Fighting a fear of isolation

August 6, 1999

Western academics must not forget their Serbian colleagues in the war's aftermath, Dejan Djokic argues.

Pressure on Slobodan Milosevic to resign is building from without and within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the aftermath of Nato's bombing campaign.

But among the calls for Milosevic's replacement, democratisation of the country, fresh elections, free media, economic reforms and so on, both the West and the anti-Milosevic opposition in Serbia have broadly ignored the question of Serbian universities.

Although campuses largely escaped material damage during the bombing, there are a number of problems facing Serbian academics and students this autumn.

In May 1998, as part of a wider campaign to neutralise voices of opposition, the Serbian parliament passed a law abolishing the autonomy of universities.

A number of leading academics resigned rather than sign a new contract that amounted to a pledge of loyalty to the government. But many of those who have not resigned, but openly disapprove of the university law, are facing increasing pressure from government-appointed managements.

There are other problems too. Because of the war, many students were unable to sit this year's exams, while many potential new entrants were unable to take admission exams. The government is discriminating against Serb refugee students from Kosovo by refusing them admission to schools or universities in Serbia itself.

The United Nations Children's Fund is apparently planning to organise an alternative network for these students in Serbia, a plan supported by the opposition Democratic Party. In addition, student refugees from Croatia and Bosnia will be asked to pay for their studies, which will remain free to students from Serbia. An independent teachers' union has protested against this decision as well as against favourable treatment for those new students whose relatives have fought or died in the war.

Shortage of foreign literature, poor computer facilities and isolation from international academic events are only likely to worsen as a consequence of the war.

Western governments have made it clear that any aid to Serbia, except humanitarian, will be preconditioned by political changes in Belgrade. Paradoxically, however, this may turn out to benefit President Milosevic, who has only been seriously threatened by opposition at home in times of relative stability - early in the 1990s and after the Dayton agreement which halted the war in Bosnia.

Even if the West insists on "changes first, aid later", universities in Serbia should be exempted from this policy.

If this is impossible, there are a number of alternative ways to aid Serbian academia without aiding Milosevic and his entourage:

Exchange programmes to include students and university lecturers are absolutely crucial if Serbian higher education is not to remain isolated. The opportunity to spend time at western institutions would provide invaluable experience that can then be used to improve teaching and research standards in Serbia.

Alternative individual and group projects should be supported. Lecturers from Belgrade University who lost their jobs after the law on universities was enacted founded the Alternative Academic Education Network. The network continued its activities even during the bombing campaign, organising seminars on topics such as war and society, nationalism and patriotism, international law and war, and ecology and war. These were marked by a high academic standard and absence of anti-western hysteria.

British universities should undertake their own initiative to help colleagues in Serbia, both those working under alternative and state curricula. Donations of books and journals, old computers and other equipment would be extremely helpful.

International conferences organised in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis should be encouraged and supported. In other words, any cooperation between British and other western and Serbian academic institutions would provide at least symbolic support and reduce an increasing sense of isolation.

Without a proper education, the reintegration of Serbia into Europe will be much more difficult if not impossible. For any society to function properly, education is absolutely essential.

Because Kosovo is now only de jure part of Serbia, it looks certain that western aid is going to be sent to its only university in Pristina, but not to the other four universities in Serbia: Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis and Kragujevac.

However, it is vital to maintain even-handedness in reconstruction. Aid should not be preconditioned by ethnic, political or ideological factors, but must be provided according to needs.

Before the war, there were practically two universities in Pristina: one official, that is, for Serb students, and one non-official for Albanian students. This will change, and as it is very unlikely that there will be enough Serbs left in the province to attend a Serb university, the process will not even be reversed.

Those Serbian lecturers and students who have not already left or are planning to leave the province are too frightened to use university buildings, now occupied by their returning Albanian colleagues, and it is difficult to see how this will change by the beginning of the academic year.

If the West is committed to a multinational and tolerant society in Kosovo, then it must send aid according to needs, not ethnic background, just as it must also do everything possible to encourage remaining Serbs to stay in Kosovo.

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

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