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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, this is no ordinary student protest.

Two days later—day 106—there is a vital decision. Early on, the students had formulated three demands. The victories by the Zajedno (“Together”) opposition coalition in local government elections on November 17 (by coincidence, also the starting date of the Prague events in 1989) should be properly recognized; the rector of the university should resign; and the student dean should also go. Milosevic conceded the first, main demand several weeks ago and the Zajedno mayors have already moved into their offices. Today the rector and the student dean have offered their resignations. But are these resignations binding or is it a trick? Professors from the law faculty are summoned to explain the legal niceties. Suddenly we’re in a law lecture.

Even if the resignations are binding, should the students stop here? Some want to go back to lectures, others to raise new demands. Biljana Dakic, a third-year history student who is one of my guides, nods vigorously at a comment by the student chairman. What’s he saying? “He says: democracy is when the minority respects the will of the majority.” But then a pale-faced man stands up and shouts, “This is a provocation! If you accept this, you’ll all be fooled!” Ceda Antic intervenes. If the resignations are definite, he says, they should all have a Victory Walk, and then go back to lectures; if not, they should call for nationwide elections to a new Constituent Assembly. Back to school or forward to the revolution! “You see, we have our Robespierres and our Dantons,” Ceda wryly says afterward, but he, the Girondin, was trying to outflank them.

Two clichés have been applied to this revolutionary theater of the Belgrade students, and to the Serbian drama altogether: “velvet revolution” and “nationalism.”1 Neither gets us very far. Certainly some students say things that sound nationalistic to a Western ear. Most seem rather confused in their political views. But is that true only of Serbian students? And wouldn’t you be confused if through the most impressionable years of childhood you had seen your country fall apart, in a war which had many Serb victims too, and if, through those years, you were constantly told by state television, radio, your parents, teachers, and leading intellectuals that this terrible war was the fault of others: Slovenes, Croats, Muslims, Germans, Americans? “When I was seventeen,” Momcilo tells me, “I wanted to go and fight for my fellow Serbs, like my older brother.” (This although he is Montenegrin.) Biljana was born in Knin, a city in the Krajina from which the Serbs, including many of her family, were driven out by the Croats’ “Operation Storm” in 1995. Three of her uncles are now refugees in a Serbia which greets its fellow Serbs with far from open arms.

In the circumstances, it is remarkable that these students have produced a protest that has been so relatively peaceful, responsible, wittily inventive, and basically democratic. Despite all the propaganda and the poisoned mental environment in which they have grown up since the age of twelve or thirteen, and though many of them have never been to the West, they, like the velvet revolutionaries of Central Europe in 1989, embrace a model of “normality” which includes the fundamentals of Western democracy. What is more, they are trying to practice it in their own protest. Entirely gentle this was not. At the beginning, stones were thrown and windows broken. Then they reverted to eggs. But some put the eggs in the deep-freeze first, so they came out as hard as stones. Perhaps deep-frozen eggs are the Serb version of velvet.

Against all the virulent denunciations of “Europe” by Slobo’s hacks, the students still write on their placards “EURO polis, EURO demokratija, EURO standard, EURO prava, EURO vlast.” We in the rich EURO-Europe hardly deserve such touching faith. Or again: “AMERICAN PEOPLE HAVE: Bill Clinton, Steve WONDER, Johnnie CASH and Bob HOPE! SERBIAN PEOPLE HAVE: Slobodan Milosevic. No WONDER, no CASH and no HOPE!” But a small wonder this was.

We must also distinguish between nationalism and patriotism. I walk over with Ceda Antic for a coffee at the Hotel Moskva. He, the talented history student, reminds me that the pre-1914 Serbian conspirators of the Black Hand used to meet in this cafe; why, perhaps the future assassin of Franz Ferdinand sat in this very corner. But today’s Young Serbia is not talking of assassination. Ceda is twenty-two. As a young child, with a Serb father and a Croat mother, he thought he was a Yugoslav. Then he found that he was really a Serb. In his search for identity, he discovered the glorious history of medieval Serbia—and the Orthodox Church. He read the Bible, believed, and was baptized into the Church two years ago. His godfather is a fellow student, active in the protest. Ceda was one of those quietly singing the hymn of Saint Sava.

Like many people I talk to in Belgrade, he now thinks that Yugoslavia was a mistake from the very beginning. “It was,” he adds, “our mistake”—meaning that of the Serbs who thought their aspirations could best be realized in a larger state of all the Southern Slavs. Now the Serbs’ historic task is to start again, to build a modern, liberal, democratic Serbian nation-state.

It is a travesty to call someone like this thoughtful, idealistic young man a “nationalist,” in the pejorative sense in which that term is now almost universally used. He is a patriot, someone who cares deeply for his country. (If it were otherwise, he would not be demonstrating but trying to emigrate, as hundreds of thousands of younger, educated Serbs have already done.)

He feels that the students have done what they can for Serbia, their new-old patria. Now it is up to the people and the opposition parties, three of which are supposedly united in the Zajedno coalition. The students have carefully kept their demonstrations separate from those organized by Zajedno, so as not to be “taken over” by any side, but we now walk out to observe the latest opposition demonstration, dedicated to the demand for freedom of the press, radio, and television.


More flags, more nineteenth-century patriotic hymns, more rousing speeches on Republic Square, before the National Museum. It looks like a scene from 1897 rather than 1997, except that one of the flags says “Ferrari.” The crowd use their whistles—another hallmark of the Belgrade demos—to blow like crazy at every mention of Milosevic. Then off we stroll again, on what I’m told is “the media walk,” past the egg-stained state television station, known as “TV Bastille,” past white-haired “grandmother Olga,” an old lady who became a symbol of the protest, still cheerfully waving from her balcony, past Radio Belgrade, past the Politika newspaper and so back to Republic Square. On the television in my hotel room I find CNN reporting “a massive demonstration” with calls for Milosevic’s resignation. Well, it did not look massive to me, but what CNN says must of course be true.

Seen from outside, through the lens of such Western television coverage, and with the 1989 matrix still imprinted on our retinas, you might think that the Serb story is now “Zajedno versus Slobo” (like Civic Forum versus Husak, or Solidarity versus Jaruzelski), and the question is simply when Slobo will go. Seen from inside it does not look like that at all. Even those parts of the opposition joined in the Zajedno—“Together”—coalition are still quite un-together in many vital ways. Despite the country’s dreadful condition, Milosevic and his allies still have many important sources of power, and he has nowhere else to go. Above all, the question of democracy is overshadowed by the still unresolved national question. And that is still, as it was a century ago, about the basic issue of the frontiers of states in relation to those of peoples, including the position of Serbs outside the present Serbian state—especially in Bosnia—and that of other nationalities inside the present Serbian state, especially the Albanians in Kosovo.

  1. 1

    The students were particularly indignant about charges of “virulent Serbian nationalism” made by Chris Hedges in The New York Times. See, for example, “Student Foes of Belgrade Leader Embrace Fierce Serb Nationalism,” The New York Times, December 10, 1996.

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