Eye witness

November 27, 1998

Europe's historical powder keg continues to smoulder as international efforts to bring peace to the Serbian province of Kosovo are confused by mixed signals from Belgrade.

While Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic holds the key to the crisis, questions have been raised over whether he or political rivals are responsible for recent attacks on academia and the media. This week Glas, one of Serbia's remaining independent newspapers was heavily fined for publishing allegations that ministers are about to betray the Serbian minority in Kosovo.

At least 16 academics at the University of Belgrade, who have refused to sign a "loyalty pact" prescribed under last May's university law, have been fired while others lost pay after refusing to comply.

"A disastrous development for academics and for the future of public discussion and debate in Serbia ... With international attention riveted on the conflict in Kosovo, Milosevic is tightening the screws at home," said Joseph Saunders, Human Rights Watch academic freedom specialist.

But David Norris, of the department of Slavonic studies at Nottingham University, suggested the clampdown could be attributed to deputy prime minister Vojislav Seselj. "Seselj is a vindictive individual," said Dr Norris. "When it came to dividing up the faculties at the university he only had two possible candidates - philology and electrical engineering. The first department to close within philology was comparative literature whose head had rounded on Seselj in a television interview some years ago."

Geoffrey Stern, lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics, who has lectured at Belgrade, believes that Milosevic is secure. "The alternatives are even more extreme than he is ... Even people who hate his guts will support him because he is there." Academics and journalists were part of a liberal intelligentsia unrepresentative of "ordinary" Serbs, he said.

Dr Norris, who visited Belgrade this summer, adds: "The intelligentsia is not only marginalised in Yugoslavia, but is not getting any support from outside - one of the side effects of sanctions - and it is difficult to find out what is going on."

Opposition academics blamed a secret deal between Milosevic and US envoy Richard Holbrooke. "In return for Kosovo, Milosevic has been given a free hand to extinguish democracy in Serbia," chemistry professor Ivan Micovic told a meeting organised by the new student movement Opor (Resistance). "It is only to be expected that he would start with the institutions that represent the brains and conscience of this nation - the universities and the media."

* Additional reporting by Vera Rich.

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