Serbian election sparks student protest

Tom Lopez

Five years ago, Chinese tanks crushed student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and stranded thousands of pro-democracy Chinese citizens who had been studying abroad. Now the world watches as students demonstrate in Belgrade, Serbia, and University students with loved ones in the Balkans can only hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Predrag Bjelogrlic, a freshman majoring in psychology, has family in Serbia and is very concerned for their safety. “Something like this happened four years ago,” he said. “(Socialist President Slobodon) Milosovic sent tanks — there were four people killed, and I don’t know how many wounded. Milosovic ordered the tanks to fire into the crowds.”
The demonstrations began after the government invalidated local elections two weeks ago, citing “irregularities.” Demonstrators accuse the socialist party, which is the majority party in Serbia, of attempting to circumvent the democratic process. They charge that the party chose to nullify the elections because the opposition party had emerged victorious in the voting.
Students at Belgrade University have been demonstrating since Nov. 22. In The Declaration of Decency, a manifesto drafted by the Head Committee of the Student Protest of ’96, the students outline three main demands. The first is the establishment of an objective government election committee to oversee the elections. The second and third are demands for the resignation of the chancellor and vice chancellor of Belgrade University, who the students say have failed to represent their interests during the demonstrations.
In their declaration, the students describe their demonstrations as nonviolent civil disobedience and are appealing to students worldwide for support.
Belgrade is home to the government of Yugoslavia, which consists of the states of Serbia and Montenegro, and Kosovo, a region of southern Serbia. The Belgrade government was one of the main parties to the Balkan War which followed the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina from Yugoslavia in 1991. The war ended with peace accords negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, last year.
The problem, Bjelogrlic said, is that the military has the power to crush any attempts at reform. “What we need is someone working inside the system who can change it.”
Although Bjelogrlic is a Serbian citizen, he describes himself as a permanent resident of the United States. “I would be happy if I could return tomorrow,” he said. “But not as things are going.”
Milan Milovancev, a sophomore majoring in agricultural, food, and environmental sciences, was born in Serbia but has since become an American citizen. He said that by raising their political voices, the demonstrators have made a significant achievement.
“I would say the protests have been successful already,” he said. “They have definitely gotten people to start thinking about democracy in Serbia.”
Milovancev has family living in Croatia, but the Balkan War didn’t spread to their hometown. “I’m lucky as far as that’s concerned,” he said.
Milovancev said he is concerned that the military might use violence against peaceful demonstrators. “There definitely is that potential, especially given the history,” he said.
Lawrence Katzenstein, an associate education specialist in international studies, said there might have been a potential for violence at the demonstrations, but that all indications point to a peaceful resolution.
Katzenstein attributed this to the level of U.S. attention the situation has earned. The United States pushed for an official statement calling for a peaceful resolution at the recent summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Portugal. Yugoslavian Foreign Minister Milan Milutinovic recently met with Strobe Talbott, the U.S. deputy secretary of state and a close adviser to President Clinton.
“(This) means that the U.S. supports the principles of the protestors,” he said, adding that in the course of his meeting with U.S. diplomats, Milutinovic said that violence would not be used.
Despite government assurances of a peaceful resolution to the demonstrations, Katzenstein said the fact that the United States has taken an interest in the issue is very significant. “There were promises of stability in the Dayton peace accords and the elections, and they were not kept,” he said.
However, Radoslav Dimitrov, a doctoral candidate in political science, said he is disappointed that the United States has not made its support of the demonstrators more clear. He said that although the United States is under no obligation to take a position in the situation, it is significant that the United States has failed to express an opinion. He said his disappointment is heightened because the United States is perceived to be a symbol of democracy.