Students keep up pressure

February 14, 1997

Serbian student protests against the government's annulment of the November local election results passed their 80th day last week with some hint of progress towards acceptance of pro-democracy demands.

Official acts of repression against the demonstrators have become harsher as time has passed. There have been more arrests, including a number of opposition MPs, and many of those detained have alleged they were beaten while in custody.

Last month the Student Protest 96/97 movement filed criminal charges against Serbian prime minister Mirko Marjanovic and interior minister Zoran Sokolovic.

Last week they tried but failed to meet public prosecutor Dragan Petkovic.

As the reprisals escalated, the protests became less light-hearted. Symbolic acts - parading a puppet of the president's wife, "washing" the university - were replaced by "cordon-to-cordon" staring matches with the security forces.

On February 2, the students held a "media circuit" protest march past the buildings of Serbian radio and television and the Politika newspaper company. The march began in front of the philosophy faculty, and took place without police interference, and with student stewards taking responsibility for order and traffic control.

Around midnight, however, there was a police raid on the faculty. Interviewed by a local independent radio service, Radonja Mirkovic, who is active in the students' emergency medical centre, a first-aid van which is in attendance at all demonstrations, said that the police "attacked us and several of our people from the students' emergency medical centre".

She continued: "They also stormed the faculty building . . . Several people from my service were hit with batons."

This "violation of university autonomy" would simply make student protests "more robust", she said.

During the same night, described by a Russian television journalist as "a night of hell", demonstrators, including students, who were blockading central Belgrade, were attacked by "special-purpose" troops wielding batons and, in near-freezing temperatures, water-cannons.

In this and similar attacks over the next two days, dozens of students and other demonstrators were injured and arrested.

Who ordered these measures is unclear. According to Colonel Sreten Lukic, Belgrade's assistant chief of police, he and his staff knew nothing about the raid on the faculty, nor did they know, Colonel Lukic said, the names of the arrested students.

But the heightened violence did not deter the students. On February 4, while a delegation of students and lawyers was trying to get some answers from Colonel Lukic, some 20,000 students surrounded the police headquarters.

The same day, Dusan Vasiljevic, spokesman of the Student Protest 96/97 movement, said that student protests would continue until "concrete results" were produced - that is, until all the seats in last November's local elections have been confirmed, and until the rector of Belgrade University, Dragutin Velickovic and the student vice chancellor, Vojin Djurdjevic, resign.

Despite the tension in the streets, it may be easier to achieve capitulation on the elections than on the rector and vice chancellor.

Neither Professor Velickovic nor Mr Djurdjevic has given any indication of being willing to resign, and both have consistently, throughout the almost three months of protests, upheld the government.

Whether, if the government indeed changes its stance and fully accepts the election results, these two authoritarian figures will make a similar U-turn and step down from office remains an open question.

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