Gillian Sandford reports from Belgrade on the suppression of democracy
Branko Ilic is short, lithe and full of energy. The student of Spanish and philosophy would look at home on any campus. But he is a student at Belgrade University and has committed himself to changing the politics of his country, rather than studying them.
Most days he spends his time at the downtown offices of the Serbian student's resistance movement Otpor ("resistance" in Serbian) planning actions and strategies to get democratic elections.
"I know I must study. I must take my exams in order not to be sent back to my home town. But it makes no sense to study in this situation. My first aim is to change the system here. After that, everything else will make sense."
Many of his professors agree and several of them meet regularly with Otpor activists to advise and help them. Branko joined Otpor when it was first formed - in response to the 1998 university law. "I couldn't stand the situation. The best and most eminent professors were fired," he says.
Initially, he joined the Students' Federation, which was independent of the state. But the dean of the philology faculty, Radmilo Marojevic, a member of the extreme Serbian Radical Party of former paramilitary leader Vojislav Seselj, tried to shut the federation. So, in November, it joined Otpor.
Last February, students staged protests against the university law. "About 80 of us were sitting down and linking hands, blocking the stairway in the faculty of philology. Then 15 big guys came in and started to beat us with their fists," said Branko.
Three of the women needed hospital treatment while Branko suffered concussion and passed out.
Otpor blamed the dean for the violence, but Professor Marojevic denied he was responsible for hiring the thugs. According to the Belgrade newspaper Blic, Professor Marojevic said their orders had come "from the top". Nevertheless, he was forced to quit his job under a hail of press and public criticism.
"The Serbian people didn't see what we were trying to do," said Branko. "They didn't see that we were trying to show that Milosevic is the biggest dean in Serbia. We were trying to show it is possible to make someone resign."