Next spring will mark 30 years since the 1971 demonstrations by Croatian students for the preservation of the Croatian language and culture. Carried on the wings of nationalism, those vibrant days created a very homogenous student structure, altered history and changed many people's lives.
Ten years ago, nationalism, strong enough to encite wars and terrible suffering, raged across the Balkans. Once again, Croatian language and culture wound up in the center of the conflict, and many expected the student population to play a crucial role once again. But the students did not respond.
Food, music and booze
Today, it has yet to be explained why the student population is not homogenous, why they do not seem to have common interests and what exactly they are thinking. In fact, it is widely agreed upon that "all they care about is food, music and booze."
Talking to an average student, it is not hard to see that he or she is not very interested or worried by political participation or the structure of their university, the quality of their classes or the cafeteria food. What occupies their thoughts more is the tough family situations that are common throughout the nation. The cost and destruction of war, combined with the economic degradation brought on by the Tuđman regime, have altered the social structure, almost completely eradicating the middle class and dividing the nation into two groups, a small wealthy elite and the rest, who are struggling to survive.
So, instead of families being able to financially support students, it is now more common that students either have to find a way to finance their own studies, not to mention those who must contribute to the everyday family budget. With this on their minds, it is a bit of a stretch to ask them to care about anything else.
With such a situation, students seem more bent on completing their studies and starting work, no matter how low the paycheck or how tough the conditions are that await them. This silent resolve has become apparent in recent years, when the quality of their education and their post-graduate and employment opportunities have deteriorated many times. The few that have spoken up in attempts to protect their basic rights have seen no results.
Also, complaining about the decline in the quality of education and job opportunities in the middle of a bloody war was deemed unfair, compared to the fate of those whose lives were lost, those whose deaths loomed over the nation. This carried over to the next generation of students, as they had watched their predecessors' outwardly apathetic and lethargic attitudes, and had played a large role in the seemingly somnambulate state of today's students.
It is fair to say that only about ten percent of Croatian students are actively involved in any student activity, such as student organizations, media, etc. The national Student Council was created in 1996, as the umbrella organization for all student activities, but, to this day, it has not proved that it has any purpose at all. Initiatives by the Student Council have been rare, and those who ever saw the light of day found very little response from the student population. The student media, which once competed vigorously with professional media and was the pride of the student community, have fallen apart, due to the loss of their main market, the apathy of students and the grinding economic situation. Today, only four truly student magazines exist in Croatia, three of which are in Zagreb. Not one, however, can clearly predict if they will be around next year. The only student radio station has minimized its costs by cutting back on air time and, thus, losing a chunk of their audience.
At the beginning of the year, it seemed that this situation had no end, and that the students had gone into an undefined hibernation period. But the high percentage of young people who voted at the 3 January Parliamentary elections was the first sign of a springtime awakening. On 12 April, Zagreb saw the first student protest since 1994, which was sparked by the possible closing of a fairly new Faculty of Croatian studies, due to accusations that it was a politically engineered school created for the benefit of members of the former regime. A few years ago, such an event would probably have been taken relatively calmly by the approximately 2000 students of the faculty, who would have continued simply their studies at other faculties. But, with the arrival of the new governing class, the atmosphere across the nation became somewhat more relaxed, as they chose a new direction for Croatia, one that offered economic recovery and, most importantly, brought optimism back into everyday life.
Since the students are not a population for themselves, with their own way of thinking and acting, but are instead very integrated into the entire national corpus, it is feasible that a boost of optimism across the nation gave them more courage to speak out for themselves and their rights. Whether this is the beginning of a slow separation of the student body into a special structure, or if their behavior and interests will remain linked to those of the rest of the population, it is too early to say. It is evident, though, that the last ten years have brought us very low, and, from here, the only way is up. With the slow but sure entrance of foreign investments, it is only a matter of time until the ideas and choices that were sacrified for the welfare of the nation get their chance.
The Croatian student today is aware of the poor state of student affairs, and, while on the outside it would seem he or she does not care at all, it is more fair to say that the students are simply waiting for their time to arrive. Such a passive stance ensures that the recovery process is going to be a long one, but, after all, it is better late than never.
Igor Nobilo, 15 May 2000
Igor Nobilo is editor-in-chief of PULS, Croatia's oldest student magazine.