Field Notes

While storm clouds gather over Kosovo, University of Belgrade professors are girding for a battle closer to home. These Serbs demand protection of their academic freedom–which is not to say that they are entering into the fracas over post-tenure review. Rather, they seek to repudiate a new Law on Universities that is more repressive, say its critics, than any Europe has seen since Nazi Germany–and they have reason to fear that the law will cripple the political and intellectual opposition to Yugoslav strongman-president Slobodan Milosevic. Says longtime Serbian dissident Dusan Bjelic, currently a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine, "When the Kosovo theater begins, behind the scenes Milosevic is going after his opposition."

It is a dark political moment in Serbia. Milosevic’s political opposition, once a loose coalition called Zajedno (Together), has disintegrated. An ultranationalist right-wing party has coalesced under the leadership of former Bosnian Serb paramilitary commander Vojislav Seselj, whose unit, the Chetniks, participated in some of the worst episodes of ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian war. Preempting competition from Seselj’s essentially fascist party, Milosevic has embraced it as part of a ruling coalition that closes the gap between the ultraleft (Milosevic’s party and that of his wife, Mirjana Markovic) and the ultraright.

The Law on Universities, passed on May 26, 1998, certainly turns the screws as tight as they go on dissent from within the ranks of the academy. In a break with tradition, the government will now directly appoint deans, rectors, and members of the governing University Council, as well as all of the managerial and supervisory boards at Serbian universities. Furthermore, the deans and rectors, in turn, will approve all future faculty appointments. And all faculty members, regardless of the status of their existing contracts, were required to sign new contracts by August 5. Many professors, according to the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee, saw this last exercise of power as the equivalent of forcing academics to sign loyalty oaths.


The text of the law was not obtained by the Serbian public until two weeks before parliament was to vote on it. Faculty and administrators at the University of Belgrade cried foul: They had been told that a new law was forthcoming but that it would be devised in collaboration with the universities. Their protests did nothing to halt the law’s progression through parliament and into effect. Approximately fifteen hundred students, professors, and concerned citizens briefly took to the streets–only to be violently dispersed by police and para-police troops.

Since the law was passed, more than half the deans of faculty at the University of Belgrade have been replaced–and of the replacements, all but one is a member of one of the three ruling parties. Seselj himself, a former political scientist who once boasted of his desire to gouge out the eyeballs of Croatians with a rusty shoehorn, has been appointed to the University Council, as well as to the governing boards of the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Economics. The new dean of the Faculty of Philology, Radmilo Marojevic, appointed by Seselj’s party, gave a chilling interview on July 2. "Sadly," he proclaimed, "our country and our culture are somehow under occupation from within. We have a fifth column in scholarship, in culture, everywhere." Even his colleagues in the other two ruling parties are suspect: "I noticed that, when we were signing, some deans did not know how to sign their names in Cyrillic, or did not want to, and they teach at a Serbian university."

Meanwhile, Marojevic denounced proponents of building democratic institutions in Serbia as advocates for a form of American imperialism and called the new law "a nearly desperate move to save the university from complete...democratization. A good attempt to return a Serbian character, a national, cultural, and authentic character, to this university."

For many Westerners, what may be even more surprising than the severity of Milosevic’s new law is that the Serbs recall a proud history of relative academic autonomy. During Yugoslavia’s Communist years, the Party laid a heavy hand on academic and cultural life, but university posts were still elected positions based on peer recommendation–and, according to Dusan Bjelic, there was always a "dialectical tension between self-management and the Party’s attempt to intervene." Professor Goran Milicevic, chairman of the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Universities in Serbia, concludes that "Milosevic does not have the power Tito had. That’s why he’s trying to reestablish control over the universities in this unprecedented manner, abusing his majority in parliament."

It is easy to speculate that the government’s recent crackdown on higher education is a belated punishment for the anti-Milosevic demonstrations that erupted on university campuses from November 1996 until March 1997. Indeed, under the new law, the Faculty of Philosophy, which was the central site of the demonstrations, is to be disbanded: All its constituent departments except history have been reassigned to other faculties. And, according to Bjelic, stipulations of the new employment contracts allow the deans and rectors to fire faculty members who did not conduct classes during the months of protests–putting at risk virtually all professors who participated.


Although Serbian academics talk about the universities, particularly the University of Belgrade, as the cradle of oppositional politics and the only hope for a democratic future, the flora and fauna of Serbian academic and political life are amazingly complex. After all, the first rhetorical shots of Yugoslavia’s bloody civil war were fired from the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts: A team of nationalist academics wrote the famous 1986 Memorandum sketching the borders of a Greater Serbia that encompassed parts of Croatia and most of Bosnia. Nikola Koljevic, who was the Bosnian Serb vice president in the brutal regime of Radovan Karadzic, was a Shakespeare scholar (he committed suicide last year). Karadzic, the guiding hand behind ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, was a psychiatrist and poet who once studied at Columbia. Even now, many academics are nationalists of one stripe or another, and it has been widely reported that the majority of demonstrators in 1996—1997 opposed Milosevic largely on the grounds that he had lost the Croatian and Bosnian wars. Cautions Bjelic, "There is no oppositional party in Serbia that is not nationalistic."

But this is only half the story. In 1991 and 1992, the University of Belgrade was also the site of passionate and insistent antiwar protests. After the 1992 demonstrations, Milosevic cracked down, reserving 50 percent of the seats on the university’s governing committee for his own appointees. But at the same time a new dissident movement was taking hold. A core of academics that called itself the Belgrade Circle outspokenly opposed the war, criticized Serbian nationalist ideology, and promoted racial tolerance. During the war years, the Circle’s membership rose to around five hundred Serbian intellectuals, artists, filmmakers, workers, and dissidents of all stripes. Every Sunday, the Belgrade Circle hosted public events where, says Bjelic, "guest speakers from various quarters came to talk about the war, nationalism, and ethnic tolerance." One of the group’s founders, the late philosophy professor Miladin Zivotic, earned the rancor of the Milosevic regime by publicly proclaiming that "the first act any new president of this country must do is travel to Sarajevo and beg for forgiveness. This is the only way we can begin to heal ourselves." During the perilous early hours of the Bosnian war, Zivotic went to live with Muslim families in the Sanjak region of Serbia to demonstrate his solidarity.

Although Zivotic died in March 1997, the Belgrade Circle survives him and continues to hold symposia–the most recent one was on the aftermath of the Dayton peace agreement and the question of responsibility for the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. The group became a recognized nongovernmental organization (NGO) after the war; it now receives funding from the Soros Foundations, among other sources. Some of its members have launched political parties, like the Social Democratic Union and Civic Forum, though the NGO is not itself affiliated with either. And the Circle publishes a cultural studies journal, available on the Web through the University of Southern Maine’s site.

Currently, the NGO wages a vigorous battle against the new Law on Universities. Bjelic, a member of the Belgrade Circle, admonishes that for too long, too many Serbian academics kept silent about the Milosevic regime’s war and its treatment of minorities. "The university is now paying the price for its loyalty to Milosevic’s nationalist politics. Now it’s too late. The hand that you fed is the hand that is strangling you."

Bjelic sees another pernicious pattern in the execution of the new law: The government appointees, he believes, "will eliminate the Western cultural tradition in the humanities" curriculum. Already, he says, the only literary studies offered for the fall semester are Slavic studies, and the only tradition of philosophy to be taught is something called Slavic and Byzantine philosophy. He laments that the ruling parties are "using the university to institutionalize their ideology." But Bjelic’s compatriot, Goran Milicevic, is more cynical about the regime’s intentions: "This government doesn’t have plans. It just makes wrong moves, improvising all the time. They have no ideological or nationalistic goals–except their own private ones. All they want from the university is absolute, practically totalitarian control."

Belgrade Circle members, together with human rights groups inside and outside Serbia, are agitating for the support of the international academic community to persuade the Milosevic regime to repeal, or at least soften, the new law. But it is not easy for the Serbian groups to reach the very same European intellectual community of which they, as Yugoslavs, were once a part. During the war years and even now, international sanctions have isolated Serbian academics, who have not had easy access to books and journals published abroad for nearly a decade, nor been eligible for fellowships like the Fulbright. Many Serbian academics complain that they cannot travel to international conferences because it is too difficult for them to obtain visas and that advances in science and technology have left them behind.

Nonetheless, the Belgrade Circle, operating both from its base in Serbia and through its émigrés abroad, like Bjelic, has managed to rally a fair bit of support. High-profile intellectuals like Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty have signed open letters and petitions to the Serbian president and parliament, calling for repeal of the repressive new law.

The Belgrade Circle’s current crusade for academic freedom is not without its historical ironies. As its own members know well, academic freedom has meant many things to many people as the political pendulum has cut a dramatic arc over the Yugoslavian landscape. Back in 1981, future Belgrade Circle members Obrad Savic and Dusan Bjelic petitioned the Tito regime for the release from prison of a young political scientist from the University of Sarajevo. The professor was detained for his political writings during a time when nationalist expression was verboten in Yugoslavia. To Savic and Bjelic, it was a clear case of the violation of a dissident’s right to autonomous academic expression. The professor was Vojislav Seselj.


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