University laws stifle academic dissent

December 10, 1999

Gillian Sandford reports from Belgrade on the suppression of democracy

A series of repressive Serbian university laws has shifted the balance of administrative power from academics to government representatives.

By last year, the regime had achieved a stranglehold on universities and research institutes. "Not a trace of democracy remained," said molecular physicist Milan Kurepa of the Serbian Academy of Science and Art.

Several academics have participated in and led protests against the regime of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. But such activities have become difficult over the past ten years. "From the beginning of the Milosevic era the nut tightened," said Dr Kurepa.

The 1998 university law in particular cowed many professors. They no longer lead nor support student demonstrations and schedule lectures as normal so that students who attend the demonstration miss them.

Although several thousand Belgrade University students joined a rally organised by Otpor, the students' resistance movement, last month, most went to lectures.

One student said: "We don't support the demonstration because it's not possible to succeed and we will lose the year in the university."

Another said: "It's better to finish our faculty studies and go somewhere abroad."

Among opposition figures is Milan St Protic, president of the intellectual group Odbrana (Defence) and a historian at the Belgrade Institute for Balkan Studies.

He is critical of the whole structure of education, citing promotion of academics on the basis of party loyalty. He alleges the regime has lowered the standard for university entrance to keep youngsters occupied and stem potential political action.

"Milosevic has destroyed the intellectual potential of this country," said Professor St Protic.

Dr Kurepa claims that university activists were the first to call for the resignation of President Milosevic. A university law was introduced a year after student demonstrations in March 1991.

"It took us four years to work out how to do something without breaching the 1992 law. In 1996 we managed to organise another demonstration," he said.

The demonstrations of the winter of 1996-97 were the largest student protests ever seen in Serbia, sparked by the authorities' failure to recognise opposition success in local elections.

The regime conceded defeat but when the opposition party leadership collapsed and the demonstrations ended after four months, President Milosevic moved on the dissidents.

He curbed academic freedom more tightly, dividing staff by forcing them to sign personal contracts that were seen as loyalty pledges. In Belgrade, an estimated 50 refused to sign. Twenty left the institutions and a further 30 were fired.

The authorities exercise tight control over university management and curricula. Rector, vice-rectors and student vice-rectors all have to be loyal members of the Serbian Socialist Party, the Yugoslav United Left or the Serbian Radical Party, the third coalition partner. They appoint university professors and deans.

The contracts staff were required to sign were riddled with loopholes, failing to give clear details on wages, holidays or security of tenure and even suggesting that staff could be arbitrarily shifted to a different university. They also forbade strikes.

Stasa Babic, an archaeologist at Belgrade University, said her response was:

"I'm not going to sign because I'm not going to sign my support for a regime that ordered the shelling of Sarajevo."

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