For the past two weeks a new wave of student protest has swept through the streets of the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Four marches with thousands of students taking part have opened up a new chapter of opposition to the neoliberal “reforms” in education and beyond.
The movement exploded onto the streets after two months of unsuccessful negotiations with the ministry of education. This came after thousands of students lost their right to free education and the government backed reforms that open higher education up to the market.
These protests were the biggest and most political for ten years. It was also the first time we blocked the two main bridges that connect the two halves of the city.
We closed Branko’s bridge on Wednesday and Friday and Gazela on Friday, after protesting in front of an international conference on the Bologna education reforms – the EU sponsored process that opens up higher education to the market.
The first protests were led by the president of Belgrade university’s student parliament and soon led to a broader generalisation of anger.
We have massive support in Serbia – a recent poll showed that only 12 percent of the population don’t support our struggle.
We received letters of support and solidarity from the leading trade unions – from school teachers, taxi drivers, chemical workers and an inter-strike committee, who all offered to join us in struggle if our demands were not met.
The mood within the movement is giving us the opportunity for the first time to build a genuine working class political alternative.
This radicalism led the student president, a member of the ruling party, to shy away and betray the movement. He called off the protests after he was given a vague promise from the government that some of our demands will be fulfilled.
A group of student activists and representatives realised that we’d been scammed. We decided to hold a meeting and continue the protests – adding demands for free education, and that those representatives who had failed us should step down.
We held a smaller protest on Thursday of last week, where we were supported by bulldozer drivers. One driver, Ljubisav Dokic, nicknamed “Joe”, has become a symbol of the struggle after driving his bulldozer at the front of the demonstrations that toppled the hated president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
Joe joined our previous two marches. He said, “Those guys from the government, they all studied for free. I paid for their studies through taxes and now they say that those of you who want to study need to pay. It cannot be that way.”
We are trying to pull together all the sections of our society who are being made to pay for a crisis they didn’t create.
The central difference between this wave of struggle and those seen in previous years is the crisis of capitalism and growing bitterness over the neoliberal policies of successive governments.
This anger is the spark that can start a dangerous fire for the state for the first time in nine years.
The Serbian revolution of 5 October 2000 brought hope to the hearts of many working class people. It was supposed to mark the end of an era of wars, isolation, economic embargoes, political repression and overwhelming despair.
However, this feeling was not to last.
Right after the revolution, the former opposition to Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia – led by the Democratic Party – soon showed its devotion to neoliberalism, which led to massive lay-offs and privatisation.
The working class found itself betrayed by its new rulers.
Huge injections of foreign capital allowed the ruling class to keep buying social peace. But since 2003 unemployment has remained high. Private debt more than doubled between 2005 and 2007.
Since the beginning of 2009, the number of strikes has grown rapidly.
They have become radicalised and generalised – from the desperate act of a union rep cutting off his own finger to protest against unpaid wages, to the growing number of factory occupations and highway and railroad blockades, as well as a formation of the first inter-strike committee.
A month ago it seemed like the government was up against the wall.
The International Monetary Fund demanded large-scale cuts in the state sector which would leave tens of thousands people jobless in a matter of months.
Russia stepped in only a few days before the final round of negotiations, offering a billion, which eventually delayed the breakout of social unrest.
Then the students came.