In embattled Kosovo, Serb professor teaches common ground

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

Rich Clabaugh–STAFF
Matthias Schrader/NEWSCOM
Word on the Street: In April, two men took in a statue of the word 'Newborn,' expressing the mood in Pristina after Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia on Feb. 17.

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.

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."

Refusal to take oath of loyalty

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.

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."

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."

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