World View: Support frontline scholars

March 23, 2001

As violence again racks the Balkans, academics in Macedonia and the former Soviet bloc need our intellectual and scientific aid, writes Tim Unwin.

Tension in the air was palpable as my flight from Munich landed in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. There were few passengers on board: a couple of Kfor officers in military uniform; some Macedonians bringing their children home from Germany; and two British academics.

News headlines in the days before our departure had become increasingly worrying -what were we going to find on our arrival? The sense of tension heightened as an American in front of us, turning to his colleague as he rose from his seat, said: "OK, I have my mobile, my pistol and my knife. We're ready to rock."

In the airport itself, men and women in combat fatigues stood around with weapons at the ready. On the motorway into town, small groups of armed police waited at strategic points by the roadside.

Virginia Hewitt (the curator of paper money at the British Museum) and I were in Macedonia as part of a British Academy-funded research project examining the ways in which banknotes issued in Central and Eastern Europe over the past decade have sought to represent the national identities that have emerged in the wake of the demise of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

This is fascinating not only for the opportunity that it has given us to explore the beautiful imagery represented on the notes, but also for what it has revealed about the processes leading to the selection of this imagery. In the course of interviewing politicians, bankers, academics and artists across Central and Eastern Europe, we have had a unique opportunity to grasp something of the complexity of social, political and economic change in the region and the implications that this has had for the practice of intellectual discourse.

A driver from the national bank whisked us at great speed into town. Skopje was devastated by an earthquake in 1963, and much of its western region was rebuilt unsympathetically in the ubiquitous concrete tower-block style to be found over much of Eastern Europe. However, to the east of the Vardar River is the old Turkish quarter, now inhabited largely by Albanians. Here, narrow streets still echo to the sound of hammer on anvil, the air is filled with the smell of delicious kebabs, and numerous gold chains glisten in the windows.

Our generous hosts later took us out to dinner in the hills overlooking the city, and the next day they drove us to the resort town of Ohrid in the southwest of the country. Here, the manager of the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments and the museum met us and took us around this magnificent World Heritage site, which has an unrivalled collection of churches and icons.

While much of our discussions ranged across the very complex and widely misunderstood issues surrounding the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, they also raised significant questions concerning the role of British scholars and scientists in helping to support colleagues from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Under the former regimes of these states, considerable investment was directed towards the pursuit of academic and scholarly excellence. Academies of sciences and arts were fostered, and despite doubts over their efficiency and political character, they did represent a considerable wealth of experience and understanding. Perhaps they did not fully appreciate the technical and artistic developments that were taking place in the West, but this was hardly the fault of most academics trying to maintain a career in Central and Eastern Europe at the time.

The 1990s, in contrast, have seen a complete restructuring of scientific and artistic endeavour in the region. In particular, the free market and so-called liberal democracy have led to dramatically reduced budgets for academies of sciences and arts and, in many cases, to the disbanding or merger of once-prestigious research institutes. The British Academy and the Royal Society have developed extremely valuable exchange programmes that seek to develop linkages between scholars and scientists in Britain and those from Central and Eastern Europe.

For these efforts to be effective, however, it is crucial that British academics are willing to build on these opportunities and to forge sustainable collaborative research ventures with colleagues from overseas. This requires us to bid not necessarily for the most lucrative and prestigious research grants, but to be humble enough to listen to the requests from our neighbours. If these do not fit with the requirements of major grant-giving bodies, we should perhaps think of giving freely of our time to visit these countries for sustained periods ourselves to learn from scholars there and to give them our support by sharing with them our own knowledge and understanding. It also requires us to be generous in the way we referee papers from overseas, to help refine their written styles and to offer hospitality to colleagues on visits to our own institutions.

Many British academics are supporting colleagues from Central and Eastern Europe. However, much more remains to be done. The Macedonians need not only our political support as they seek to re-establish peace, they also need, along with scholars and scientists throughout the region, our sustained and committed scientific and intellectual support.

Tim Unwin is professor of geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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