An isolated academy is no good for democracy

July 14, 2000

Academics should put politics aside and reach out to Serbia's long-suffering intellectuals, writes Dejan Djokic

Exactly two years after the Serbian parliament ended the autonomy of universities, the ministry of higher education this May ordered them to stop teaching and allowed only students sitting exams to enter university buildings. The de facto closure of universities came just days after an "occupation" of several faculties of Belgrade University ended when students and some lecturers were forced out and, in some cases, beaten by security guards, believed to have been policemen in civilian clothes. Police have curbed student demonstrations and arrested activists throughout Serbia.

The student organisation Otpor! (Resistance) has been behind most anti-government activities at Serbian universities and has emerged as the real opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic. Because opposition parties seem unable to form a joint platform against the government and have failed to capitalise on growing dissatisfaction, Otpor! offers an alternative.

The organisation has recently broadened its membership to include well-known public figures. The regime responded with arrests and intimidation of Otpor! leaders, whom it has branded "terrorists". Absurdly, Otpor! has been accused of carrying out terrorist acts, such as the murder of Bosko Perosevic, the president of the Vojvodina branch of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, and even the attempted assassination of Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, the largest opposition party. A new federal law on terrorism, which was due to be promulgated in June, has been deferred. But the climate of repression remains.

That aside, the state of Serbian universities is gloomy. The isolation of Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s has particularly affected academia.

Students, especially those who study away from home, face financial hardships their colleagues at western universities would find difficult to deal with. The elitism debate in this country pales into insignificance when compared with the situation in Serbia, where ever fewer young people can afford to study. Lecturers receive small and irregular salaries. Many have lost jobs following the abolition of the universities' autonomy in May 1998, and many more fear for their jobs because they disapprove of the government. In the past year, a tightening of international sanctions has heightened the shortage of foreign literature, and Serbia's absence from international academic events has become even more obvious. A growing feeling of helplessness and apathy cannot be hidden.

What, if anything, can universities in Britain and elsewhere in the West do to help their colleagues in Serbia, and why should they help?

Exchange programmes, support to alternative group and individual projects, donations of books, journals, old computers, and providing funds for translations would be extremely helpful. International conferences and summer schools could be organised in Montenegro and the Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb entity) if not in Serbia itself. All this could, at least symbolically, help Serbian academia fight an increasing fear of isolation.

There are already examples of such initiatives. For instance, with help from the British Council, the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies hosted 20 young historians from the Balkans for one week earlier this year. Seven were from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (including Kosovo). For the past few years, Westminster University has cooperated with Serbian political and social scientists gathered around the Belgrade Open School. The result is an annual summer school in Montenegro. The Open Society Institute offers a Higher Education Support Programme to encourage cooperation between institutions in Eastern Europe and the West. Projects such as Serbia's Academic Alternative Education Network - founded by academics who lost their jobs in the clampdown - could benefit from the HESP scheme.

Yet contacts must not be limited to such projects. Most academics and students are still based at state universities. Even though institutional cooperation might be difficult, it should not be predetermined by political criteria. Even if some academics support the government - and many do not - that does not mean that they are incompetent scholars, just as it does not mean that all those lecturers who oppose Mr Milosevic are great academics.

Of course, any support of state universities might benefit the present regime. But, this would be insignificant compared with the benefits it would bring to those who need it most - students and their teachers. Future democratisation of Serbia will not be possible without the country's most educated people. That is, those of them who choose to stay and wait for the isolation to end.

Dejan Djokic is a history tutor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

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