Belgrade's Student Protesters
A Street-Level Account of Milosevic's Biggest Challenge Yet
Pozor Magazine, January 15, 1997
BELGRADE -- Nicola Zingaretti, president of the International University of Social Democratic Youth, is standing on stage in the cold evening drizzle above 5,000 students trying to keep warm on downtown Belgrade's Kneza Mihalia pedestrian zone.
Standing next to Zingaretti is Umberto Renieri, an Italian MP from the Party of the Democratic Left who sits on his Parliament's foreign affairs committee. The two have come, like Hungarian Democratic Forum President Sandor Leszak earlier this day (Jan. 11, 1997), like former French culture minister Jack Lang a month before them, to offer a little European solidarity to what has become the most inspiring civil movement the continent has seen since the fall of the Soviet Empire.
Zingaretti speaks of democratic ideals for about five minutes, hands chopping the air, then his thin voice climbs towards climax: "The Youth of Rome, and the Youth of Europe," he cries, "are together ... WITH YOU!!!"
The crowd issues a hurrah, then one student shouts a demand above the din: "Hey comrade! Bring us some Italian girls!"
Co-eds vs. Cops
Not that the pro-democracy movement in Serbia is lacking in babes. Belgrade's ample supply of raven-haired, Roman-nosed beauties have been deployed quite literally as weapons in the non-violent war against President Slobodan Milosevic ever since Europe's last Communist leader chose to celebrate the seventh anniversary of Czechoslovakia's Nov. 17 Velvet Revolution by refusing to acknowledge his party's drubbing in local elections. When Milosevic began sending riot police the day after Christmas to seal off the daily protest march by students and the opposition coalition Zajedno (Together), the girls were dispatched to the front lines of the "charm offensive." No matter how mean the cops looked -- with their elaborate helmets, shields, bullet-proof vests, batons and guns, standing arm-in-arm -- the babes melted the edges right off the showdowns.
"It's hard for the police not to smile," said Miroslav Maric, a 19-year-old archaeology student who works at the makeshift student Press Center on the 4th floor of the Philosophical Faculty. "The girls have been very direct with the kissing."
Each morning, the new daily Demokracia, which has become the bible of the two-month-old protest, runs a page-13 photo spread entitled "Mis studentskog protesta." The front page typically features crowd shots and sober headlines about Milosevic's latest outrage ... and gratuitous butt-photos of Madonna or whoever else.
The daily student protests (the students and the opposition have held deliberately separate but complementary demonstrations from the beginning, with the adults outdrawing the kids by four or five to one) have been processions of dorm-room humor and campus conviction. Students carry hundreds of signs and flags, half in English, promoting such disparate goals as "Democracy Now," "Wash Your Sins," "Shit Happens" (over a picture of a cat falling off a branch), and "I am a feeble-minded underaged manipulated pro-fascist."
For the world's correspondents and pundits, such cheekiness almost makes a mockery of their very sober attempts at analyzing the the geo-Balkan implications of a Serb population finally discovering its collective spine. Chris Hedges of the New York Times looked hard and saw unreconstructed nationalists behind several opposition facades (including the Press Center). The International Herald Tribune's William Pfaff decried the "dangerous innocence" of the protesters. Given that thousands in any daily march probably collaborated to varying degrees with the prosecutors of Europe's most heinous war in 50 years, and given that speaker after speaker makes creepy reference to the Serb "Nation" (capital "N") to an audience that responds automatically with the scary three-fingered Serb salute, it isn't hard to get nervous about ambiguous symbols.
So when I saw a bearded student holding a "Confederate South Will Rise!" flag, I had to ask what it meant, flinching at the memory of watching skinheads raising Old Dixie over Bratislava's Namestie SNP just two hours after Slovakia became an independent country (and 10 minutes after a gang of the dumb punks bloodied my nose). "This is not my flag," the Serb student explained in halting, poker-faced English. "This is the flag of my friend. I am waiting for him."
That drew a chuckle from his taller companion, who was standing nearby holding a flag with Confederate colors on one side and a half-naked biker chick on the other. "So what's up with that?" I asked.
"This is my flag," the guy said, pointing to the biker chick. "This," he said, pointing to the other side with a grin, "is the flag of his friend."
Things are a little more serious at the Press Center. "Look at this," says a smiling Maric, showing a picture of himself and another press officer, passed out cold next to a couple of empty champagne bottles. "That was New Year's Eve."
New Year's Eve, billed by organizers as "the biggest party ever," drew an estimated 250,000 people onto the freezing streets. Luckily for the opposition, the Serb Orthodox calendar has its own mathematical logic, doubling the holiday fun. So 13 days later an estimated 400,000 people came out for New Year's Part Two, blowing the plastic whistles and tube-shaped noisemakers that have come to symbolize the demonstrations.
If it all sounds like fun and games, it hasn't been. Downtown Belgrade, which sits exposed on a hill above the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, is a lot colder than, say, Budapest. "During Christmas and New Year's, it was terrible," recalled Dusan Boric, a 23-year-old archaeologist, standing under a light snowfall at the beginning of what turned out to be a nine-hour student stare-down with the cops. "It was very very cold. But it was funny -- I could see some of my old professors, jumping up and down just to stay warm. You don't usually get to see that."
The students have used laughter as fuel to burn through the monotony of standing in sub-freezing temperatures every day and night. After pro-Milosevic supporters were bussed into town Dec. 24, shooting one protester in the head and beating another to death, students came back the next day and cheerfully poured detergent all over the pavement to "clean up the streets." On the 51st consecutive day of demonstrations, students decided to stand in front of police lines until the cops gave up, reading them long passages of Plato and Aristotle, in order to "start from the beginning." After 20 hours, the exhausted and bemused police went home. The victorious students went on to party through the streets for four more hours.
"We have to have a good time, because without that it would be boring, and no one would come," said Marija Diklic, a 19-year-old archaeology student.
Behind the fun has been much nuts-and-bolts organization. On marches, student security guards with walkie-talkies and cellular phones keep the protesters from breaking out of formation or throwing eggs at the Parliament building. Every day an "initiative board" meets to plot student stragegy, talk with foreign delegations and draft public statements.
"We're making shifts, because this is going to last a very long time, so we have to stay strong and not get tired," Diklic said on Dec. 13, three weeks into the protests. "In Prague, people demonstrated 37 days before the government changed."
By the 52nd day, some student nerves had frayed.
"A lot of us have said 'I can't do it anymore,' and then the next day they were back," Maric said Jan. 11. "I'm not happy for people who have to stand out in the cold all night long. I think the only people who have made a profit from this have been the doctors, because everyone is sick. ... If they accept our demands then I think we will get totally drunk like pigs and then we'd go home."
The students' demands on Milosevic are the same as the opposition's: Accept, unconditionally, the Nov. 17 elections, in which Zajedno won 14 out of 19 cities. Additionally, the students are asking for the resignation of Belgrade University Rector Dragutin Veluckovic, who reacted to their strike by calling for professors to punish everyone who skipped class.
As of Jan. 15, electoral commissions had ruled to restore results in Serbia's two biggest towns, Belgrade and Nis, but hardline members of Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party (SPS) vowed to overrule the courts. That same day, students chased the education minister down the street after he failed to fire Valuckovic, and two U.S. senators gave speeches of support at the 59th consecutive day of protests.
Both students and the opposition stress they are not calling for the government to be overthrown, or for the broken governing system to be fixed. In a tactic from the pages of Charter 77 before them, they are simply asking for existing law to be enforced; in this case, for the relatively harmless local elections to be honored.
Ironically, Milosevic doesn't stand to lose much besides perhaps his wife's respect if he allows the odd bedfellows of the opposition to run a handful of collapsing city economies. Power in Yugoslavia is concentrated at the top, through the president, and through central institutions like the army and the Parliament. Largely lost in the hubbub of protest has been the grimmer fact that on Nov. 3 the ruling coalition of SPS and the Yugoslav United Left -- a communist party run by Milosevic's wife Mirjana Markovic -- won a convincing majority in the Yugoslav Federal Parliament.
If the local elections were restored, the first couple would maintain control of the country's business. Yet Markovic, a bizarre sociology professor who is said to be the only person left in her husband's inner circle, has called almost daily for the army to clobber the demonstrators anyway. Milosevic, meanwhile, has been busy purging leaders from both parties in an apparent scramble to shift blame.
The great unanswered question is whether the man who has run roughshod over Yugoslavia since 1987 -- stirring up nationalist sentiment, launching brutal wars, cracking down on internal protests, manipulaing state media to the point of absurdity, exposing his country to painful international sanctions, then playing peacemaker to wriggle out of them -- is capable of grasping that openly reversing an election is just too blatant to get away with.
Everyone has a theory about Slobo's mindset. "They haven't lost an election before, so they have this kind of misperception of the world, and that they are immortal. They are blind and drunk," Boric suggested.
"Every civil person has to protest against the elections being stolen," said a 50-year-old city planner who wouldn't give her name for fear of reprisal. "The government is treating us every day like we were stupid children. I won't allow anybody to inflict this unbelievably foul insult on me anymore."
Throughout this once-cosmopolitan city you hear similar sentiment. The smart people who didn't emigrate to Prague or Paris or New York have suffered many moral humiliations as their country has degenerated into a pariah nation, but this time, they insist, Milosevic has gone too far.
"We are just fighting for the basic principles of democracy," Diklic said. "Because otherwise we'd be living like animals."
Students and city professionals took to the streets once before, in May 1991, but the large protests were quashed violently and a distracted world soon forgot. Since then, state-owned factories have stopped producing, wages have been halved to around DM 200-250 a month, a thuggish black market has flourished, and the intellectuals have remained largely silent.
"It wasn't that terrible over the last five years," Boric explained. "You had to find yourself a sort of coccoon of people like you who think like you think, and try to isolate yourself from the dirt of politics. It could be a belle epoque if you could isolate yourself, but eventually you get dirty from the institutions of the regime."
Protesters haven't seemed to work out their own complicity in the past six years of war.
"During the whole last few years, the international media has said that we wanted the war, that we were nationalists. It's absolutely not true!" said the architect, who appeared to believe what she was saying. "We had absolutely no idea what was going on, because the media in Serbia has been blackened for the past five years."
Maybe so, but it's no secret that opposition leader Vuk Draskovic was one of the first to call for a Greater Serbia, or that the second main opposition leader, Zoran Djindjic, supported the Bosnian Serb war effort enthusiastically enough to pay regular visits to its headquarters in Pale. The ever-present three-fingered salute -- always popular when Serbs are at war with their neighbors -- represents the points on the Orthodox cross, an icon decidedly not enjoyed by nearby Croats, Bosnians and Albanians. And, importantly, the largest cities can boast of a fairly active, if beleagured, opposition press.
But the countryside, where support for Milosevic has remained iron-clad, depends almost unanimously on the atrocious state television and radio for news.
Fittingly, the most hated target of the protests (after Milosevic and his wife) has been TV.
Night after night, as hundreds of thousands of protesters have jammed peacefully and orderly in the streets, the TV news has shown only the most offensive n'er-do-wells it could find (sometimes a drunk with a bad beard was the worst it could find), along with pensioners denouncing the vandals and thugs they said were tearing apart the Serb Nation. The TV building suffered the bulk of the damage in the early days, when the crowds were still throwing eggs and using spray paint, so since early December the students have come up with an alternative method for trashing the news: At 7:30 p.m. every night, when the evening broadcast begins, all the protesters in Belgrade take a deep breath and then make a truly frightful racket, blowing their noisemakers, banging their pots and yelling at the top of their lungs.
The din has travelled from Belgrade, via CNN, to the capitals of other Balkan countries. Tens of thousands of Bulgarians have been making noise on the streets of Sofia since early January, and even miserable Tirana began to see protests in the low thousands by the middle of the month.
"They're using us as an example," said a smug Maric. "I saw a Bulgarian lady on TV last night banging a pot. We should have got a copyright for this stuff."
Beyond influencing their neighbors, the Serb protesters have forced the democracy issue to be debated on their own terms and time-frame, geopolitcs be damned. The United States and most of Western Europe didn't get around to slamming Milosevic's election annulment until the third week of mass protest began to embarrass them. Even then, unnamed diplomats were still being quoted daily as saying the opposition was risking a bloodbath that would set their goals even further back.
In December, the main question asked by the correspondents at a small party I attended was: what, tangibly, is the opposition going to do? Where were they going with all this?
A month later, that and many other questions were relatively moot. Belgrade police officials had told student leaders they wouldn't use force against them, the world community had basically lined up to demand a full restoration of elections, and Milosevic had edged much closer to caving in. Now, even though his power would be largely undiminished by tolerating a dozen or so cranky city halls, any climb-down after these two months of remarkable protest would be almost impossible to maneuver without Slobo losing considerable face with his own people.
"You can feel it moving," Boric said.
Good-bye, Grey Falcon
If the Belgrade ruckus finally nudges Serbia down the long, long road to tentative humanism, one can only hope that the passing of Communist-nationalist warmongering in the Balkans will also put an end to a century's worth of overheated apologia from the flustered West. From John Reed, to Rebecca West, to Robert Kaplan and to a lesser extent a dozen or so friends of mine, Anglo-Saxon writers have spent far too much energy and talent stoking literally dozens of exotic-sounding mythologies in a near-futile attempt to somehow explain the Balkan conundrum (which can be crudely boiled down to: How can these handsome folks be so fluent in Western culture and still cut each other's balls off?). We have, I'm afraid, given these warring tribes an almost exalted status of Otherness, even while creating (especially in the much-noted case of Ms. West) a vibrant and valuable literature that does much to decipher the local code. The unfortunate by-product of this well-intentioned work has been that the subjects themselves truly believe they drink from a different water supply than you and I.
The other week a Bosnian guy staying in my Budapest apartment delivered a long rap about how none of the journalists covering the war down there had any idea what was really going on, because "only Yugoslavs know the truth." Fair enough. Except that he hadn't been there himself since 1989, he doesn't read any of the newspapers he complains about, the only information he gets is from monthly phone conversations with his dad, and he routinely lies more than anyone I know. At a recent party, he tried to toss off some sorry bullshit about how "A Bosnian's word and handshake are as good as gold." Then he asked me what was going on in Belgrade.
"Oh, the students are partying," I said.
"I'm telling you, Milosevic is gonna crack down. Believe me, I know," he said.
"I don't think he really can," I said.
"Listen, I know the Serbs, and he's gonna crack down."
End of Discussion, as far as four out of five ex-Yugoslavs I've ever known are concerned. I used to try and argue, but I don't begin to care anymore. It's a Yugo thing, I couldn't possibly understand, and they are all-knowing -- especially concerning the personality characteristics of emigrees from the other tribes.
That very same evening, a Serb friend of mine went on and on about how my Bosnian roommate's habits of massive self-delusion and predatory sexual behavior were "typically typically typically Bosnian." She hasn't lived in Novi Sad -- with its population of Serbs and ethnic Hungarians, and not many Bosnians -- since the 1980s.
The day that Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians and the rest of the human wreckage on that peninsula stop peddling that tired line of thought, and the day we stop trying to "interpret" such nonsense as anything else than the illiberal gruntings of brains rotted by lazy nationalism, the sooner those infuriatingly obvious seeds of humanity and intelligence down there will grow into something that resembles the best of European values.
Until then, let's cheer for the likes of 23-year-old Dusan Vasiljevic, a protest leader, who in two cold months has gone from the obscurity of the Belgrade Philosophical Faculty to the flashy lights of Bill Clinton's second inaugural ball.
Maric, nodding enviously in the direction of the delirious Vasiljevic on the crowded Belgrade streets on Night 52, tried to put it all in perspective.
"First of all, I expect him to humiliate us as much as possible, because his English is much worse than my Chinese," Maric said with an evil grin. "I hope they bring an interpreter."
Vasiljevic, whose English is perfect, is too busy enjoying his sudden fame, and dreaming about the world that has suddenly taken notice of his inspiring movement. "Costa Mesa," he said, shaking his head. "That must be a great place to live."