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Serbia: Student Protesters Steer Clear Of Opposition

Belgrade, 16 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The first time 21-year-old Belgrade archeology student Miroslav Maric was eligible to vote was in Serbia's municipal elections on Nov. 17 -- and he voted for the opposition coalition Zajedno (Together).

But a few days after the opposition won a majority of seats on the Belgrade city council -- as well as control of city halls in another 14 out of 18 key cities -- Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had the results thrown out in a bid to maintain his Socialist Party's total domination over almost every sphere of life in Serbia.

Maric felt cheated. As he put it, "I personally felt my vote was stolen." So he joined an estimated 20,000 other Belgrade university students in demonstrating in the streets of Belgrade every day for a month now.

But he makes it clear he's not a big fan of Zajedno, even though he voted for them. In his words, "they are nothing special. They are the same as the socialists, but I say give a chance to someone else."

This is a curious characteristic of the student demonstrations. Although they -- like Zajedno -- are demanding reinstatement of the annulled opposition electoral victories -- the students are very careful to keep their protest separate from the opposition Zajedno march through the streets of the capital that takes place every afternoon.

"We are fighting for democratic rights. We don't support the opposition but we don't support the ones who won the elections in an illegal way. We simply want the will of the people to be respected," says Petar Kosanovic, a member of the organizing committee of the protests.

Many of the students, who were brought up in communism and came of age in war, display a great distrust for all politicians, the opposition included. Valeria Vujovic, a 24-year-old English student, sums up the feelings of many when she says: "Most politicians only want power."

"We are not sure that any of the opposition will bring something better. It's not important if it's Milosevic or someone else in power, what's important is that we have our rights," says Kristina Kantar, a 19-year-old student .

At the same time, the students are passionate in their desire for freedom, and for a legitimate democracy where elections mean something and power can be transferred from one party to another peacefully. Maric, the archeology student, says it's a farce to sit in a classroom and study the democracy of ancient Greece when there's no democracy in today's Serbia.

However, the students say that keeping their protest separate is also a matter of strategy. As one 21-year-old protester (who said he was afraid to give his name) put it, "it's better not to support the opposition right now because the government will say that the students are being manipulated by politicians."

"We think our protest is much stronger if it's separate from politics. We are not supporters of any party or any leader, we are fighting for democratic principles," says Dusan Vasiljevic, spokesman for the student protests.

Like the Zajedno protesters, many students are frustrated that Milosevic has steadfastly ignored them, saying nothing in public about the public displays of disgust with his authoritarian regime. As languages student Kantar put it, "we have nothing to fight against when he doesn't want to listen to us."

But the students are counting on pressure from Western countries to compel Milosevic to accept the results of the Nov. 17 elections. Says Maric, the archeology student: "We know that Milosevic doesn't give a damn about us. We hope that the foreign TV, newspapers and radio stations that come to see us will put pressure on their governments and that they will put pressure on Milosevic."

It's obvious from the good-natured, carnival atmosphere of the daily demonstrations that the students' morale is high, as is their will to continue their protest. Asked how long they can hold out, protest spokesman Vasiljevic replied: "We will last as long as it takes. It's the uniform answer, but it is the only answer I can give you."