LGS Thoughtpiece

Balkans diary: sovereignty, the university, democracy, by Martin McQuillan

Posted: Thursday 09 Oct 2014
by LGS 0 comments

In the week that Scotland contemplated Independence from the rest of the United Kingdom, I was fortunate enough to be on an invited lecture tour of the republics of the former Yugoslavia, where questions of nationhood and the problems of globalization have been experienced to the full. Ostensibly, there as keynote speaker to celebrate 80 years of English Studies at the University of Zagreb, I also visited long-term collaborators in Montenegro and Belgrade.

The first time I went to Belgrade in 2001, Slobodan Milošević had just fallen from power after a popular uprising the previous October, following his attempt to steal the presidential election and the NATO bombing campaign that had forced his Serbian army to retreat from Kosovo. Then Belgrade was a city in ruins with many municipal buildings in the central district hollowed out by the awesome power of American Tomahawk cruise missiles. The country was at a crossroads as the new Serbian government contemplated handing Milošević over to the International Criminal Court.   The voices of the ‘Other Serbia’ who had for a decade led cultural opposition to the murderous nationalism of Milošević, had returned from the exile and hiding enforced upon them at the height of the NATO campaign. Having finally seen off the hated regime, they were now contemplating the future of Serbia in the name of democracy and a European idea of Enlightenment.

The Other Serbia organized itself around the Belgrade Circle of Philosophy, a group of academics, writers, artists and filmmakers, who met regularly at the famous ‘Saturday Sessions’ in their improvised home, the Centre for Cultural Decontamination. The Belgrade Circle was formed in 1992 and at its height had 500 members. In 1998 a group of 100 of its academic members were expelled from the University of Belgrade when the Serbian parliament passed a law removing guarantees of academic freedom in universities. The Circle was designated as an NGO, had its own journal, disseminated internationally, and served as a locus for collaboration with groups like the Women in Black feminist collective and other peace activists. This was an intense scene that called for extreme bravery on the part of those déclassé intellectuals who risked everything to advocate a democracy, inspired by the post-Marxist thought of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Militia groups murdered several members and associates during the Milošević years and many more lived a hand to mouth existence in the absence of their university salaries.

Foremost amongst the extraordinary men and women of the Belgrade Circle was its sometime director, Obrad Savić, known as ‘Buddy’ to his friends, Serbia’s leading philosopher of human rights. Something of this larger than life figure is caught in the fictional character named Buddy in the novel Charlie Johnson in the Flames by Michael Ignatieff, now Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously the Liberal Party candidate for prime minister of Canada. In the years immediately after the fall of Milošević the threats against Buddy’s life grew, and I arranged a UK visa for him, providing respite, for a while, in the relative sanctuary of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds.

When I meet Obrad in Belgrade four years have passed since we last saw each other. His health has suffered, like so many, but his critical powers are as acute as ever.   He tells me that the Belgrade Circle was officially wound up in December 2013. This is not because their aspirations for social democracy have been met by the post- Milošević years but because so many of its members have now left the country in despair of real change, mostly emigrating to the United States and Canada. The perhaps naïve hopes of the Circle have been betrayed by a political class that now consists of technocrats, apparatchiks, members of the old regime who switched sides and associates of the Serbian mafia transformed into ‘legitimate businessmen’. Cronyism and corruption are rife, and the economy is in the tank. Take a short drive out of Belgrade to Novi Sad, and you will see along the way in the rural villages that separate the two university towns, the most heartbreaking poverty and decay that Serbia’s gangster capitalism and ersatz democracy has to offer.

When democracy finally arrived in Serbia in 2001 the newly elected government of Vojislav Kostunica was no keener on having tenured critics at the University of Belgrade than Milošević was, and the members of the Circle were denied re-appointment. What now remains of the Circle has coalesced, ironically, in a private university, Singidunum, which takes its name from the ancient appellation for Belgrade. The Dean of the Faculty, Nada Popović Perišić, who has accommodated some of Serbia’s finest thinkers, was herself once the Minister of Culture in the Milošević regime. When her relationship with the regime became too complicated she spent a period as the Serbian ambassador at UNESCO in Paris before returning to found the Faculty of Media and Communications at Singidunum.

Buddy tells me over lunch how capitalism has chased out critical thought from the university and the public realm much more effectively than communism and dictatorship ever could. The ‘Other Serbia’ of a shared intellectual cultural and the public engagement of philosophical thought has been eclipsed by the banality of professional nationalist politicians competing to run an ever-shrinking market economy more efficiently than their opponents. Universities have inevitably been squeezed with cuts in academic salaries of up to 30%, increased tuition fees for students, and an influx of private providers, some more respectable than others. It has been sobering to the intellectuals who helped overthrow Milošević, but with long roots in the socialism of Marshall Tito, to find that their longed for western-style democracy has resulted in a regressive cultural sphere and the marginalization of the university.

This is a story that is repeated across the former Yugoslavia. Under Tito the State University of Yugoslavia combined the established seats of learning such as Belgrade (1808) and Zagreb (1669) with newly founded Faculties, such as what is now the University of Montenegro (1974) spread across the designed integration of a multi-ethnic population. My second engagement is at the Faculty of Philosophy in Nikšić, Montenegro; where I am due to speak on the topic of Shakespeare and the economic crisis. Montenegro, which ceded from Serbia by plebiscite in 2006, has a population of 600,000. The technical and scientific Faculties of the University are located in Podgorica, which is home to more than half of the country’s population. Tito’s planners located the humanities Faculty an hour south of the capital. Perhaps they did not foresee that now it would house two thirds of the student population of Montenegro. As with Serbia, Montenegro has been in long-term recession and while higher education provides a hope for future growth, academic salaries have been reduced and universal free higher education has been withdrawn. Like Serbia, now only the first 50 best qualified students of any disciplinary cohort are guaranteed a free education, while the rest must pay, depending on the subject, in the region of 500 Euros upfront per year (installments and payment plans are available). The private universities will charge twice as much. The average household income in Serbia and Montenegro is around 300-400 Euros per month, while the average academic salary is 1,000 Euros per month. The cost of higher education to most students is then fairly expensive and in the last few years the staff at the Filozofski fakultet have noticed the increasing withdrawal of good students, frustrated on financial grounds.

As I arrive the newly elected Dean, a young reformer with an abundance of energy directed at salvaging his Faculty, has called a meeting of all staff to apprise them of the reality of the financial position. As my talk is about to start the focused meeting is over running and so I am presented with a student audience of 18-21 year olds who would have been in primary school when Montenegro ceded from Serbia. Amongst them there will be those who will carry on the philosophical traditions of Yugoslavian university culture but many will want to learn English in order to secure a well-paid job or an opportunity to work in another country. I look down at my twenty pages of a closely typed account of Karl Marx’s reading of Timon of Athens, and then up at the faces of my young audience. I place my paper to one side and much to the relief of the students I abandon the podium, in Alex Salmond style, to give an improvised talk on the context and issues of the Scottish Independence referendum.

As I describe the potential problems of a proposed currency union without political union, I realize that the Euro is in fact the formal currency of Montenegro even though it is not part of the Eurozone. When, during the 2006 vote, they were confronted with the economic risk of being permanently locked into competitive deflation against the German industrial belt, the Montenegrins held their noses and voted for the better part of their selves that imagined a historic independent people (55.5% Yes, 44.5% No, 86.5% turnout: the European Union had requested 55% approval as a condition of recognition). 8 years later their biggest challenge is to balance the cost of educating their young against the brain drain of their graduates, unable to support an aging population. I ask one of my hosts if they think the Euro is the cause of the financial crisis in the University. They reply dryly, ‘no, I think someone somewhere made a lot of money in some deal and we are being made pay for it’. It is hard to imagine, despite all the new buildings on the Podgorica campus, that a country with a population a quarter the size of Greater Manchester has the capacity to operate effectively the administrative overhead of a nation state.

Finally, I reach the University of Zagreb in Croatia, which unlike Serbia and Montenegro is a full member of the European Union. Croatia has been in recession for six years. Four years ago there was an attempt by the government to introduce a differential fees regime similar to their neighbours. Students in Zagreb led a nationwide, month-long occupation that brought much of higher education in Croatia to a stand still. Eventually, the Ministry of Education backed down. Instead, efficiencies were made elsewhere with cuts to Faculty budgets and all academic promotions centralized within the ministry. At the same time, and like both Montenegro and Serbia, pet projects to promote departments of national culture and language have been richly resourced.

The Croatian academy is characterized by what the Palestinian novelist Emile Habiby would call ‘pessoptimism’. At the dinner to celebrate 80 years of English Studies a colleague tells me how as an austerity measure the government attempted to introduce a rule that would compel any academic over the age of 65 to seek written permission from the ministry to continue in post. The measure was met with great resistance and was abandoned. Subsequently, on the advice of EU economists, a general law was proposed to raise the default retirement age to 67; this was also met with protest and was similarly abandoned. My host joked, ‘that is why no change is ever possible in Croatia, political paradox and paralysis, it’s been the secret of our success for hundreds of years’. Undoubtedly, the Croatian economy is in better shape than that of Serbia and Montenegro but one could attribute that to the 5billion Euros per year benefit from tourism as a consequence of the geographical accident of their coastline rather than the paradoxes of university politics.

As I pack my bags to leave, the day after the votes have been counted in Scotland, I am convinced that the academics I have visited here across the region benefit more from an association with each other than from the government-lead invention of national cultural awakening. Academia requires a sense of affiliation and community beyond national borders, funding regimes, or local governmental agendas. To my mind higher education in the former Yugoslavia has been diminished as a result of repeated separation. Criticality has been replaced by the nationalist imaginary and liberal education is turning to vocationalism. Where once, academics benchmarked themselves against the elite of Europe, now international reach is measured against near neighbours. Despite this the former Yugoslavia continues to produce world-class scholars in the humanities, as a result of a philosophical tradition that runs deep, and generous opportunities from international sources for graduate students to train in the United States. For those who return, the reality is that the opportunities for the success of small states do not depend upon the assertion of national borders or sense of self but on how much the international bond market is prepared to charge in order to service public spending requirements. The task for critical thinkers today is surely to challenge the sovereignty of the market in a world of globalized capital rather than affirming the self-sufficiency and self-identity of people and place.

From Glasgow to Gaza, from the self-declared Islamic State to the Donbass region, from Greek austerity to Argentina’s default forced by a single New York hedge fund, the idea of sovereignty is everywhere in crisis today. These very different cases are not marginal to, or in easy opposition against, the wider, untroubled domination of the global status quo. Rather, it is in such instances that we see the crisis for sovereign power of its own legitimacy. Such disruptions panic the Sovereign because they play sovereign power’s own contingency back to itself (authority is always violently imposed on others as a retrospective justification for a prior exercise of power). However, in cases like Serbia or Scotland democracy does not simply replace or overthrow authority to become the new sovereign power: uprisings and plebiscites do not lead to market-free countries. Instead democracy always remains to be fought for because democracy itself is heterogeneous from, and irreducible to, sovereign power’s claims of dominion. A democracy worthy of the name must constantly elaborate its relation to sovereign power in a negotiation without conclusion, regardless of where the arbitrary borders or criteria of statehood have been drawn. This importantly includes the struggle for higher education and the right to public critique. It is never a simple question of choosing between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

September 2014


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