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Yugoslavia: President Moves To Stifle Dissent At Universities

By Andrej Krickovic

Prague, 4 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his political allies have organized a crackdown on the Serb university system. The move has gone hand in hand with Milosevic's campaign against the independent media, although it has received less attention in the international press. Both moves are related to Kosovo and are intended to stifle dissents.

The crackdown on the university system began in June with the introduction of a law giving the minister of education the power to appoint and dismiss professors and to dictate faculty policy. The law was pushed through Serbia's legislature by the ruling coalition of "national reconciliation," which brings together Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party, the ultra left Yugoslav United Left of Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, and the ultra nationalist Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj. The law was designed to de-politicize academic life at the universities, but in reality it has stripped the university system of any autonomy it once had.

Professors who refuse to take a loyalty oath or who belonged to opposition parties are fired and replaced by Milosevic loyalists. The curriculum has been changed to conform with the ruling parties' anti-Western worldview. Russian is the chief language at the linguistics faculty, while Croatian and Bosnian authors have been dropped from book lists of the literature faculty. Shakespeare has been relegated to the Germanic languages faculty, and Albanian has been classified a Romance language.

Resistance to the law has met with repression. Boris Karajic, the leader of the student resistance organization Otpor [Resistance], was beaten by unidentified assailants last month after giving testimony to the Helsinki Committee.

In the past, university students and professors have been in the vanguard of opposition to Milosevic's regime. During the winter of 1996-1997, students at Belgrade University led the protest movement that drew thousands of people to the streets of Belgrade each day. As a result of the protests, Milosevic was forced to hand over power in Serbia's largest cities to the opposition.

The crackdown on the university system has accompanied draconian restrictions on the press. Both intensified in the wake of the Milosevic-Holbrooke agreement on Kosovo in October 1998, which many saw as a defeat for Serb interests. Faced with increasing international pressure and the bankruptcy of his Kosovo policy, Milosevic is determined to avoid a repeat of the 1996-97 events.

Professors are organizing an Alternative Academic Education Network (AAOM) as a remedy to the deteriorating state of education. Otpor also has intensified its activities in recent weeks; and a new wave of protest actions is planned for this month.

So far, such protests have failed to draw the kind of support that they did several years ago. Most faculties have accepted the university law, while resistance has been shown mainly by the philosophy and Electrical Engineering faculties in Belgrade. Moreover, the organized opposition is weak and regarded as opportunistic. Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), a longtime Milosevic opponent and one of the leaders of the 1996-1997 protests, has recently formed a coalition with Milosevic's SPS and joined the federal government.

As fighting in Kosovo intensifies, the international community has begun to single out the Milosevic regime as the main obstacle to peace. Working toward changing that regime is now on the international agenda. But with an impotent opposition and growing pressure on the universities and the press, Milosevic may be able to withstand even the most intense pressure.

(Andrej Krickovic is a Zagreb-based journalist who travels frequently to Yugoslavia.)