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Students and radiostations as democratic watchdogs

"Dreaming of a Serbia without politicians"

Februari 9th 1997.

By: Edwin Mermans, Tilburg ZaMir

Of all European countries, Serbia has the most aversion to politicians. Even the coalition of opposition parties Zajedno ("together") is being distrusted by many Serbians. For the Dutch solidarity-movement the only and obvious partners are the various non-governmental organisations and the independant media in the former Yugoslavia.
It was an unfortunate combinatioan of circumstances that Tilburg ZaMir went to Belgrad just as a few of the representatives of the protesting students and independant radiostations visited the Netherlands. Among the reasons of their visit was a discussion with Wim Kok, talks with the Foreign Affairs Office, the Dutch media, student organisations and other NGO's. Uros Bobic and Danilo Drndarski, two of our contacts since an earlier visit in November, are part of the delegation trying to establish a support in the Netherlands for diplomatic and material help.
Nevertheless, before they have a chance to express their wishes we're passing the Hungarian-Serbian border in a bus filled with goods and funds. The humanitarian part of the shipment is going to "grupa 484", an organisation founded by refugees from the Krajina. The rest, consisting of computers, modems, rolls of printing paper, hundreds of videotapes and a bag of Deutsch-Marks in small bills is meant for the student organisations. Although we have gained lots of experience in smuggling these goods for four years now, we always get slightly nervous as we aproach the Serbian border. Fortunately the Hungarians are more lenient after the sanctions against Rump Yugoslavia got lifted. It always remains to be seen whether the customs people buy our story that "we're visiting friends in Belgrad and we're bringing just personal belongings and presents". Our motto always is "the best lie is closest to the truth" and" keep the cuddly toys well in sight". "You have a lot of personal stuff" the Serbian officer says, smiling in disbelief. With a confident story, acting a bit naive and putting on the best baby-face-smile in town we are able to pass the border without paying any bribes. Glad about this result we proceed our journey to Belgrad. The six people in our party this time are partly journalists and photographers, some of them working for the university newspapers of Tilburg and Rotterdam. A radioreporter for the Dutch KRO network has already left by plane and she will accompany us together with her interpreter for our trip through Belgrad. The temporary "Tilburg ZaMir headquarters" will be put up at Jelena Santic's, a former ballerina, choreographer, anti-nationalistic activist from day one and figurehead of the Serbian anti-war movement. Half an our after our arrival we found ourselves in our first demonstration. Every night at 7.30 PM demonstrators produce as much noise as they possibly can as a protest against the biased news on the state television in Belgrad. These days the referee-whistle, after the egg and the toiletroll, is one of the objects in Belgrad with a political meaning.


A day later the program consists of a full fact-finding mission along independant radiostations, student organisations and internetservers. Irina Ljubic, Jelena's daughter, and two of her fellow activists Miroslav and Uros are guiding us through the city and are trying to find the people we would like to see. As always the succes of the whole venture deeply relies on a perfect network of contacts. It's almost obvious that the scene of student activists is very small and that not infrequently friends are running in front. It turned out that Miroslav had been the ZaMir server In the anti-war centre for years and I didn't recognise him at all because of his new Trotski-like goatee.

Since our last visit to Belgrad, in the end of November, a lot of things have changed in the city. After one week of mass- demonstrations many didn't dare to cherish very optimistic expectations. Many feared a repeat of the 1991 uprising that was crushed mercilessly by the army by means of tanks and brute force. Even the putting out of the rebelious fire on the eve of an icy winter was a realistic perspective.
Now, after well over 70 days of demonstrating, the return to the past seems further than ever. Milosevic's position is well-undermined and he is gradually losing his absolute command over the Serbian society. The generals have declared not to intervene, the Serbian Orthodoxe Church feels sympathetic for the demands of the demonstrators and even Milosevic's party is breaking up. His every attempt to get the demonstrators off the street by force or deception resulted only in more demonstrators and the spreading of unrest over the rest of the country.

Power of students

More important however is our observation that the studentorganisations have developped strongly with respect to content as well as organizational skills. Every effort is aimed at making a fist for total democratization of the society even after the demonstrations. The rebelious fire must be retained in a web of organisations on all faculties, the publication of independant periodicals and publications, the set up of a student radiostation and the expansion of the internet-centres. That night we are having a look at the internetserver of the maths and physics faculty. Here, a part of the websites are created by which the world is informed about the uprising. This is done through vast American internetlines and mirrorservers. In the same huge building we later have a discussion with about 10 members of the so called "main board" of student protests. In this "parliament" of the protest students of all Belgrad faculties and polytechnics are represented and from here the demonstrations and the set up of the organizational structures are being guided. Also present in the back of the room are a few beefy looking "bouncers" from the student protests. A few moments later they disappear in the pitchdark and hundreds of metres long university hallways that intensify the "underground" nature of the setting.

Playful and peaceful

In the conversation it's unnecessarily emphesized that the student movement is completely independant of the political opposition parties united in Zajedno. They're demonstrating apart from the rest and their demands are greater and contain a radical democratization of the Serbian society. This includes access to mass-media, democratization of universities and punishment of fraudulent authorities. Should Zajedno get power, the new rulers also shall be judged democraticly by a self-assured student movement and they will pay for their actions. For now, distrust in Zajedno stays present because of nationalistic and Machiavellian backgrounds of a few headfigures in this coalition. Zoran Djindjic in particular has a doubtful reputation. Many constituents primarily vote for Zajedno to get rid of Milosevic.
The students however are very popular with the Belgrad population because of their very playful, creative and peaceful actions, their independance of political parties and their flexible decisiveness. Together with the famous radiostation B92 they have become an important factor in a somewhat carnival-like post-modern revolution.
Miona Babic, student at the art faculty, tells about the complete aversion to politicians and ideologies she has and she's dreaming of a future Serbia without politicians. Typical for that groce distrust of politicians in the former Yugoslavia is the confusion about the meaning of the word "politics". Whereas most activists anxiously are stressing that they're completely apolitical, their attitude and platform are more political than that of many Dutch activists. This confusion of concepts comes out of their belief that "politics" means "party politics, corruption and nepotism". The affinity with the future organization of the country of these most politicized students in Europe contrasts sharply with the social commitment of many of their peers in Western Europe.
Contrary to 10 weeks earlier I let go of my scepticism about the succesful outcome of this adventure. The only 2 possible scenerios appear to be the definitive fall of Milosevic or a very bloody and violant crush of the rebellion by the regime. In the latter case, the students guarantee us, "we will flee massively to the West".

Cash on the nail

I can agree with the carefully spoken observation that the worldwide expressions of solidarity, e.g. via the internet, are higly appreciated but that cash on the nail is wanted by now. I suffer from vicarious shame as the students observe that so few people from the West are willing to pay a visit to Belgrad nor offer substantial material support.
The next day we are leaving a Belgrad which is pregnant of a democratic foetus with just one question: Is it going to be a glowing, blushing, vital baby or a bloody abortus provocatus?

More details and direct links to homepages in Belgrad and the USA-mirrorsites can be found on the homepages of Press Now and Sociamedia: http://www.dds.nl/~pressnow http://www.ddh.nl/fy/serbia

What is Tilburg ZaMir?

For more than 4 Years now the objective of Tilburg ZaMir has been the concrete material and financial support of independant civil groups in the different countries of the former Yugoslavia. The nature and activities of these civil groups are very divers; from extensive reconstruction and reconciliation projects, renowned human rights organizations to independant media. The majority however consists of a lot of little pionering grassroots peace-, women's- and human rights groups operating on a local or regional level.

Tilburg ZaMir's paradox consists of her simultaneous straightforward as well as opportunistic choice of collaboration partners. Straightforward as far as goals and thougts of her partners are concerned. Collaboration and support only come about if groups have an outspoken anti- nationalistic nature and are focussed on the build up of a pluriform, multi-ethnic and civil society. The aim for a democratic constitutional state is an imperative first step. Political parties are excluded almost beforehand because of their nationalistic character.
The choice is opportunistic where method, culture or image of partners is concerned. Anti-war centres and human rights organisations of the metropolitan middle-class, religiously inspired rural peace groups, refugee organisations as well as professional pilot projects aiming to influence the agenda of the multinational organisations; they all meet the criteria. Furthermore collaboration with representatives of OSCE, IFOR and lots of UN-organisations are normal practice. In the Netherlands we work closely with a number local solidarity groups, Pax Christi, Press Now, Stichting Doen and the Balkan Peace Team.
The members of Tilburg ZaMir for a great part have either an activistic background in peace movements or roots in the support movement for both the freedom fights in Southern Africa and Middle America as well as oppositional civilgroups in former Eastern Germany.

Tilburg ZaMirs methods' and activities cannot be lumped together because of the comprehensiveness of the organisation. The core-activity consists of an odd 8 journeys per year during which the delivery of goods and the gathering of information are priority nr.1. The big transporter usually is packed with large amounts of computer-apparatus, xerox machines and other electronic equipment that are covered with humanitarian goods to keep them out of sight. Not infrequently journalists accompany them to report about the partners' activities.

ZaMir is Servo-Kroatic for "for peace". Tilburg ZaMir also means taking part in the ZaMir Transnational Network. The ZTN is one of the most important projects to which Tilburg ZaMir is contributing, which covers Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kroatia. The ZTN is a basic e-mail-network which was the only means of communication for organisations in these countries during the war and the sanctions. An important task of Tilburg ZaMir is the role of intermediary between groups in the former Yugoslavia and those in the Netherlands. This means the stimulation of liaisons, trying to establish contacts with funding organisations and giving information to Dutch organisations and media. Also we invite partners for a working visit to the Netherlands on a regular basis.

The main objective, and untill recently most utopic and ridiculous, has always been offering support for the overthrow of Milosevic's and Tudjman's nationalistic regimes. Todays leaders in Belgrad and Zagreb not only are the main reason of the entire Balkan-conflict but they also are an obstacle to a peaceful and democratic future for this region. The students in Belgrad cherish the same "wet dream" and they now - in imitation of the Prague Velvet Revolution - seem to be realising it.

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