As the Kosovo crisis slips from diplomacy to war, it is hard to feel any sympathy for Serbs. So it was supremely bad timing that brought three University of Belgrade academics to London last week to seek support from academics for their "alternative university", which has been operating outside the official Serbian higher education system since June.
The Alternative Academic Education Network, set up in response to the clamp-down on Belgrade academics opposed to Serb president Slobodan Milosevic, is not an overtly or even tacitly subversive organisation. The AAEN does not seek to overthrow the government, despite that government's heavy-handed nationalist and counter-intellectual actions, and emphasises it is not training a cadre of dissident intellectuals.
The AAEN is trying to create circumstances in which new ideas can be tackled in a free academic environment. It is looking for international contacts, academic exchanges, participation in courses or summer schools, gifts of books and journals, indeed, any tokens of international professional solidarity.
Its ambitions are to introduce the country's brightest young people to concepts not recognised in Serbia's conservative university system, to provide quality academic programmes in disciplines accepted in the West but rare in Yugoslavia, and to keep academic freedom alive.
But with Kosovo dominating the headlines and the plight of its persecuted people in every paper and on every television screen, the three colleagues faced a continual, and not always successful struggle to keep discussion focused on the AAEN.
Their case was pretty straightforward. Many observers have seen Serbia's new university law as one of the most blatant examples of state erosion of academic freedom and a direct attack on academics associated with democratic elements in Belgrade, who were held responsible by hard-liners for the 1996 student demonstrations. Most who refused to accept the so-called loyalty test at the heart of the law may have been reinstated. But the ease with which the Yugoslav government picked off lecturers and journalists, and is now apparently taking aim at the judiciary, set alarm bells ringing in the liberal world.
Although some are suggesting it, the AAEN is not asking for government aid, financial or in kind. In today's atmosphere it would be pointless to do so. It could also fault the careful footwork the network is maintaining in Belgrade, where it runs in parallel with the official university system,showing what is possible even in a country where the majority of the population supports a populist dictator. The government has already played the card of CIA influence in an attempt to discredit the cause.
The worst scenario would be for those behind the initiative to be forced out of the University of Belgrade, leaving a vacuum that would be rapidly filled by government stooges whose lack of academic credibility would further depress the university's international reputation.
Help from overseas must clearly be, and be seen to be, at a professional rather than a political level. Furthermore, any temptation to act against the University of Belgrade by blacklisting its degrees and diplomas in a response to the attacks on academic freedom should be resisted. Such tactics would play into the hands of a regime that thrives on isolation.
There are, however, still things that can be done. As Lisa Jardine of Queen Mary Westfield said at one of last week's meetings, it is far from ineffectual to help nurture the spirit of academic freedom for future generations.
Despite understandable reservations about potentially succouring one of the world's handful of outcast regimes, the AAEN deserves help within the limits that its organisers themselves have defined.