Belgrade turns again to study

November 17, 2000

Slowly and painfully, life at the University of Belgrade is returning to normal.

Professors long banned from departments are returning. Student activists are again picking up their books. Scores of students wait nervously outside the law department's lecture theatre. The new year is beginning with last term's exams, after students abandoned October's exams to make revolution.

The professor arrives to start the exams. He has no office, and everything is chaotic: the reckoning in Serbian higher education is still under way.

In recent weeks, professors who lost their jobs because of the 1998 University Law have returned. The law sought to neutralise the university's political power by placing regime stalwarts in top positions and, in effect, making staff appointments dependent on party loyalty. Many professors refused to sign contracts that were de facto pledges of loyalty to the regime. Some were fired; others barred from teaching.

President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Opposition of Serbia is expected to gain a landslide victory in next month's Serbian elections, and his team has pledged to repeal the law immediately.

One of the faculties most active against Milosevic was electrical engineering. At least ten professors were fired. Eight or nine were banned from lecturing but kept on at reduced pay. The day after the revolution, two exiled professors returned to the faculty.

"I felt so strange. I did not believe that I would be allowed to enter the building again," said Jovan Radunovic, the ousted vice-dean. His colleague Vladana Likar-Smiljanic, was horrified by what she saw. "In these past two years, the faculty was destroyed. No new equipment was bought, and old equipment was used too much."

Activist students have to readjust to the new academic year. Rade Milic, a second-year archaeology student, is repeating classes because he did not pass enough exams. He joined the youth resistance group, Otpor, a year ago. From May, he became a full-time activist and decided to abandon his studies for that year. He plans to prepare for exams in January. "It is hard to adapt to life away from the action," he said.

Professor Likar-Smiljanic and colleagues found a nasty reminder of that "action" in the office of Vlada Teodosic, the pro-Milosevic dean of the electrical engineering faculty. "We found the batons for beating students," she said.

The period of uncertainty for returning academics, in particular the acting rector, Marija Bogdanovic, has been prolonged because of difficulties facing the provisional government, which is trying to operate in the wake of September's federal elections. Ministers seem unable to confirm the deans elected by the university's academic council last month.

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