Foreign Agencies on December 12th, 1996
THE NEW YORK TIMES
December 12, 1996
Some Students in Serbia Find It Pays to Be 'Independent'
By CHRIS HEDGES
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The new pro-government Independent Student Movement may not have much credibility on the campus here, but it certainly has the best-dressed students in Belgrade.
These young people, who called Wednesday for an end to protests by students who have been occupying university buildings for two weeks, are the leaders of the official student organizations at the University of Belgrade.
They wear tailored suits, gleaming patent-leather shoes, ties and dress shirts. They jangle key-rings with little plastic boxes to shut off alarm systems to new cars, and are equipped with mobile phones, beepers and business cards. Most of them say they are in their late twenties, and appear to have spent several years pursuing their degrees.
They have been, on university business of course, to Vienna, Munich and Brussels. They have a secretary in their Student Union office who brings them tea and coffee. And they all support their president, Slobodan Milosevic, and denounce the protesters in the street for ruining what, by their description, must be one of the most idyllic student lifestyles on the planet.
"I've been to universities in Europe and they don't have what we have," said Milutin Djordjevic, the president of the Student Union. "I was in Munich and all the students had was a bed and a desk in the room. We have phones. We have private bathrooms. We have studies. President Milosevic takes a lot of care to make sure his students have only the best."
This afternoon, in front of the cameras of the state-run television stations, they announced that, as representatives of "the majority of the 65,000 university students," they were demanding to go back to class.
They said they were "horrified" at the political overtones of the student protest movement and warned that if there was any violence on the streets, "all the professors who manipulated the students to join the protests should be held responsible."The game being played out Wednesday afternoon was eerily transparent to a country that lived for five decades under communist rule. The government, by setting up a dummy student group, appeared to be building a rationale for cracking down on the protests, begun after the government annulled election victories by the four-party opposition coalition in Belgrade and other cities.
"I'm sorry our classmates leading these protests have refused our invitation to negotiate with us," said Dimitrije Milutinovic, "but as representatives of the vast majority of university students, we feel obligated to press ahead with our call to get students back in the classroom."
The ordinary students, many of whom sleep three or five to a room in the packed dormitories, and supporters of the opposition coalition, have marched each afternoon for three weeks in the center of Belgrade.
"Milosevic has, by refusing to let the courts reverse the annulment of the local elections, begun to flex his muscles," said Stevan L. Lilic, a professor at the Law School who backs the protest movement. "Student leaders are being picked off and locked up. Some have been badly beaten. Now we get this phantom group to give the government the excuse to act against the student movement. None of us knows what will happen, but none of us now rules out the use of force."
The student leaders invited the protesters to join them in their offices Wednesday, but the protesters refused. When the pro-government students made their statements for state-run television, several thousand protesters were parading past the Student Union windows.
"These people only represent themselves," said Miroslav Pantovic, a leader in the protest movement. "We've never even seen some of these people in class."
Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party of Serbia has an iron grip on all university organizations, including the newspaper and the Student Union. Student protesters, who say university elections are rigged, have called for resignations of the rector of the university, Dragutin Velickovic, and the student representative on the university board.
Velickovic was given his position after the 1992 anti-war protests, when, as dean of the Agricultural School, he waived the academic deferment offered to students in his department so they could be drafted.
Two student marchers, as they passed outside the five-story Student Union on Balkanska Street, taped a poster written in black magic marker to the wall.
"To our 'independent' student colleagues," it read, "because your room at the Student Union is too small to accommodate all the students from the protest, we invite you to come at noon to the Plato University Square. P.S. leave your Socialist Party of Serbia membership cards at home and bring your student identification books."
After they had passed, the police ripped up the sign.