By Davor Džalto: June 6, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a global debate about how the virus may reshape our political and social systems. While many hope for a resurgence of communal solidarity and a new appreciation of democratic norms, human and civic freedoms, the reality is that in many countries the threat of the coronavirus is being used as just another excuse to limit and revoke freedoms and rights of citizens, and to suppress dissident voices.

This tendency can also be seen in the Balkans. The example of the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory in Serbia has become a case study for what is at stake, and what may be lost.

Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory in Belgrade may not be generally known, outside specialized circles. Nevertheless, this small institution is one of the leading research-oriented institutes in the Balkans, in the field of the humanities. In spite of devastating socio-economic policies over the past decades that have, among other things, significantly weakened the entire system of education in Serbia, the Institute has managed to continue to operate successfully, and to participate in international debates, serving as a bridge which connects international researchers with their Serbian colleagues. However, some recent developments threaten the survival of the Institute as a free and independent academic institution.

Following recent reports published in local media outlets, the government has appointed new board members of the Institute, in spite of the opposition by the Institute’s employees. Given that the majority of the board members are appointed directly by the government, the government ensures that the board is under its control. In spite of its potentially oppressive and anti-academic character, this regulation had not been a major issue in the past, as long as the government consulted the Institute’s researchers, avoiding the appointment of individuals who the Institute’s employees would be openly against. This practice was not followed in the present case, and the government’s almost limitless power in this matter has been exercised to the full extent.

Moreover, the new acting director of the Institute was appointed in an unprecedented way, when, for the first time, someone who was not among the Institute’s researchers was appointed to this post. This provoked even more conflicts and hostilities. Following the same media reports, the researchers see this as the government’s attempt to silence the Institute and punish it for its support to the anti-government protests the year before. It has also been reported that some of the decisions concerning the payments of the researchers effectively blocked the normal work of the Institute.

An appeal of international scholars (including Noam Chomsky and Jürgen Habermas, among many others) has been signed, as a means of support to the Institute and its researchers.

Why would the government put so much effort into silencing a tiny research institute? After all, the government has taken effective control over most of the media in the country, and does not face any serious challenges from the small and disunited opposition parties either?

The Institute has a symbolic meaning: it is a place which inherits the decades-long tradition of opposition to political power structures, a place where many of its researchers understand thinking both as an instrument of social analysis and social change.

Its first researchers were those university professors who supported the 1968 protests and their aftermath. For their alternative views and independent thinking, they were removed from their posts, some of them also arrested. In their support, a series of international scholars (including Chomsky and Habermas), were writing articles and appeals, mobilizing the international audience to react in defense of academic and civic freedoms. The international attention that these developments attracted had a positive impact. Dissident professors were given a place to continue their work, at the newly formed Center for Philosophy and Social theory (in 1981).

The Center became the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory at the beginning of the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s. Many of its researchers were outspoken critics of nationalistic and authoritarian policies of Slobodan Milošević’s regime. Some of them were also the leading voices in academia, while others eventually became important figures in Serbian political life in post-Milošević times (e.g. Vojislav Koštunica, Zoran Djindjić, Vesna Pešić). Starting from, primarily, Marxist theoretical positions and a narrow understanding of social theory and philosophy, the Institute has evolved into a research institution that explores virtually all aspects of social and political theory and practice, ranging from more traditional political philosophy to the exploration of religious ideas and political theology.

It seems that the Institute is now under the most serious attack since its establishment. It seems that the government finds academic institutions committed to research, free and critical thinking, dangerous enough.

Mainstream media in the West normally do not report about this or many other similar examples of anti-democratic tendencies in Serbia and other neighboring countries. This is not very surprising. All political leaderships in these countries advocate the EU “values” and the integration of their countries into the EU (if they are already not EU member states). Most of these countries are also NATO member states. For most of the mainstream Western media, this gives these countries and their leaderships a carte blanche, a kind of vaccine certificate against the viruses of corruption, authoritarianism, breaches of various freedoms and rights. However, the situation in reality is often very different from the dominant propaganda narratives. Serbia is among those countries that are suffocating in corruption, oppression of various kinds, a profound lack of democracy and civic freedoms. (While in neighboring Montenegro, for instance, there’s a major government attack on “disloyal” religious communities.)

Read: Bishop Speaks About Explosive Rift Between Montenegro’s Parliament And Serbian Church

Western governments and the EU leadership also seem to be turning a blind eye to anti-democratic developments and the rising authoritarian style of rule across the Balkans. In fact, they seem to prefer these developments whenever autocrats show a willingness to be “constructive,” that is to positively respond to the demands coming from the Western centers of political and economic power. These demands can range from economic issues – such as diminishing labor rights in those countries in order to create a precarious, cheap labor force for western companies – to political goals.

This is why we should care. The current attacks on the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory are paradigmatic. It is not just about one small institution in (God forsaken) Serbia. What is happening to the Institute points to the brutality with which neoliberal ideology, and its (corporate) power structures in their symbiosis with unaccountable political elites, deal with the remaining pockets of free and critical thinking. This happens globally, and in most cases silently, without much of the media exposure.

New forms of (neoliberal) authoritarianism render the work of serious academic institutions in the field of the humanities superfluous at best. In the worst-case scenario however, everything and everyone who has a potential to ask some fundamental, and therefore dangerous questions, about the nature of our socio-political-ideological predicament, becomes a dangerous enemy which should be eliminated. Protesting against the silencing of free and critical thinking and research in Belgrade is a protest against suppression of free and critical thinking everywhere. It is an investment into the survival of free thinking against the blackmail of unaccountable, oppressive power structures.

Dr. Davor Džalto is Professor in Religion and Democracy at Stockholm School of Theology. He is also the President of The Institute for the Study of Culture and Christianity. His research interests include political theology, religious philosophy, history and politics of the Balkans. He is the editor of Noam Chomsky’s book “Yugoslavia: Peace, War, and Dissolution” (published in 2018).

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