Lessons of Milosevic's fall

October 13, 2000

Academics put up little resistance to Milosevic, but they have been quick to act after his fall, says Goran Milicevic.

Serbian universities have awoken quickly from the lethargy into which they had fallen since the 1998 university law.

Very few academics - except for a tiny minority of about 200 who refused to sign new employment contracts bearing an oath of loyalty to the Milosevic regime - publicly protested against the regime in those two long years.

Student activists grouped around Otpor (resistance) can perhaps be credited with dealing the most effective blow to the old regime. They mocked it in a way that made it a laughing stock, instantly winning the sympathy of a majority of the population. In retaliation, the regime detained hundreds of activists, damaging its own image even more.

However, some professors were involved in non-governmental organisations that helped achieve the electoral success, encouraging people to vote, educating election monitors, acting as monitors at the elections and so on.

But the real awakening for the university came after the elections, when we had to defend the people's victory. Preparations for the general strike meant that most academics were in a position to sign the petitions demanding the general strike or join the student protest marches.

Organising the strike at short notice was not easy, since we had only a couple of days to activate people who had been inert for years. But these efforts helped us to pick up momentum for the period of interregnum that developed after Milosevic publicly admitted his defeat.

The entire regime was built, and depended on, Milosevic's charisma, which he lost long before the elections were held. The elections only confirmed this loss, and he personally refused to recognise that fact, trying to rig the official outcome of the ballot.

This enraged the masses, and what started as an uprising on October 5 ended as a people's revolution. The apparatus of repression (police and the army) disintegrated in an effort to defend a charismatic leader who had lost his charisma. This enabled the fall of the other pillar of his power - the public media, especially state TV, which protesters took over much more easily than anybody could have predicted.

With the wave of liberation came a further impetus to the revolution. Employees understood it was their patriotic duty to dispose of editors and top executives loyal to the old regime and they engaged in what almost became a competition to see who would be fastest to get rid of his own detested executive team.

The question was whether the universities should follow suit. The act was still there, but only the Serbian parliament could repeal it. So, without much coordination, the academic community decided to act to dispose of its imposed deans and presidents. A few were replaced before the weekend, another 15 or so on Monday, with most of the remaining faculties in Serbia (some 80 in total) expected within the next day or two.

Most of the replaced deans resigned when asked, and some did so without pressure. These included some of the deans who had done the most damage - the deans of Belgrade University's law school, and its faculties of electrical engineering, political science and economics.

In most cases, academics demanded the instant annulment of the act and in the meantime re-established former governing bodies. So in Belgrade, members of the university council, which ceased to exist in 1998, convened to demand the resignation of rector Jagos Puric (who is refusing to resign, unlike his colleagues from Novi Sad and Nis), and eventually replaced him with an acting rector, Marija Bogdanovic.

The Alternative Academic Education Network, which was started as a way of sheltering fired professors in the first months of the 1998 law with the aim of establishing a Free University of Belgrade at some point in the future, is functioning well, despite the fact that its start was hampered by the bombing in 1999 and the severe deterioration that followed.

The AAEN has been especially popular since it provided monthly stipends of about £50 for its students - some 50 per cent above the average wage. Instead of the expected 250-300 applications, about 600 applications were filed this year, with many applicants being ready to quit their jobs. Environment studies alone will have to select its 30 students from 180 applicants. Provision of student stipends was introduced so they can devote themselves fully to their studies.

The next two to three years will show when it will be realistic to expect the AAEN's transformation into a fully fledged private Free University of Belgrade.

Goran Milicevic is associate professor of urban economics at the University of Belgrade.


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