In the Serbian Soup

People compare this to the Velvet Revolution in Prague,” I say to Momcilo. “Yes,” he retorts, “but the Czechs only lasted thirty-seven days!”

On the 104th day of the Belgrade student protest, Momcilo Radulovic—thickset, with a two-day stubble, short dark hair, black leather jacket—has just burst into the room exclaiming, “We’ve occupied the rector’s office.” He is twenty-three and studies political science at Belgrade University. As he leads me to the new center of action, he stops in the middle of the street to explain: “I just want to live in a normal country. I want to get up in the morning, go to a normal shop, read my books, have the rule of law and democracy. And travel.” “I’m not a child of the Internet,” he adds, referring to a frequent characterization of the protesters, “but I’d like to be.”

Around the heavy conference tables in the rectorate are packed some eighty students belonging to what they call the Main Board. “Silence!” people shout at the top of their voices, “silence!” A tall, bespectacled history student called Ceda Antic tries to keep order: “Kolega Gavrilovic to speak next.” A girl with long brown hair and a little pink-and-white plastic handbag takes longhand notes in a ring binder, as if at a lecture. She is the official note-taker. From the window I can see the student masses gathering below, with their flags, posters, and badges, while pop music blares out: “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah.” How touching to hear the Beatles still.

The Main Board is discussing the route for today’s Walk. Walking with a capital W is the students’ characteristic form of protest. Today they’ll parade around the rectorate courtyard, then walk to the education ministry to support their deans. Instructions are given by mobile phone—a major technological advance on Prague in 1989. The mobile phones are a present from Bogoljub Karic, one of the country’s best-known multimillionaires and until recently—or perhaps still?—a close associate of the hated President Slobodan “Slobo” Milosevic. “After ninety days, Karic decided that he supports us,” Momcilo says, with a nice irony. The student next to me has a multicolored badge saying “Propaganda.” Their other departments include Information, Security, Culture, and Protocol. Information is for foreign visitors like me, Propaganda for their own rank and file. Protocol is now on the mobile phone to his colleague at the loudspeaker jeep outside.

The sound of singing comes from the square below. Everyone in the room rises, some standing to attention. This is the “Hymn of Saint Sava,” a patriotic-religious hymn of nineteenth-century Serbia, celebrating the patron saint of education, and only recently revived as the university anthem. Some sing along quietly, with expressions of mildly ironical affection on their faces; most are respectfully silent; one or two look embarrassed or resentful. At the end, a few—mostly the singers—cross themselves after the Orthodox fashion. Between Saint Sava and the mobile phone …

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