show they can build a new Serbia.

"We're trying to keep this protest above party," says Marija Dilkic, an archaeology student and protest leader. "We're independent of all the parties."

"Why did it all start now?" she says. "You could say that when the government denied the elections it was the last straw.

"If we backed down now, what would come next? Would we have to fight for our own lives?"

Despite the odds against success, the students continue to believe they can force political change.

"I think we will survive," Djordgevic says. "I think we will win. In my heart, I have to believe that."

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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