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Regime Shuts Down Universities

Students are first in the firing line as repression in Serbia reaches a new level of brutality.
By Petar Lukovic

The Belgrade University Faculty of Agriculture witnessed a truly bloody confrontation on Tuesday evening (May 23). Fifteen young men, sporting crew cuts and surgical masks, set upon student protestors with baseball bats. The students had gathered to protest against the earlier police beating of one of their comrades. Around 10 students were injured.


The temperature in Belgrade is rising ahead of Otpor's (Resistance) rally scheduled for Saturday, May 27. Every day and every hour a supporter of Otpor or the opposition is dragged off for questioning or is beaten up. On Thursday the Yugoslav Minister of Education, Jevrem Janic, ordered all universities to close down within g 24 hours.


This constant intimidation though is only stoking up the fire. There is no real news. All opposition media has been virtually silenced. Rumours spread by word of mouth. After the rally on Saturday, people expect the regime to carry out mass arrests to thwart the rebellion.


Since 1991, students protest movements, like the Serbian opposition in general, have lacked the unity to seriously challenge the Milosevic government. They have tended to be little more than extensions of established political parties and have rarely put forward their own demands.


In 1992 tens of thousands of students marched on Milosevic's villa in Dedinje to demand his resignation. But even then nothing changed. With wars on-going in Croatia and Bosnia, the regime successfully exploited nationalist euphoria to strangle student resistance and opposition protests alike.


Only at the end of 1996 and in early 1997, when Milosevic really did look vulnerable, did the students demonstrate their strength. Together with the opposition, which was for once united, the students sealed off the Belgrade University faculties and halted lectures throughout Serbia for several months. The protests even forced the dean of Belgrade University to resign.


But Milosevic employed some tried and tested tactics to defuse the protests. Just as time and again the regime has split the opposition by making timely concessions to some of its leaders, overnight campuses were renovated, scholarships were paid on time and students were granted additional study time prior to exams. All that anti-regime energy dissipated.


Meanwhile, many students from urban centres - who've tended to be most critical of Milosevic - have left the country, there places taken by refugees and kids from the provinces for whom the Serbian president is a role model


Over 10,000 students from the provinces live at the Studentski Grad (Students' Town) in Novi Beograd. Regime ideologists regularly visit the campus. Sessions start and finish with patriotic anthems and folk songs.


Studentski Grad delivers the majority of supportive telegrammes to Milosevic in his battle against the New World Order. Scared, disinterested, bought for three meals a day - these students are different to their colleagues from urban centres.


Otpor, however, was founded last year, initially as an alternative student organization. But it soon became a genuine resistance movement throughout Serbia. The nucleus of Otpor, in Belgrade and other towns across the country, is made up of young, educated and articulate people who have driven the regime crazy with their unusual tactics.


Hence the hysterical response from the state. That the police are reduced to roaming around the faculties beating up whomever they come across is evidence enough that the authorities feel unable to halt the protests.


The student strikes at the Agricultural Faculty, the Civil Engineering Faculty, the Medical Faculty and the Philosophy Faculty are only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface, rage and indignation are reaching boiling point.


One has to admit that it is unlikely the students' actions will in themselves prove decisive in the unrest that is bound to come. But such protests can act as a catalyst.


Otpor's activities demonstrate that the citizens' spirit is not yet broken and exposes the pro-Milosevic Studentski Grad as a mirage.


Police repression and attacks on students by paramilitary psychopaths only stir up more unrest and uncertainty in Serbia, where any form of violence and state terror seems possible.


The students' demands are more radical than those espoused by opposition leaders. Calls from the likes of Vuk Draskovic for patience, non-violent demonstrations, gradual retreat and silence, promise only that Milosevic will remain where he is. Such mealy-mouthed protests only strengthen the regime.


The student challenge is the only real test facing the regime. Over the next days and weeks we will see whether the anticipated mass protests provoke Milosevic into yet bloodier confrontation with his opponents or whether he falls back on the trusty tactics of buying off greedy, power-hungry opposition leaders.


The hope remains alive that Otpor will not repeat the failings of their predecessors. These students, after all, come from a generation, which has virtually grown up under the shadow of Slobodan Milosevic.


Serbia's students now face their most important exam and to pass it with honours, the war criminal Milosevic must go.


Petar Lukovic is a regular IWPR contributor


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