Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade occupied by protesting students

The collapse of the former Yugoslavia had led to a swathe of privatisations, cuts in social spending and a systematic dismantling of all the gains of the past. But one event back on November revealed that below the surface a new situation is brewing. Suddenly in reaction to worsening conditions, the imposition and increase in fees and so on, the students in one Faculty occupied the university building in an exemplary manner.

On Wednesday, November 22nd 2006, over 300 students of the University of Belgrade occupied the Faculty of Philosophy building in the city centre and put forward three clear demands before the University authorities.

1) Cutting of all tuition fees by 50%.

2) Setting up of clear criteria for determining tuition fees in the future which will take into consideration the objective social conditions in the country.

3) Recognition of the Diplomirani degree awarded to students in the old Yugoslav education system as equal to the new Master degree adopted by the University of Belgrade along with other changes demanded by the new Bologna process reform of higher education.

Tuition fees were introduced into the Serbian education system through the back door in the nineties under the Milosevic regime, but have gone sky high in the last few years along with the general trend of liberalisation in the economic system. Currently, Serbia has an educational system which involves both state-funded students and the self-financing ones. State funded students still represent the majority; however the proportion of self-financing students is steadily increasing along with the tuition fees. In order for a self-financing student to attend the faculty of Philosophy, one is required to pay a sum of 86,000 dinars (which is equal to a sum of about 1,000 euros) per year, while some other faculties, like, for example Architecture, are shameless enough to demand a total of 240,000 dinars (a little more than 3000 euros) per year. Study conditions hardly meet the most basic of requirements for modern quality education and various costs of accommodation, books and numerous other bureaucratic fees demanded of students in every corner by their faculties during a semester, make higher education virtually unreachable for the working class youth. This course clearly shows the ruthless determination of the Serbian ruling class to make higher education a privilege of the chosen few on the one hand, and a profitable business branch on the other.

Over a course of weeks, the students organized a petition, meetings, gatherings, protest marches and tried to appeal to the management of the University of Belgrade as well to those of local Faculties, and each time they were tricked by the University authorities and ignored by the leadership of the official students' organizations who are manipulated by the pro-bourgeois political parties, that are inactive and reduced to a few bureaucrats in warm offices who have observed the deterioration of study conditions for years without moving a finger.

That Wednesday however, the students of the University of Belgrade decided that they had finally had enough. United, finally realizing that they indeed had nothing to lose but their chains, they occupied the same Faculty building where their parents barricaded themselves in 1968 protesting against the rise of the "red bourgeoisie", and called upon their fellow colleagues to join the protest, making the dean of the Faculty of Philosophy tremble before the newly risen wave of student discontent. All of a sudden, everyone was interested: the university authorities started to appeal to reason, arrogant student organizations woke up from years of winter sleep and tried to impose themselves as the representatives of the barricaded students and the media, who previously totally ignored the question of student fees, became concerned.

Oddly enough, that same day, another protest was being held in front of the Philosophy faculty. It was a gathering organized by the liberal opposition parties to commemorate the various anti-Milosevic student protests of the nineties and put them into the context of more thorough and faster liberal reforms inside the country today as their main remedy for the sick state of Serbian society. These same demagogues, just months after obtaining power over the backs of the people in 2000, denounced anything that remotely sounded like a demand for social justice as "communist populism", started the radical privatisation wave and declared that education should be a good, just like any other good on the market. Not realising that times have changed they attempted one more time to misuse the trust of Serbia's students, like they had done with our predecessors 10 years ago.

However, mistakes are always something to learn from, and this time the students were not tricked that easily. The occupation caught the one time leader of the Anti-Milosevic student movement and long time collaborator of the assassinated pro-capitalist prime-minister Zoran Djindjic, presently leader of the radical pro-reformist liberal opposition party LDP, Cedomir Jovanovic, in the building where he was supposed to address the commemorative meeting. Outraged by his use of our Faculty for self-promotion in the election campaign and by the fact that he brought an armed escort on the grounds of the University, the students demanded that he and all other politicians leave the building immediately.

The response Cedomir Jovanovic gave consisted of his bodyguards harassing and kicking nearby students. Then an avalanche of protest followed and the students shouted almost like one raging voice: "Get out, crook! Get out, thief!" The entire event was filmed by the leading pro-liberal television in Serbia, B92. However, when they showed it on the evening news, the footage had been "adjusted" and the comment that went with it spoke of young Serbian neo-Nazis at the university chanting pro-chetnik and anti-Bosnian slogans! This scandalous fabrication went along with the prejudice of the pro-European camp in Serbian politics today, claiming that whoever stands up against the sacred course of market reforms must be a Milosevic follower or a bigoted nationalist.

However, the rebel students were by no means discouraged by this treatment, but had instead initiated propaganda of our own - we issued a protest bulletin and held a press conference where all the media were invited. In the following days the media slowly began to acknowledge the existence of "Students' Protest 2006" as it had been officially called.

Not without further manufactured "controversies" of course. A whole chain of human rights NGOs condemned our "neo-Nazi outbursts" - none even bothered to try and verify those allegations. Even fewer tried to do their job and focus attention on the right to education as one of the basic human rights which the students were fighting for. It was rather amusing, in a way, to see such a synchronized action by the ruling class propaganda machinery - it gives one quite an idea what revolutionary proletarians are up against. Young fighting people are slowly but surely starting to realize that they can no longer rely on the web of NGO organizations installed in the nineties who supported them as long as they were against Milosevic in abstract terms, but now that we finally live in "democracy", as soon as the youth address the concrete social hardships imposed on them by capitalism, they produce media manipulations which make the Milosevic propaganda look naïve.

The organization of the occupation was mainly based on a self-management principle. Self-organized students gathered at the student assemblies where every student present had a vote and could have a say. One room in the faculty was designated for sleeping, one for studying and eating (the food was bought with the money from contributions the students and some given by parents) - there was no smoking allowed in either of them. The room in which press conferences were organized during the day served as a cinema during the night, where films with social themes were shown. Every morning and every evening the building's floors were swept by students organized for a "labour action". There was also a ban on alcohol during the occupatiuon. The school functioned better than ever before.

Eventually certain elements in the media started showing us in a favourable light, which was, naturally, a huge morale boost for the students carrying out the occupation. Unfortunately, despite our appeals, no other faculty followed our lead and joined the occupation. Students were beginning to feel exhausted and nerves were on the edge. In the end, after a strenuous 6 days of the occupation the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy was forced to make a small, but significant step towards meeting our demands. A joint platform was signed, promising future actions to lower tuition fees. The university authorities played lip service to our demands and passed the hot potato to the Ministry of Education which is ultimately responsible for financing the Faculties.

A day of experience is sometimes worth more than hundreds of book pages read. Despite the fact that the students that attended the protest were of mixed political beliefs, they were all united by the same interests and democracy in decision-making. Student action made the role of different organizations and institutions quite clear. Students felt the hypocrisy of the ruling university structures, the manipulative character of the media and the sleazy attitude of the student union bureaucracy that first tried to ignore the movement altogether and then, when it had no other choice, tried to position itself as the mediator between the students and the authorities. Most important of all, the students realised that nothing will change unless they become active and stay in solidarity under pressure. This occupation is just a sign of bigger things to come. It sent a strong and clear message to the Serbian ruling class and their corrupt elitist intellectual apologists - the Serbian working class and its youth will not be taken for fools and oppressed into obedience indefinitely, they will strike back and they will, in time, triumph!