Rough ride for Serbian ruler

February 14, 1997

The war in the former Yugoslavia destroyed almost everything: human lives, families, friendships. Miladin Zivotic is one of the few people who still has friends throughout the area, regardless of ethnic background.

During the war Professor Zivotic, head of the Belgrade University philosophy department until last October, regularly visited Sarajevo under siege, meeting colleagues who share his view: war is not a way to solve the conflict, nationalism cannot be a solution, dialogue is the only possible way of communication.

Professor Zivotic, a long-standing opponent of the regime's aggressive policies, is co-president of the Belgrade Circle, an association of Serbian and international intellectuals who still gather each Saturday to express their disagreement with the Serbian government. The circle began even before the war and continued uninterrupted throughout the fighting.

Last week Professor Zivotic was in Britain to explain events in Serbia at seminars at Westminster University, the School of South Slavic and Eastern European Studies and Oxford University.

After the government's belated acceptance last week of local election results following months of protest, mainly by students, Professor Zivotic said that President Slobodan Milosevic might seek to exploit the tense situation in Kosovo to deflect attention or face defeat in elections later this year if the protests continue.

In that case, Serbia will have an unstable government compared to the stable but totalitarian one it has had for a long time.

"The next president of Serbia should be a sort of a reformed communist, like in the other ex-communist countries. This is a transition era," Professor Zivotic said.

Whatever happens, Serbia has to face the collapse of Greater Serbia and its responsibility for the war, he said. "Many people there want Milosevic to resign not for starting the war, but for losing it."

The university is just one of the many institutions destroyed in Serbia. That is one of the reasons students are also protesting these days. During the Communist era the university was more or less controlled by the League of Communists, Professor Zivotic said.

"But it lost its autonomy completely after Mira Markovic, Milosevic's wife, and her clan took over the university. The current rector, Dragutin Velickovic, whose resignation students are asking for, is the first rector since the second world war who is directly and totally against his students. Even in 1968 the then rector couldn't do that and left the country."

During the late 1960s Professor Zivotic belonged to the Praxis group of leftist intellectuals known for criticising the authorities.

In 1976 he was fired from the university and returned almost ten years later. "This protest has a better chance to succeed than the protests in 1991, 1992 and particularly to the ones in 1968 or earlier. These students' demands are the most realistic. This time they are not asking for the president's resignation, but only a respect for law, and the resignation of the rector."

Professor Zivotic rejected claims published in the New York Times recently that the protests are essentially nationalistic.

"No, the students are totally innocent. They might be sometimes naive or lacking political experience. While the participants in the protest organised by the opposition are mostly a generation with a lost past, students are a generation with a lost future," he said.

"They have nowhere to go. And they want to live like other young people in the world."

Professor Zivotic admitted that students might be under the influence of both nationalistic parties and the Church, especially those whose professors initiated nationalism in Serbia.

"But no one can say it is dominant. If they are nationalists they would have never mourned the Albanian who was killed by the Serbian police. Beside, this protest is led mostly by students of science, who are traditionally looking to the new discoveries, which again traditionally come from the West."

Unlike most of his colleagues, Professor Zivotic does not take part in the student protests. "I can't stand seeing those people who are now coming to the students as a way of cleansing their guilty consciences for what they were doing during the war.

"But I respect students for letting them talk too. That is why students fully deserve the award for tolerance they have just received from the independent daily Nasa Borba (Our Struggle)."

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