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by Ruzica Rosandic and Eric Chenoweth 

The following article on the initial repressive effects of the university law in Serbia appeared in the New Republic on October 26, 1998.

As the world focuses on Slobodan Milosevic’s war in Kosovo, the Yugoslav president has initiated a parallel behind-the-scenes offensive against some of the last bastions of independent research and action within the rest of Serbia. Both operations are part of a strategy by Milosevix to regain political control over Serbia and federal Yugoslavia after last year’s mass demonstrations against him and the success of an anti-Milosevic coalition in Montenegro’s last elections. In Kosovo, he’s subduing his foes with force. In Serbia, he’s doing so through new laws that eviscerate free expression, academic and professional autonomy, and the rule of law. 

 The passage of the new media law, for instance, ostensibly recodifying existing restrictions on free expression, has caused the revocation of 178 out of 425 radio and TV broadcast licenses and the imposition of $15,000 license fees which few small stations can afford. Small independent broadcast media gathered under the Association of Independent Electronic Media continue to broadcast, and the largest of these, B92, has even received a temporary license. But all are under constant threat. Moreover, the new law reinforced previous rules that make publishing negative material about government officials or policies liable to both criminal and civil charges of slander. The attorney-client privilege has also been eviscerated by a new law giving police the right to search lawyers’ offices if they do not cooperate with investigations. 

 The most important new law may be the one directed at Serbia’s universities. While hardly hotbeds of radical opposition, the universities had remained among the few places where independent scholarship and thinking were able to survive. In fact, it was the sustained series of protests by students at Belgrade University, supported by many professors, that inspired the 1996-97 mass pro-democracy demonstrations that forced Milosevic to recognize the opposition coalition’s municipal victories in many of Serbia’s largest cities.

 The new law passed on May 26, however, has eradicated all autonomy for the universities and put them under direct control of the state. All administrative and faculty appointments will now be made by the government, without any say from the faculty or students. The law abolished all tenure and other existing contracts. The idea was to force all employees to reapply for a new contract, which would serve, in effect, as an oath of loyalty to the government. 

 Those professors who have refused to sign the new labor contract are in many instances simply being replaced with loyal cadres from the Socialist Party and its current political partners, the extreme nationalist Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj and the hardcore communist party, Yugoslav United Left, led by Milosevic’s wife, Mirjana Markovic. Perhaps the most dramatic appointment is that of Seselj as a member of Belgrade University’s managment board and also as head of the board of the Law Faculty. Seselj is best known as the leader of a paramililtary detachment that carried out some of the most brutal ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia. 

 The new hires are already making changes. The new dean of the Faculty of Philology, one of Belgrade’s most prestigious schools, has decided to shrink the number of the school’s departments. Among those being eliminated is the Department for World Literature because "this is a Serbian faculty" and there is no need for studying anything other than Serbian literature. Likewise, the Croatian Literature Department is being removed, because it is just "the literature of Catholic Serbs."

 So far, the new law has been met with only scattered opposition. An open letter of protest from the Serbian Association of University Professors and Scientists attracted some 300 signatures. Several respected deans have resigned rather than submit to loyalty tests, and about 70 professors from Belgrade University’s Faculty of Philosophy have signed a petition stating that they still consider themselves, according to the Serbian Constitution and other laws, legally employed professors and associates of the faculty. Still, an international campaign launched by the Belgrade Circle, an association of independent intellectuals, has had little impact. On campus, demonstrations organized by the Student Unions, a group of independently organized student organizations at nine of Belgrade Universities 38 faculties, attracted only a handful of participants. 

 This contrasts sharply with the many thousands of students who last year continued to march in the streets for four months, even after Milosevic had agreed to recognize the municipal election results, in order to achieve their additional demand that the appointment of a pro-government university rector be rescinded. One reason for the weak response this time is that initial repressive proposals affecting students, most importantly those related to conscription, were withdrawn from the proposed law, diminishing the reason for any student protest and successfully dividing the students’ interests from their professors’.

 Authorities also timed the introduction of the law to coincide with the end of the school year, reasoning, correctly as it turned out, that students would hesitate to forfeit another year’s worth of exams. Finally, as Zoran Nikolic, a leader of the Student Union movement, explains, students are tired and alienated after seeing how the political opposition’s bickering squandered the opportunity of last year’s demonstrations, thus bringing about very little change. 
 Now that he has co-opted the universities, Milosevic’s next target is likely to be the emerging sector of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that today form one of the very few avenues for anti-nationalist, civic oriented, pro-democracy activity. 

 It is hardly to be expected that the West, which has been unable to act decisively in the face of the more urgent crisis in Kosovo, will act any more decisively to defend the autonomy of Serbia’s NGOs—or, for that matter, its universities, attorneys or media. But the West should understand that the attacks on these last islands of liberalism are a grave threat to any possibility of democratic change and peace, and should vigorously work to expand those islands instead of continuing to treat Milosevic as the sole political alternative in Serbia. After ten years of living off of nationalist populism, Milosevic is trying to eradicate any such alternative by institutionalizing a totalitarian order. That can only lead to violence and instability in the Balkans.

Ruzica Rosandic, a professor of psychology at Belgrade University, was a Jennings Randolph Fellow.
Eric Chenoweth is director of publications at the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe.

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