International academics wait in wings for Serbian democracy

October 20, 2000

Europe's education ministers see early repeal of Serbia's 1998 University Law as a critical step towards readmitting the country to the international academic community and the release of financial and material aid.

The Council of Europe and its member states are standing by to react swiftly to developments in the region - but not before democratic institutions are in place and not at the expense of existing European aid programmes to Bosnia/Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.

Serbia's parliament last week refused to repeal the law, which was used by the Milosevic regime to secure control of the universities, regarded by the former president's supporters as the heart of the pro-democracy movement. Repeal appears unlikely to be reconsidered by MPs until new elections are held in December.

Jagos Puric, rector of Belgrade University, whose role in implementing the law made his survival as rector increasingly unlikely, finally resigned this week. A low-profile figure on the edges of Slobodan Milosevic's political circle, Professor Puric was a prominent member of the Communist Party and then of Mira Markovic's hardline Yugoslav Left.

Representatives - including 30 ministers - of 46 European states reined in a natural inclination to promise immediate support for the universities of the former Yugoslavia after hearing of concerns about likely financial implications and reservations about trespassing on diplomatic territory that is reserved for foreign ministers.

Encouraged by ministers and delegation heads from Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, parts of the response to events in Belgrade were recast in recognition that the federal elections that brought Vojislav Kostunica to power were a first step towards democracy and that education was the responsibility of the Serbian and Montenegrin republics, not the federal republic.

Once democracy is in place, and, by implication, the law repealed, negotiations will open to involve Serbia and Montenegro in Council-supported educational projects in the Balkan region under the existing enhanced Graz process and the stability pact for southeast Europe.

Klaus Schumann, director-general for education, said: "The changes that have recently occurred lead one to believe a democratic government will come about... we are aware of the problems and are ready to help and act, but we need democratic interlocutors."

Edmund Wittbrodt, the Polish minister of education, who presided over the meeting, said: "We have observers in the region and expect the next step to be to construct a democratic government. Our signal to Belgrade is that we are ready to act."

International news, page 10

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