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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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Such affection for the US is superficial and reasonable after the war, says Savic. But Kosovars side with the US for real reasons, he adds: "In general, Europeans are concerned with international law, and the Americans feel their idea is international justice. It is a clear distinction and deeply felt by the Kosovars."

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For Savic, the focus is the next generation, his students – "the future of this place." They "get" the arts, the environment, new technology, urban ideas; they want to travel and will be at home in any large city in Europe or the States, hooked into the Web, listening to rap.

"They are finding a postmodern Albanian identity … they cherish something new and different. They are breaking from a narrow-minded family loyalty, patriarchy, obsession with collective identity." His students, he says, are fascinated with Europe, in love with the US, and extremely sophisticated – Balkan-like – at filtering and looking for what is intelligent and creative in other cultures, "what is coming at them through Planet Hollywood and the Internet."

In Belgrade, Savic is known as a founder of the Belgrade Circle in the late 1980s. The Circle, made up of some 500 liberal, pro-Europe intellectuals, was a response to the rise of Milosevic and a brutal politics of Serb supremacy and victimization. In a Yugoslavia that tried to erase ethnic tension through socialist equality, it was a profoundly illiberal turn.

The Circle opposed a famous "memorandum" by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts that rocked Yugoslavia by asserting, among other now discredited things, that the Serbs of Kosovo were undergoing "physical, political, legal, and cultural genocide" at the hands of the Albanians.

"Most intellectuals didn't see what the memorandum meant … they thought it was stupid politics or a loony fringe. But soon Milosevic appropriated it as the new policy to underlie state institutions, and it was too late. The wars started."

Media distortion of Balkan wars

Now Savic says news media are being used to distort and forget the wars. He critiques the late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose theories of the displacment of reality and illusion in postmodern society were an inspiration for the first of the film series "The Matrix."

But Baudrillard allowed his work to be used as a way for Belgrade intellectuals to explain away Serb-led wars in the 1990s, and that view is promoted in media there.

Savic wrote two years ago: "Even today, according to all the field reports, the majority of the citizens of Belgrade genuinely believe the Bosnians (Muslims) were the ones who bombed Sarajevo! Should that be so, if there is no objectivity, and should a sovereign difference between the real and the imaginary be abolished, a reasonable question arises: who has the right to declare an amnesty for facts? What really happens is a media and symbolic mutation of the real events and their real consequences."

Today, a secure future for the Balkans hangs heavily on Europe, he feels. "This region needs to be integrated; we need to be EU candidates in the next four years," he says. "We need to be able to dream about 2012 or 2014.

"We are a region," Savic continues. "You can't separate Montenegro from Macedonia from Kosovo or Serbia. We are all on the same boat here in the Balkans. I don't think people outside understand that."