Belgrade’s 1968 student unrest spurs nostalgia


Belgrade : Belgrade is marking 40 years since Europe’s 1968 student protests, a seemingly happier time long before the wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart into several countries.

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As Serbia wavers over closer ties with the European Union, 1968 offers a nostalgic feeling that Serbs were then part of a global community, demonstrating for freer societies even though Josip Broz Tito’s communist regime didn’t shake.

“It was a year when the world dreamed one dream and Belgrade was the world, ” Djordje Vukovic, who participated in the Belgrade protests, said at the opening of one of several exhibitions on the student unrest.

After youth protests erupted in Belgrade on the night of July 2, students at Belgrade University went into a seven-day strike. Police beat the students and banned all public gatherings.

Students then gathered at the university’s Faculty of Philosophy, held debates and speeches on the social justice, and handed out copies of the banned magazine Student.

“For us it was a rare opportunity to be in a society which is in line with history, to have whatever is happening in the world happen here as well,” Dragoljub Micunovic, one of the participants, told Serbia’s Tanjug news agency.

To revisit 1968, film projections and forums are planned and the Historical Archive in Belgrade will host an exhibition including leaflets, copies of Student magazine, photographs and other archive materials from the year of upheaval.

Student protests had begun a few years earlier in the mid-1960s in the US, then spread to Europe in 1967 and 1968, flaring up in places like Germany, Italy, Spain, Mexico and Poland.

Two months before Belgrade, protests erupted in France that led to major unrest and a general strike. In August 1968, a Soviet-led invasion crushed Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring communist reform movement.

While Yugoslavia was outside the Iron Curtain, having broken with the Soviet Union two decades earlier, Tito ran the multiethnic, multi-religious country as a dictator.

“The protests in Belgrade are important because in Serbia’s closed society that wanted to present itself as a harmonic one, a group of people wanted two main human rights to be respected – the right of political assembly and the right to free speech,” Micunovic said.

Students also protested against economic reforms, which led to high unemployment and forced workers to leave the country and find the work elsewhere.

Tito gradually stopped the protests by giving in to some of the students’ demands and saying that “students are right” during a televised speech. But in the following years, he dealt with the leaders of the protests by sacking them from university and Communist party posts.

The protests were supported by prominent public personalities, including film director Dusan Makavejev, stage actor Stevo Zigon, poet Desanka Maksimovic and university professors, whose careers ran into problems because of their links to the protests.

Although participants call it “last kick of the free society” and the “last world explosion of utopia energy,” the protests left Serbia and former Yugoslavia without liberal groups and Tito as a lifetime ruler.

Protests also broke out in other capitals of Yugoslav republics – Sarajevo, Zagreb and Ljubljana – but they were smaller and shorter than in Belgrade.

“Those protests will never happen again. We live in a different society. Ideas of freedom and truth are gone and only the violence from 1968 lives on,” said Nebojsa Popov, who took part in 1968 and wrote a book on student protests.

“That violence is being legalised since 1968 until this day and we still can’t get democratic institutions which will deal with it,” he said.