Serb students hit in row over rector

January 7, 2005

Students at the University of Kosovska Mitrovica are caught in the middle of a political battle between two governments - and the United Nations.

The UN Mission in Kosovo objects to the installation last September of Radivoje Papovic, an associate of Slobodan Milosevic, as the university's rector.

In August, Unmik refused to issue the university with a licence to operate for the forthcoming year. When Belgrade refused to rescind the appointment, the European University Association called on its 700 members to boycott the university, claiming that the ousting of former rector Gojko Savic breached the principle of university autonomy and was illegal.

The university is the only higher education institution for the Serb population in Kosovo. It became based in Kosovska Mitrovica after the Albanians expelled Serbs from Pristina, the Kosovo capital, in 1999, following the Nato bombing of Serbia and the expulsion of Albanians by Yugoslavs.

Since the end of the war and the establishment of Unmik, the status of the university and the question of who governs it have never been resolved.

Belgrade funds the university, but Unmik issues its annual licence.

Professor Papovic denied rumours circulating in Belgrade that he was asked to resign.

He ran Pristina during the Milosevic era, when relations between Serbs and Albanians were polarised and Albanian professors and students fled the university. He denied fostering ethnic hatred and claimed he had always believed in multiethnicity.

Formal protests against his appointment by Unmik, the Serbian Association of Universities, the Students Union of Serbia and the EUA have fallen on deaf ears.

The EUA explained: "Professor Papovic, following his illegal appointment, has pursued a number of unacceptable actions, including the removal and replacement of deans and senior administrators."

Professor Papovic claimed his position was legal because he put himself up for election after the appointment. The EUA, however, objected. It says in a statement: "Elections for the post were organised in haste and outside a legal framework, and Papovic - the only candidate - declared himself to be the duly elected rector."

The rector claimed his predecessor was in the process of ceding control of the university to the UN - and so ultimately to the Kosovo Albanian Government.

Academics and students in Mitrovica refuse to condemn Professor Papovic.

They see the Unmik action as a bid to take control of the university.

Gordana Subaric-Gorgieva, professor of the medical faculty at the university, said intellectual life was the core of any community. "Serbs have the profound feeling that Kosovo is on the road to independence and one way to oppose that is to keep hold of institutions for which they legitimately have responsibility."

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