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Knife attack on Serbian socialist at Belgrade University is dangerous attack on right to protest

Vuk Vukovi?

December 20, 2011

Students at Belgrade University have been undergoing escalating state repression and far right attacks as they struggle against rising fees and the commercialisation of higher education.

We have heard the university head call on the police to deal with our occupations ‘by persuasion or by force’, echoing the times when Slobodan Milošević used police to batter student opposition to authoritarian rule during the 1990s.

We then endured attempts by private security forces hired by the Philosophy Faculty to effectively stifle our protest by cutting the occupation off from the rest of society.

In Serbia’s second cityNovi Sad, a coalition of the police, the far right and the official student representatives managed to prevent the movement spreading.

All this scaremongering and intimidation failed to end the protest in Belgrade but it succeeded in encouraging the far right.

Three separate attacks on the Philosophy Faculty, which saw the use of fists, crowbars and smoke bombs, followed without meeting any serious response or condemnation from the university administration, let alone the ministry of education or the police.

Instead, three student protestors – one of them signing this article – have a criminal charge of violent behaviour against university security hanging over their heads. Two of us are members of Marks21, which the state tried to blame for the student protest in an unsuccessful bid to divide and rule.

This emboldened the Nazis to go one step further in early December. In a chilling scene, three Nazis entered the university and came looking for a prominent student leader and a member of Marks21.

On identifying him, they threatened him with a knife. One brave student stood between our comrade and the attackers, refusing to give way. She was pushed aside and the lights in the classroom went off.

Our comrade defended himself using a nearby computer screen, which smashed to the floor under the force of the blow. This appeared to break the resolve of the attackers and they fled.

Blood could have been spilt that night but fortunately the worst was avoided.

Yet, the university has refused to condemn the attack, with one official implying the student protest was to blame for making the building unsafe.

Blaming the victim

Blaming the victim is part of the shameful pattern of repression of protest movements in recent years inSerbia.

The most dramatic example has been the state’s attitude towards attempts to hold the Gay Pride march. This year’s march was the victim of a blanket ban on public gatherings in central Belgrade.

Such a shameful act was justified on the grounds of retaining public order. Two years ago, the march was banned from central Belgrade when the police claimed it could not guarantee safety against far right aggression.

The march went ahead last year under heavy police guard but mass rioting led by the far right ensued on the streets ofSerbia’s capital. This was surprising, since the state had no problem shutting down central Belgrade to ensure the safety of foreign dignitaries like US Vice President Joe Biden or Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Some commentators led us to believe that allowing the riot was a massive coup for the state, since it was able to use the rioting to criminalise far right activity. But apparent state weakness only fuelled far right confidence.

The state again this year caved in to wide-spread moral panics against Pride led by conservative circles like the Orthodox Church and the far right and banned all protest.

By outlawing all protest, the state had effectively equalised the perpetrators of homophobic violence and its victims, that is, those who want to restrict the right to self-expression and those who want to extend it. The far right gloried in its apparent victory yet again.

Other protest movements have met a similar fate. Agricultural producers are being systematically blocked off from protesting in Belgrade by the police.

Public sector workers are also threatened with legal restrictions to the right to strike, after they undertook massive action in spring to resist unpopular cuts to the welfare state as the government’s way of rescuing indebted tycoons and paying off foreign creditors like the IMF.

Travellers, Roma communities and asylum seekers are constantly threatened by the state and attacked with impunity by the far right.

Solidarity is our strength

State repression has intensified and state toleration of the far right has increased as the economic crisis has deepened.

The aim is clear: the ruling class is desperate to derail all protest that could act as a catalyst for popular resistance to make ordinary people pay for the crisis.

The state acts as the committee for managing the common affairs of the ruling class.

By hitting hard anyone who is prepared to raise a critical voice or organise a social protest, the state hopes to pre-emptively decapitate any real opposition. When it finds it unpopular to act itself, the state allows an ever more confident far-right to do so.

But this combination of tactics can raise bitterness against the state among the exploited and oppressed. And since the attacks are ever more general, so is the potential for a fightback.

Solidarity is our side’s key strength. We have forged a strong unity in the student movement. All attempts to divide and rule over us have failed. State repression and far right attacks have also failed.

We will now try to inspire others to join us. We know that if we do not succeed in this, we will not be able to hold out alone. But we are confident.

A general assembly at the university backed a campaign to defend the right to protest. An important union representing education workers has also signed up.

We are seeking support in civil society in Serbia and internationally.

As momentum gathers behind the campaign, it will be more difficult for the state and the far right to suffocate popular demands for political freedom and social justice.

This will encourage the struggle for democracy and against austerity the world over.

Vuk Vuković is a member of Marks21, the sister organization of the International Socialists, inSerbia.

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