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In embattled Kosovo, Serb professor teaches common ground

Obrad Savic targets the next generation with a message about breaking accepted Balkan stereotypes.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2008

Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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Pristina, Kosovo

He is a famous Serb political philosopher working in the trenches of Kosovo Albanian universities – not a place most Serbs dare to tread. He teaches human rights to Albanian students who grew up on war and who have no experience with Serbs, yet who seem to adore him as much as he does them.

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Obrad Savic left plush academia in Leeds, England, to teach in the slush of Kosovo. But it's a job that fits him and his message of universality. He is something of an intellectual refugee – kicked out of Belgrade by Slobodan Milosevic – who is now changing the lives and minds of future leaders in the most contested ground of the Balkans.

In fact, Mr. Savic says, his most important point is not how different Balkan peoples are – the accepted stereotype – but how genuinely the same they are. That fact, he says, is crucial for the next generation to understand. "We have always been a bridge between east and west, north and south. We're not European and not Asian. We recognize all the different influences from these places, Arab and Turkish, Byzantine and cosmopolitan," argues Savic. Balkan people are expert at reading these mixtures and understand them in a unique way that has never been fully appreciated.

It's a message he repeats in classes, art forums, and cafes: The Yugoslav breakup forced people to think of themselves as captives to small nations with separate identities who had a proclivity for violence and hate. He terms it a "great fallacy."

"Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Kosovar Albanians – how similar we are, you can't imagine," says Savic. "We are from small countries with small differences, and at a profound level, something we've forgotten, something not political or social, we are European and Balkan. The big question now is, will Europe accept us?"

This isn't Savic's first gig in Pristina. During the police state period of Serb rule in the late 1980s, Kosovo Albanians created underground universities in protest over second-class citizenry. The tension in Pristina was terrific at the time for Albanians.

But Savic took three months off – "I disappeared from Belgrade" – to come and lecture underground. Friends warned that Serb police would throw him in prison or worse if they found out. But "the risks seemed worth it," he says. "There was just great political energy among the Albanians, in the underground schools, the writer's union, everywhere."

"He's an 'old Yugoslav' in the best sense," says Chris Hall, president of American University of Kosovo, where Savic may teach next year.

With glasses perched on his forehead, cellphone dangling from his neck, wearing a vest and a philosophical expression, waving to acquaintances as he hangs out at trendy cafes like Strip Depot, with students approaching him like an academic rock god – Savic is in his element. He's a "cool Serb," as one student put it.

"A whole generation of Pristina kids have never seen a living Serb academic, or think they are monsters," says Dejan Anastasijevic, a columnist for the Belgrade weekly Vreme. "So it's nice he's there, even if he isn't typical."

Blerin Xhemajli, who attends Savic's classes at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism, one of several places he teaches, sees his professor as unique. "He's ... maybe our favorite lecturer, and the only Serb teaching," he says. "He doesn't care about ethnicity; he wants to debate all the time. He talks about his life and he seems as interested in us as we are in him."