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FEATURE 19 Apr 17

Serbia’s Veteran Protesters See Spirit of 1990s Reborn

Some of the students who marched in the streets, chanting against Serbia’s late strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, see the same spirit in the current protests led, as in the Nineties, by the young.

Vanja Djuric, Filip Rudic
BIRN
Belgrade
Maja Vasic at a protest in Novi Sad. Photo: Jelena Ivanovic

“Keeping your mouth shut is not the way for society to become better or to prosper,” says Maja Vasic, one of the leaders of the student protests in Novi Sad in 1996, praising the current anti-government protests in Serbia.

Vasic was one of hundreds of thousands of people who marched in Belgrade, Novi Sad and other Serbian cities for months during the freezing winter of 1996 and 1997, protesting against rigged local elections and demanding that Slobodan Milosevic concede victory to the opposition.

From November 1996 to February 1997, the protesters chanted, whistled and banged pots each day, until Milosevic succumbed and admitted that the opposition had in fact won in several cities, including Belgrade.

Many of those former protesters see close parallels between the things they fought for – and thought they had won – 20 years ago, and what the young are demanding again on the streets today.

Vladimir Cvorkov, who was a 19-year-old Philosophy student in Novi Sad back in 1996, told BIRN that he sees the same feelings among people who are not afraid any longer to say what they think.

“The slogans are almost the same, it’s as if nothing has changed in the last 20 years,” Cvorkov says.

Vladimir Cvorkov at a student-led rally in Novi Sad. Photo: BIRN

Protests against the “dictatorship” of Prime Minister and President-elect Aleksandar Vucic started on April 3, one day after Vucic won the presidential election by a large margin in the first round.

Thousands of people took to the streets of the capital, Belgrade, the second biggest city, Novi Sad, in the north, and in Nis, in the south.

Their main demands are for the abolition of what they call the “dictatorship” and the complete removal of the political elite headed by Vucic, genuinely free elections, a free media and a shift in economic and social policies, including greater protection of workers’ rights.

Many of these demands are similar to those of the student protesters in the Nineties. Although the key issue in 1996 was election fraud, behind that were other issues, including poverty and an un-free media.

Maja Vasic remembers that the only way protesters in the 1990s could share information in the prevailing media darkness was to read the news on the central Freedom Square of Novi Sad.

“I would read the news, and from that square we always started our rallies through the city,” she recalled.

“People who ran the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina helped us create the student newspaper, Proglas. We printed it every day and gave it to the protesters before every protest,” Vasic, then in her final year of Serbo-Croatian language studies in Novi Sad, added.

Maja Vasic at the anniversary of 1996 protests. Photo: Facebook/Private

Today’s protests are also led by the young, although they gather people of all ages and social categories, including pensioners and workers, as well as people from across the political spectrum, including liberals, right-wingers, opposition party supporters, anti-NATO activists, Russophiles, EU supporters, and more.

The protests in the capital gather between several thousand people to more than 15,000 every day.

It was similar to when people took on the Milosevic regime, although those protests at their peak drew as many as 200,000 people, far more than any of the opposition parties could hope to attract.

Vasic says those protesters were also mainly students, though many organizations and political party activists also got involved.

“We had problems when we wanted to agree about some key things, like how to start our protests,” Vasic recaled.

“Should we play the national anthem, the Mars na Drinu, or the students’ anthem, Gaudeamus igitum? This was a problem because among us were people who were extremely right wing as well as liberals and others,” she explained.

The current protests in Belgrade have no official organisers. The protesters make their arrangements on a Facebook page and via a Facebook group, called “Against the Dictatorship.”

It is a similar situation is in most other cities, except Novi Sad, which has had an official organizer from the start – the Students Movement, an association of students from Novi Sad University.

There is no security at the protests and no uniformed police secure the events, although the presence of police officers in civilian dress is visible at every event.

Protesters’ claims that they had been photographed by unknown people at the rallies received conformation when a ruling Progressive Party MP, Aleksandar Martinovic, showed photos of protesters in Novi Sad and Belgrade at a press conference on April 11, and again that evening, during a TV debate on the public broadcaster, RTS.

Maja Vasic was not surprised. The pattern was similar in the era of Milosevic.

“There were no pressures from the police and we were not arrested or detained. The only thing, of course, was that during the protests we had different official companions in civilian clothes, and one police officer, also in civilian dress, who regularly followed us during our marches in a white Golf,” Vasic said.

Today’s protesters have reacted to Martinovic in the same way that Vasic’s comrades reacted to the man in the white Golf – by mockery.

“One day, on the march, we spontaneously surrounded the Golf and the police officer - and took photos of the blocked policeman, mocking their attempts to follow and control us,” Vasic recalled.

On April 15, anti-Vucic protesters took to social media to mock the MP, launching a campaign called “I’m the organiser” that called on everyone who participated in the protests to send photos of themselves to Martinovic’s office at the Faculty of Law in Novi Sad where he works as lecturer.

They humorously wrote that they had decided to do this as a gesture of “good will” to Martinovic, so that he could take a break from searching for their photos during the Easter holidays.

Anti-Milosevic protesters see some important differences between then and now, however.

Vasic said that back in the Nineties the students enjoyed wide support among ordinary people and from their professors.

“All the ‘thinking’ people openly supported us, and what was most important for us was when some of our professors stood by us,” Vasic said.

Today’s anti-Vucic protesters have been calling on their professors to back them with less success.

In Nis, the dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and a few others have joined the protests.

In late March, ahead of the presidential elections, the Progressive Party published a list of 650 intellectuals and public figures that it said had lent support to Vucic's campaign.

Over 500 out of the 650 signatories on this list were academics. Some of them later denied supporting Vucic, including 88 professors and employees of Belgrade University’s Faculty of Philosophy who sent a press statement distancing the institution and themselves from the signature of the faculty Dean, Vojislav Jelic.

Disputing Jelic’s right to pledge his support to Vucic “in his capacity as Dean”, they said that the “faculty is an institution with a long history … that has always fought for freedom of thought and for autonomy.”

“We emphasise that the support [for Vucic] is a personal act of Professor Jelic and in no way represents the opinions and attitudes of teachers and employees, or the Faculty of Philosophy as an institution,” the statement read.

Vladimir Cvorkov says that Milosevic back then, like Vucic now, enjoys the support of both the West and of Russia.

“After signing [the 1995] Dayton agreement [which ended the wars in former Yugoslavia] Milosevic was seen as a factor of stability in the Balkans, the same as they [foreign powers] see in Vucic today … obviously not having in mind the harmful consequences of their policy on Serbia,” he said.

However, although Milosevic was seen as crucial in implementing and maintaining the Dayton agreement, Cvorkov and the protesting students soon won sympathy and support from the West.

“Another important difference is that back then we had support from the world, and now we don’t,” Katarina Kostic, who used to DJ at the student rallies in the Nineties, said, “which is devastating but not surprising, though the system now is even more paranoid than Milosevic’s was”.

Today, Kostic attends the current protests against the “grotesque government“ in Belgrade.

“I think it’s great primarily because I thought that young people like that had either been brainwashed or had left the country. But they still exist and this gives me hope that something in this country will change,” Kostic told BIRN.

Cvorkov, who now works as journalist, also supports the current wave of protests in Serbia.

“I was very happy that the students reacted because this regime, like Milosevic’s, has crossed all borders of normality and is demolishing the state and the democratic order.

“Like many people from my generation, I thought the younger generation was utilitarian and was not ready for a fight or any kind of sacrifice for the common good,” he said.

One of those who organized the students in Belgrade in 1996/97, Vlajko Zivkovic, is also taking part in the anti-Vucic protests.

“It’s only right that as a veteran, I attend,” he said, adding that each generation “has its own story” to tell.

Vlajko Zivkovic at a recent protest in Belgrade. Photo: Dusan Popovic

 “During the Nineties, tensions were running so much higher, the country was falling apart, there were wars, so young people were a lot more political,” he recalled.

“I was pleasantly surprised that enough tension exists now to draw young people to express their discontent. For too long the younger generation stayed silent, minding their own business and going to parties,” Zivkovic concluded.

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