Two prominent academics in Serbia, including a university dean and a former rector and ambassador to the UK, have been attacked in front of their homes in recent weeks.
Professor Ilija Vujacic, Dean of the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Belgrade, was ambushed and beaten on Saturday, 15 November 2014. The assault occurred in front of his building, when two masked assailants with baseball bats and pepper spray attempted to blind him and beat him severely. However, Vujacic was extremely fortunate to have a neighbour passing by, who helped interrupt the attack. Mr Vujacic and his neighbour suffered several blows on their hands, after which the assailants left the spot in a car that turned out to a rental, according to police reports.
Vujacic’s most recent public appearance was in June 2014, in which he participated in a televised debate on the widespread practice of plagiarism among high-ranking Serbian officials. Specifically, Vujacic doubted the originality of the doctoral thesis of Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic. In his appearance on the iconic and long-running Serbian talk-show “Utisak Nedelje” (Impression of the Week), Vujacic confirmed that many details regarding both the procedure and content of Stefanovic’s thesis suggested it needed to be reconsidered by Serbia’s academic community. “As a professor, I wouldn’t sign the thesis report,” Vujacic concluded. In an act widely seen as censorship by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, the talk show “Utisak Nedelje” was terminated a few months later, after running for twenty years.
Vujacic also said that he was not surprised by the discovery that Mica Jovanovic, the owner of the private Megatrend University and also the doctoral mentor of Minister Stefanovic, had claimed to have obtained a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences which turned out to be fake. Vujacic said that Jovanovic was engaging in various acts of deception as early as his days as a student at the Faculty of Political Science back in the 1970s. “In one of his exams he pretended to be blind, hoping that the examiner would be compassionate and give him a passing mark. But he was debunked by the Professor,” he said.
Professor Vujacic cited the Faculty of Political Science as a laudable exception to the general tolerance of suspicious degrees and theses in Serbia. He said the Faculty of Political Science has been among the first to procure software that identifies plagiarism, and added that they had subsequently discovered dozens of such cases, and had retracted the degrees accordingly. They also rejected a number of doctoral applications, many of them by politically-affiliated individuals who expected promotions by the regime.
Just two days after the talk show, Vujacic started receiving threats to step down. What can be inferred from statements made at Vujacic’s press conference and in subsequent media reports is that those threats came from outside the university.
The next regular elections for the dean of the Faculty of Political Science are due to be held in 2015. Given that he has served the maximum period (two terms, as defined by the Statute), Professor Vujacic cannot run again. Since he will have left the post of Dean by early 2015 either way, recent events have led some observers to conclude that there is pressure coming from outside, aimed at intervening in and sorting out the looming chaos within the faculty, should the Dean resign prematurely. The Government of the Republic of Serbia is a founder of the Faculty of Political Science, and would play an important role in such an extraordinary situation, particularly with regard to organising the upcoming election of a new dean.
The police apprehended the two alleged assailants and later reported that they had also detained two of their accomplices. However, it has not yet been discovered who ordered the attack. This is unusual given that two weeks have already passed since the incident, all the critical details are, by their own admission, known to the police. Prime Minister Vucic’s statement for the national television station RTS on 18 November further fueled suspicion that the mastermind behind the attack would not be revealed to the public: “I think the case is already solved – the perpetrators have been found,” Vucic said.
Following news of the attack on Vujacic, media reported that a former Rector of the University of Belgrade and the former Ambassador of Serbia to the United Kingdom, Dejan Popovic, was also beaten at the entrance of his building, again by assailants whose identities are unknown. The police have also yet to fully resolve this case. The assault against Vujacic, a widely respected academic and one of the professors with the best evaluations by students at the Faculty of Political Science, adds to growing concerns about the deteriorating state of safety of citizens in Serbia. It is also seen by many as a move aimed at undermining the autonomy of the university.
In addition to these two episodes of violence, the general increase of threats of violence against journalists, university professors and businessmen suggests that the Serbian state is sliding back into an atmosphere with some troubling similarities with the 1990s, when the Milosevic regime (of which current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and his associates were a part) used to go so far as to threaten and beat and even kill (for example, journalist Slavko Curuvija in 1999) critics who dared to publicly voice their doubts about the regime’s honesty and credibility.
Cover photo is of Professor Ilija Vujacic (credit: Faculty of Political Science of the University of Belgrade)