Apathy and passivity abound in the former Yugoslavia. Of all of the previously confederated countries, Serbia alone has a strong youth movement, Otpor. In Croatia, the harshness of daily life and family problems have caused young people to become apathetic to politics. But, a large percentage of young people did participate in the elections on 3 January 2000, showing that perhaps young people are starting to get more interested.
Another positive sign came in April of this year, when the first student demonstration since 1994 took place in Zagreb to protest the closing of a faculty within the university. In Macedonia, the few young people who try to participate in politics do so as part of mainstream parties, but they have not had much success. A similar situation reigns in Bosnia and Hercegovina.
In Slovenia, however, a group of young people recently emerged who are looking to take control of their own future. Fed up with mainstream parties and dismayed by the passivity and apathy that the Slovene youth share with their peers in Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia, the group has formed Stranka Mladih Slovenije (Slovene Youth Party, SMS). In less than two weeks, the group gathered the 200 signatures necessary for registration with the Interior Ministry, and on 4 July 2000, the SMS premiered at the popular Ljubljana club K4.
Taking control of their own future
The SMS is led by Dominik S Černjak, a 30 year-old from Ljubljana, who was elected the party's president shortly after it was formed. The members of the SMS mostly range in age from 25 to 30, and even though it is a political party, it sees itself as a global youth movement. Party Chief Secretary Jože Vozlej told a Slovene daily: "We first intended to organize as a youth movement, but society is too dependent on politics, and if we're not there, we can't participate. So we organized as a party."
Speaking to Central Europe Review (CER), Martin Povh of the SMS Election Committee elaborated on the reasons for founding the SMS. "We're afraid the young people in the other parties have lost their desire to be included in politics," he said, "since they're discouraged by the leadership structure of the parties. Some are fighting that, and that's one of the reasons why we young people were forced to establish our own party. Now, with most of the work done, we have united, and continue to unite, the majority of young people who are engaged in the problems of young people, all under one roof. And that wasn't the cat's cough [that was no easy matter]!"
Another factor that led to the decision to form as a political party was the Law on Student Councils, recently introduced into Parliament. For now, "the Law on Youth Councils of Slovenia is only a preparatory draft about the ways the state wants to salvage youth problems and about how all youth organizations will be able to be financed," explains Povh.
The law is typical for the country, in that young people had no opportunity to participate in the debate and it has a direct influence on their collective future, as an SMS spokesman told a Slovene daily earlier this summer.
The leadership of the SMS realizes that it will not be a major political force right away, and so they are willing to cooperate with any of the established parties that will help forward the primary goal of the SMS, namely a better future for Slovenia's young people.
"Cooperation is always welcome," Povh said, "as long as it serves to change opinions and seeks out common solutions to the problems young people face." Cooperation with other parties is facilitated by the party's non-ideological stance. As Dominik S Černjak recently told a press conference, "We are neither left nor right; the past concerns us only insofar as we know which mistakes not to repeat in the future."
Campaigning is nothing new
The SMS kicked off its campaign for the Slovene parliamentary elections on 15 September, with the country's other parties. In the elections, they are one of relatively few parties running candidates in all 71 of Slovenia's electoral districts.
On 15 September, the official start of the campaign, the SMS put up over 100,000 fliers across the country telling Slovenes to "Wake up." That same day, they launched the "SMS Live Tour," which will continue right up to the elections, 15 October. An English double-decker bus loaded up with information about the party will spend the month traveling throughout the country, joined by bands and even a hot air balloon.
On the day of the elections, the SMS plans to set up stands at polling stations where they will distribute refreshments to voters. Since there will be an "electoral silence," a ban on campaigning, on that day, the slogan "They've silenced us now, but they won't be able to when we're in parliament!" will be taped across the mouths of young people manning the stands.
This may be the first time the SMS is participating in elections, but that does not mean that this is something new for the party's leadership and many of its members. The young people gained valuable experience campaigning for seats on the senates of Slovenia's two universities. From 1994 to 1995, SMS president Dominik S Černjak was the president of the student parliament of the University of Ljubljana. Another member of the party, Kristjan Verbič, ran as a candidate in the last national parliament elections in 1996.
The problems of Slovenia's young people
For the elections, the SMS has forwarded a platform of numerous specific issues, all of which relate back to their mission of improving the position of young people in the country. Predictably, they put special emphasis on education.
Among the major problems they see in this field is the harsh degree of centralization in the country's universities. They are also calling for more universities and greater regionalization of higher education, and further to that point, they are adding their voice to the factions demanding the establishment of a third Slovene university, in the Primorska region. Also in the field of education, they want more student housing, and larger salaries for young professors.
With regard to the economy, the major issue they want to emphasize is unemployment. A large number of young people are unemployed, and the SMS would like to see the government facilitate first jobs for young people just out of university. They are also pushing for governmental help for small businesses. Pension reform is another major issue, since the burden of the national pension program lies firmly on the shoulders of the young.
Further assistance must be given to young people, and young families especially, in finding homes. Finding affordable housing in Slovenia is no easy task, and so the platform of the SMS calls for the construction of more social housing, and revising national housing policies to help the young.
Most of the parties are stressing the need for better access to the Internet in this campaign, and the SMS is no different. One issue that does set them apart, however, is the fact that they support the legalization of prostitution, drugs and abortion. The party feels that all three exist throughout Slovenia, and the lack of legislation to regulate them only exacerbates the problems.
Late this summer, the weekly newsmagazine Mladina predicted that the SMS will only take 0.5 percent of the vote in the 15 October elections—far below the four percent threshold to enter Parliament. But that is virtually the only poll prediction the Slovene press has forwarded for the SMS.
Povh explains the lack of poll data thus: "We feel a degree of pressure from the ruling parties and certainly from the media when they ignore us and don't include us in public opinion polls. From that, we can deduce that the majority of public opinion poll agencies are in the hands of political parties which won't let us break through."
Asked whether the SMS will, in fact, get the required four per cent, Martin Povh confidently told CER, "The SMS will get into Parliament. It's a fact, and everyone in the SMS can already see that the government structure in Slovenia is quietly hampering us. You might ask in what way, since you don't notice it. For one, the SMS hasn't appeared in the public opinion polls. This means that the prediction is that we'll get less than one percent."
Povh went on to say that the party conducted its own poll of 1760 voters, and came up with two positive findings: "First, more than 83 percent support active inclusion of young people in politics; and second, if the elections were today, 5.23 percent of voters would choose the SMS."
While the SMS has publicly stated that they will be active even if they do not make it into Parliament, this election presents them with a unique opportunity. Pundits predict that this will be the election when the Pensioners' Party (DeSUS) will lose its place in Parliament. The membership of DeSUS is primarily made up of retired people. The symbolism of the SMS replacing DeSUS in parliament, the young replacing the old, would be a powerful statement on the future of Slovenia.
Povh sees his party's advantage lying in the fact that "we are young, creative, flexible and, above all, hard working." He has no doubt that the SMS will be in parliament after the elections. "Several key decisions await us young people in the coming years and we want to be right there," he said. "We have no more faith in the idea that the state will take care of us!"
Otpor: similar, but very, very different
The young people of Serbia, until 1991 Slovenia's neighbor in a common state, organized themselves in a similar manner to their Slovene counterparts, but they were forced to do so much earlier and under strikingly different circumstances. While the SMS is a registered, legal, political party in Slovenia, Otpor's application for legal registration was rejected in May 1999, possibly to prevent them from organizing later as a political party—and one that would have tremendous support.
While the young people of Slovenia did not feel the need to organize until earlier this year, Otpor has its roots in the loosely organized student protests of 1996 and 1997. Serbian students were compelled to formally organize as Otpor after successfully protesting the 1998 Law on Universities.
There is a similarity to the SMS here. One factor that led to the Slovene group's formation was also a law, the Law on Youth Councils, but that law was hardly as draconian as the Serbian Law on Universities. The Serbian law allowed the government to appoint university deans, who would then ensure that the faculties were composed of Milošević's supporters and that dissidents were purged. After long demonstrations and protests, the students succeeded in driving out the state-appointed dean of the Philological Faculty of Belgrade University, and in getting all of the fired professors rehired. Inspired by this success, the students set about forming what would become Otpor.
The political and social situation in Slovenia is also diametrically opposed to that in Serbia. While the SMS is as free to operate within Slovenia as any other party, Otpor faces serious persecution from the state. One month after the start of the protests at Belgrade University, November 1998, Otpor made its public debut. While the SMS premiere at K4 in Ljubljana was without incident, Otpor's premiere was in the form of a graffiti-spraying campaign across downtown Belgrade. Four Otpor members were arrested and given nine-day prison sentences for the act. Since that time, an estimated 400 Otpor members have been arrested.
Young people in both countries have the common purpose of fighting for their future, but the situation of young people in Serbia is substantially worse. As The New York Times quoted Žarko Korac, a leader of the Serbian opposition, "These students feel they have no future, no employment. They can't travel and work. So they are fighting for their own future, which is also the future of the country."
Planning for the future
From the start, Otpor has had no single leader. The organization has no hierarchical structure, which makes it considerably more difficult for the state to completely shut them down. From two core groups of members in 1998, student protesters and dissatisfied young members of formal parties, Otpor has seen phenomenal growth in just the past year. At the time of the NATO bombings in the spring of 1999, Otpor had 200 members. By that winter, they had 1000. As of New Year's Day 2000, Otpor's membership was up to 3000. At their congress in February 2000, the membership was up to 5000. Today, the number is estimated anywhere between 20,000 and 80,000.
While Otpor is officially a non-ideological movement and not a political party, they have created a formal platform of goals. Their vision of the future of Serbia first calls for the deposition of Slobodan Milošević and accountability for him and his entire regime. They also call for free elections, democratization, rule of law and constitutional guarantees for human and civil rights for all. They want a market economy and privatization, and full suffrage for all refugees from all parts of the former Yugoslavia now in Serbia.
Otpor does not endorse independence for Kosovo, but does endorse the highest levels of self-rule for the province. They would also like to see a redefinition of the relationship with Montenegro within the framework of the Yugoslav federation.
24 September: a chance for change
In February, Otpor decided to widen its scope and formally transformed itself from just a student movement to a broader popular movement. The driving force behind the organization, however, remains Serbia's young people.
Like Slovenia's SMS, Otpor is formally non-ideological and would cooperate with whichever parties will help them forward their goal of a brighter future for Serbia. In the September elections, Otpor rallied behind the Serbian Democratic Opposition (DOS). Since they are not a party, Otpor did not run a formal election campaign. But they certainly did not remain silent. They launched a pro-opposition, anti-Milošević campaign called On je Gotov (He is Finished), which sought to mobilize as many voters to the polls as possible.
The elections are now over, and the results are far from final. Journalist Žakalin Nezić asked Otpor co-founder Vladimir Radunović, whether the organization would change its name if the opposition wins. Radunović replied, "Our name will stay. The opposition politicians are products of the same regime. We're not a resistance against Milošević, but against the whole way of life and way of thinking. We'll remain Otpor until the last trace of the regime is erased."
The future of the former Yugoslavia
Martin Povh of the SMS told CER that there certainly are similarities to be found between his group and Otpor, but he added that "Otpor certainly is operating in the framework of a purely non-democratic environment and that makes their work much more difficult." When asked whether cooperation between the SMS and Otpor is possible, he said, "Of course, why not? It will be interesting to learn about their experiences in the battle against the system in Serbia."
Perhaps, if the opposition does manage to secure its victory in Serbia and things begin to normalize there, Otpor will be able to open its eyes a bit wider and take in the bigger picture. Starting with a successful protest against the Law on Universities in 1998, they have successfully battled the ruling regime for years, and have much to teach a fledgling group like the SMS. There are hopeful signs that the young are getting more motivated to try to change the system in Croatia, but the young of Bosnia and Macedonia remain inert. Perhaps Otpor will serve as an example to the young in those countries, if not as a mentor.
Povh told CER that "a youth movement is always a sign that the state is not moving in the direction it should." The lack of youth movements gives the state a much freer hand, and the young people of Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia should all find inspiration in both Otpor and the SMS to organize and ensure that their concerns are addressed.
With all of the words and deeds going into projects to bring stability to the Balkans, support for youth organizations has not received much attention. Should Otpor and the SMS cooperate in the context of an umbrella organization linking youth organizations throughout the former Yugoslavia, much could be gained in the way of inter-ethnic and inter-confessional cooperation towards the young people's joint goal of improving their common future.
Whether or not there are more differences than similarities between the SMS and Otpor is not important. What is important is that the greatest similarity they share does not lie in their origins, nor does it lie in their goals or methods. It lies in the fact that they simply exist. And therein also lies their greatest potential.
Brian J Požun, 2 October 2000
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