Sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia by the United Nations have had a devastating effect on its higher education. International links are all but severed, and apart from immediate material constraints, institutions are suffering from an immense brain drain.
Austria used to be one of Yugoslavia's chief western partners in cultural and intellectual exchange, and reviving links between the two countries is a key aim of the Institute for Comparative Education Research in collaboration with the Institute of Human Sciences, both based in Vienna.
Hopes that life in Belgrade would improve after the lifting of the embargo have been dashed. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is slipping deeper and deeper into economic crisis. Novak Probicevic, former Yugoslav ambassador to Vienna and Tirana, and a member of the oppositional Belgrade Circle, told a meeting in Vienna that the clampdown by the Milo-sevic regime had become even tighter since the Dayton agreement was signed.
Neither does any opening up to the West appear to be on the cards. "Belgrade has set its sights on China and north Korea. And it is secretly hoping that Yeltsin will lose the Russian elections," Stojan Cerovic, editor of the independent weekly Vreme, warned in Vienna.
"We feel very much cut off from the rest of the world," said Ivan Ivic, a professor at the University of Belgrade's institute of philosophy. "In a country where one third of the population does not even have a primary education certificate, there is strong resistance towards opening up and modernising. Some intellectuals would like to prevent international contacts."
Professor Ivic said that the European Union had in effect created a new Iron Curtain. "Europe is divided. We need no end of documents to get access to European libraries." Professor Ivic also complained that Serbian intellectuals seeking contact with the West had been particularly hard hit by the embargo. Shutting off Yugoslavia from the rest of the world had actually strengthened the Milosevic regime by isolating its critics.
According to Gerhard Newklowsky, Klagenfurt University's deputy vice rector, the embargo meant a considerable setback for various disciplines at Austrian universities. Professor Newklowsky, who teaches Slavonic studies, said that because the exchange of scholars, studies, and books and periodicals had come to a standstill, both university and Academy of Science institutes in Austria were suffering a serious lack of information. Professor Newklowsky also called for EU support to fund the exchange of lecturers and scholars between the two countries.
Another issue is the increasing pressure that Croats and Bosnians are exerting on institutes of Serbo-Croat to cover the languages separately. "With the current hard-pressed situation of institutions in Austria, this can hardly be accomplished. It could mean the end of Serbo-Croat studies in this country," said Professor Newklowsky.
The disintegration of Yugo-slavia and the subsequent embargo, virtually crippled what was already a weak higher education system, according to Dragoljub Micunovic of Belgrade University's faculty of philosophy.
Professor Micunovic claims that plans for reform put forward by a number of institutes in the Tito era did little to improve poor teaching of students. Restructuring of research left it in the grip of industry, and emphasis on ideological contents hampered academic quality.
When Yugoslavia broke up, its higher education institutions were already suffering from a massive brain drain and considerable structural deficits. The emergence of new states brought about a rapid decline in cooperation. The embargo, in turn, more or less ruled out participation of academics in international conferences, although various meetings did in fact take place. Scholars from Belgrade and Graz would occasionally meet in Bulgaria and Greece.
Professor Micunovic, who is also president of the Democratic Centre opposition party, claims that under the embargo, Serbian society underwent a profound change. "As the nouveau-riche war-profiteers established themselves, the middle-classes suffered a steady decline. The pauperisation of intellectuals meant that academic professions lost their status."
Professor Micunovic says that young people were full of hope at the time of the country's first multi-party elections in 1990. "The war came as a terrible shock to them," says Professor Micunovic. Students were particularly opposed to the war and the military, and in all, 20-30,000 left the country.
"In the early 1990s students and intellectuals were particularly prominent among protesters against the Milosevic regime. But now political culture among intellectuals has ebbed."
Professor Micunovic believes that the growing number of strikes among workers might encourage students to become active once more, and suggests that universities could play the role of an avant garde of protest as the crisis in society grows. But he also concedes that young academics are hardly in a mood to engage in critical debate.
Nevertheless, he feels that higher education was the "best means to liberate society". It was vital that Yugoslavia establish contacts with the rest of Europe and the rest of the Balkans.
Former Austrian vice chancellor Erhard Busek called on his country's universities to maintain links with institutions in Yugoslavia. While he conceded that Europe had failed as far as the Balkan crisis was concerned, he also stressed that it was vital for the countries of ex-Yugoslavia to depart from what he called a "nationalistic standpoint".