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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.

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Refusal to take oath of loyalty

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Savic didn't plan it like this. But in 1998, he refused to sign an academic loyalty oath – designed by then President Milosevic (who died at The Hague) and Radical Party chief Voislav Seslj (now at The Hague).

The law, called Chapter 6, destroyed academic freedom, Savic says, and aimed to rid Serb colleges of dissenters and replace them with "house" intellectuals.

"Especially in a European university, the idea that an intellectual would sign an oath of national loyalty to the parliament because it paid the salary, was unconscionable," Savic says. "We weren't heroes; we just could not sign on with a Milosevic mafia, so we were blacklisted and kicked out."

In response, Savic took his act to universities in Sofia, Budapest, New York, and London. He lost a "national house," he says, but has not yet found a "cosmopolitan home."

Now he has come to live and work in a place where not all Serbs feel safe. "Of young people here 60 percent are less than 30 years old," says Agron Bajrami, the editor of Kohaditore newspaper. "Serbs are foreign things for most people. Our experience with them is in conflict. The time is ripe for more teaching of each other in both communities. Savic is showing it's possible.

"We know Savic well," he adds, "and we don't think of him as a Serb. He is the kind of person who is above that."

Not 'Murder on the Orient Express'

Now, Savic is in Kosovo lecturing on media, human rights, post-modern theory, European politics, civil society, law, memory, and history. News media, he finds, are crucial because the powerfully shape how a society thinks of itself.

More broadly, he helps students grapple with the meaning of Europe and how to sort out the Balkans. What this often becomes is a study of Balkan self-image.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, that image was created in Europe, Savic says, by French diplomats, British and German romanticists, and the genre of "travel writing." Often "civilized" Europeans wrote of a wild west, a savage zone. Writers as diverse as Bram Stoker ("Dracula") and Agatha Christie ("Murder on the Orient Express") described the odd and eccentric, and emphasized the strange and the tribal. The late Edward Said described the phenomenon of Orientalism, where West viewed East through a gauzy, romantic lens.

But Orientalism usually means the way an outside culture distorts the reality of "the other." In the Balkans, Savic says, "we began to conceive of ourselves through the European image. It was a powerful process I call 'self-orientalization.' We've seen ourselves through the lens of hundreds of years of European writers."

Since the 1999 NATO bombing in Kosovo, Albanians very much have identified with America, Savic points out, and "very much not with a European concept…. After America bombed, they began to construct a Kosovo idea of America."

Indeed, Americana is splattered all over Kosovo: The Statue of Liberty is pasted on the sides of buses, on businesses. "I Love America" T-shirts are on sale in sidewalk shops. There are Bill Clinton and George Bush Avenues. Kosovar houses in the remotest villages fly American flags.