THE PURGE OF THE UNIVERSITIES
THE UNIVERSITY ACT OF 1998
THE GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER OF THE UNIVERSITIES
DISMISSALS AND SUSPENSIONS OF FACULTY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF BELGRADE
THE IMPACT OF THE LAW AT THE PHILOLOGY (LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES) FACULTY
THE IMPACT OF THE LAW AT THE ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING FACULTY
THE IMPACT OF THE LAW AT THE LAW FACULTY
FACULTY AND STUDENT RESPONSE
Under the pretext of depoliticizing the campuses, the Serbian parliament in May 1998 enacted a law that removed basic protections for academic freedom and destroyed the autonomy of universities in Serbia. Over the past seven months, leaders of the ruling parties have put their own political allies in charge of the campuses and have suspended or fired many of the most respected professors and researchers in Serbia.
The de facto government takeover of the universities is part of a broader effort by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to shut down dissent, autonomous inquiry, and free expression in Serbia. With the attention of the international community focused on preventing further bloodshed in conflict-ridden Kosovo, Milosevic and his political allies have used their control of the Serbian parliament to enact and implement draconian new laws severely restricting independent media and freedom of expression. The universities, a center of large-scale demonstrations against the government in 1996-97, are one of the primary targets.
The law on universities enacted in 1998 opened the door to politically-motivated interference by creating a new university management structure in which all key personnel at all six of Serbias public universities are appointed by and ultimately answer to the ruling political authorities. The ruling parties include the Yugoslav Left (JUL), led by Mira Markovic, wife of Milosevic; the Serbian Radical Party (SRS); and Milosevics own Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). At the University of Belgrade, the countrys premiere university and home to some 60,000 students, nearly forty high-ranking politicians and members of the ruling parties now hold administrative or governing board positions. Among them is Vojislav Seselj, head of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, coalition partner of Milosevic, and deputy prime minister of Serbia. Seselj was the leader of a paramilitary group which was active in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. There are numerous and substantive allegations that paramilitaries under his command committed atrocities during brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns conducted by Serbian and Bosnian Serb forces. Seselj was named to the new managing board of the university and to the boards of two faculties. Faculty deans, previously elected by teaching staff, are now appointed directly by the government. Of sixteen new deans appointed at the University of Belgrade, fifteen are members of the ruling parties.
The new law also abrogated the contracts of all professors and teaching staff by requiring them, regardless of the terms of existing contracts and guarantees of tenure, to sign new contracts within sixty days of enactment of the law. Many professors saw the new contract requirement as, in effect, a mandatory oath of loyalty to the regime. Despite the obvious risks to their careers, roughly 150 professors refused to sign. As of January 5, 1999, fifteen professors had been fired, forty-six more had been suspended or otherwise sanctioned, and the minister of education had warned that all who have not signed the new contracts face dismissal.
In some faculties, the newly appointed deans have used the broad powers given them under the new law not only to root out dissident faculty but to fundamentally alter the curriculum. Some of the most far-reaching changes have taken place at the Faculty of Philology (home to over twenty departments in the areas of foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics) at the University of Belgrade. There, the government-appointed dean, a member of Seseljs ultra-nationalist party, unilaterally decided that Croatian literature does not exist (it is now to be called "Catholic Serb literature"), dismantled the Department of World Literature, and has declared repeatedly that Serbian scholarship has been invaded by a "fifth column" of Western-inspired traitors.
In at least three faculties, the new deans have hired private security guards to prevent the ousted professors from returning to their offices and classrooms. Members of a new student movement called Otpor (Resistance) have been arrested or arbitrarily detained and, in separate incidents in December 1998, Otpor members were beaten by police and by unidentified assailants believed to be acting at the request of Serbian authorities.
Unless the law is repealed and university autonomy is reestablished, this is the climate in which Serbia's future leaders will receive their training. Academics and students interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Novemberemphasized that the predictable consequences will be further brain drain, erosion of academic standards, and a chill on free expression in Serbia.
Government officials and university administrators close to the government have justified the law by stating that they are merely asserting the states rights as founder of the universities and that the changes were necessary to prevent the campuses from again becoming a center of political protests. To the extent the law has been used by government-appointed university administrators to remove, sanction, or otherwise harass faculty members who have been critical of the government or active in the opposition, it violates internationally recognized human rights law. Such actions, when in response to legitimate and peaceful exercise by professors of their rights to free expression, association, and assembly, violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Yugoslavia is a signatory.
Some officials have also made vague assertions that professors had been using their classrooms for partisan political purposes. Although it is true that professors have an obligation not to use the classroom for such purposes, professors no less than other individuals have the right, as citizens, to state their views and participate in public affairs without fear of losing their jobs. Rather than using established disciplinary proceedings against alleged wrongdoers, Milosevic and his allies have chosen to launch an assault on the foundations of academic freedom and intellectual autonomy.
The crackdown on universities is significant, moreover, not only for the damage it is doing to higher education in Serbia, but also because it is undermining the establishment of strong and autonomous institutions of civil society, a precondition to any long-term resolution of the conflicts in the region. In principle, the university should be an institution open to all on the basis of merit, serving as an important resource not only to the state but also to individuals and interests independent of the ruling parties of the day. In practice, however, the new law appears to be turning universities into institutions that exclusively serve the interests of the present leaders of the Serbian government.
Shortly before this report went to press, government-appointed deans at the philology and electrical engineering faculties at the University of Belgrade softened their stance somewhat and invited suspended professors to return to their jobs. At both faculties, the deans had been under pressure from faculty members and students, many of whom were boycotting classes and exams, as well as from international observers and overseas colleagues. As described below, however, the actions of the two deans did not reestablish academic life as usual at the respective faculties, and hundreds of students and dozens of professors were continuing to boycott classes and exams. So long as the 1998 university law remains in effect, moreover, giving the government power to hire and fire deans and other administrators at will, academic freedom in Serbia will not be secure no matter what decisions are made in individual cases.
This report documents the states politically motivated takeover of Serbias academic institutions. It does not, however, address the grave abuses the government is committing in Kosovo against ethnic Albanians who have been denied access to Albanian-language education for close to a decade. Past Human Rights Watch reports have addressed discrimination in Kosovo and the governments attack on minority rights and academic freedom there.11 See Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Open Wounds: Human Rights Abuses in Kosovo (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993), pp. 112-125; Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Persecution Persists: Human Rights Violations in Kosovo, A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 8, no. 18(D), December 1996.