(a voice of the Georgetown University students)
December 5, 1996
By Tanja Anne Djurdjevic

In Belgrade, students take to the streets for democracy

Imagine an event so momentous that our entire university shuts down. Classes are canceled. Students and professors take to the streets. Tens of thousands march through downtown Washington. Everyone unites for a common cause, not just for a day or two but for weeks on end. Police are called in from all over the country to quell the protests. Science fiction, at best. It would never happen, right? In Serbia, it is happening.

As I relaxed over Thanksgiving break with my family in the comfort of our home, I watched the images on CNN of hundreds of thousands of Belgrade University students protesting in the streets against the recent annulment of election results by Yugoslavia's president, Slobodan Milosevic. Students braved freezing rains to express their disgust with unapologetic moves by the leadership to crush any expression of democracy in a country still recovering from the effects of war in Bosnia and Western-imposed economic sanctions. Municipal elections were held last month in which a large number of opposition (i.e. pro-democracy) candidates defeated socialists associated with Milosevic's ruling coalition. Opposition candidates achieved overwhelming victories in large cities. Milosevic, however, annulled the election results through corrupt electoral courts and cut short the success of these candidates.

The students united to form a nonpartisan front to demand protection of citizens' constitutional rights and to protest the blatant disregard for the rule of law. They have named their movement, "The Protest of '96." In their "Declaration of Decency," the students write: "A brutal violation of law and annihilation of the regular electoral results are unprecedented attacks on the basic principles of democracy. We are not taking sides between the party in power and the opposition-what we insist upon is the rule of law. Any government that is not willing to acknowledge its own electoral defeat does not deserve our support and we overtly oppose it." The students expressed their desire for the demonstrations to remain nonviolent and stressed that their movement is not associated with any political parties, but is directed toward the restoration of the fundamental rights of Serbian citizens.

The students marching through Belgrade are not unlike those whom I pass by on my way to classes every day. It could be any of us in those pictures. People of our age are leading a protest of a magnitude unseen in Europe since the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989. These students are faced with something more direct and obtrusive than anything we have experienced in our lives. Their government is telling them that their future is not in their control, and that it will do whatever it must to remain in power.

The U.S. government, as a supposed proponent of democracy around the globe, has done very little about his situation. Aside from a brief denunciation by a State Department official of the regime's annulment of electoral results, our government has been noticeably silent. The Dayton Peace Accord, which ended the war in Bosnia, is the cause of this silence. Milosevic was instrumental in obtaining this agreement, and many believe that without his leadership the peace will fall apart.

The United States, therefore, has turned a blind eye to his efforts to claim control over Serbia for himself and his political organization. [run by his wife, Mira Markovic. At its worst, Milosevicís recent behavior is reminiscent of the last days of another (former) Balkan dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu of Romania. It appears that global politics have taken precedence over democracy.] Our government has compromised the ideals upon which our country was formed in order to keep in a power a leader whose legitimacy is based not among his own people, but among U.S.State Department officials.

In other words, many speculate that the U.S. governmentís reluctance to condemn Milosevic has been a resul of fears that without Milosevic's leadership, the already fragile peace in Bosnia will disintegrate.

But, the protests in Belgrade are not about Bosnia. They are about fundamental democratic values that the United States, until recently, has been a proponent of around the globe. It tragic when a nation that prides itself as a model of democracy places its strategic interest ahead of the pursuit of an ideal it claims to uphold.

[It is still far from clear what will become of the protests. The students have pledged to remain on the streets until the regime permits those freely elected to assume their positions. To date it has remained nonviolent. However, this is the Balkans. Bucharest's violent revolution 1989 was much different from the peaceful Velvet Revolution which Prague experienced that same year. As one student, Aleksej Krunic, wrote to me, "Unfortunately political change in our country usually is a result of bloodshed. Unity is a difficult thing to obtain among the Serbs."

There are already signs that the protests may not remain nonviolent much longer. Milosevic has begun to bus in police forces from other regions. There is speculation that these forces will be used to crush the students if their demands become more than he is willing to bear. In 1991, Milosevic held no reserve in ordering tanks into the center of Belgrade to disperse protesters. In the students' appeal to the police, they write: "We do not want conflict, our only weapon is our words, but our words are what they do not want to hear... We are not a political party, we are the students of Belgrade."

The students face a media which is almost entirely controlled by Milosevic. The protest have been censored from television broadcasts, and many in rural areas suffer from an acute lack of information about the events taking place in the nation's capital. For this reason, students fear they will not obtain the support of the workers and the middle class, because many receive only biased reports from the state-run media. In the long run, any attempt to overthrow the government must necessarily have the support of these groups. But, unless information is received from outside sources about the true course of events in Belgrade, the prospect for the future is not optimistic.]

The student protesters must also beware of empty promises. In 1968, Belgrade University students held a similar protest occupying the university to condemn the abuses of Yugoslavia's longtime communist dictator, Josip Broz Tito. Protesters believed they could claim victory when, after almost two weeks of protests, Tito conceded to their demands. Their victory was short lived. Within six months, Tito summarily broke all of his promises to the students. This time the students must be particularly aware of "easy victory. "

This protest is of critical importance to university students, such as ourselves, for several reasons. These are people our age. We should admire their bravery and determination to stand up for a cause they believe in. Many accuse American students of apathy, perhaps rightly so.

Nevertheless, as students, and believers in democracy, we ought to support our fellow students in their hour of need. As many of us sit in lectures and study "transitions to democracy," students in Belgrade are leading the movement. As one observer commented, "It is the students, not the politicians of the opposition, who are leading the way."

I wish these brave students success in their mighty endeavor. Their courage and determination is remarkable. The students of Belgrade have shown the world that certain principles must be upheld. As university students, we should take a close look at the "Protest of Ď96" in Belgrade and be thankful for those rights provided to us, which we so often take for granted.

ATTRIBUTION: Tanja Anne Djurdjevic is a junior (i.e., a third-year student) in the School of Foreign Service, studying international economics. She is a U.S. citizen of Serbian heritage.


NOTE: Paragraphs shown in square brackets [...] have been excised by the editors of the GEORGETOWN VOICE from the original manuscript. The GV editors also refused to print the World Wide Web address of the Belgrade students' home page, which the author provided, apparently concerned about not being perceived as too partisan in their support of their Belgrade colleagues.

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