This time and its communication technologies are not favourable to small nations. Moreover, the seemingly unobtrusively drawn stance that we are closer to the shores of some global civilisation and cultural course, and that we’ll receive everything we need when we get there – is only enough for us to forget what has been and what we were. Blissful ignorance of the future! Although these words of mine will probably be understood as the mystification of identity, I consider its preservation as a prerequisite, a kind of deposit for free, straight and creative communication with the world – Vladimir Kostić
Professor Vladimir Kostić is set to remain at the head of SASA (SANU) for the next four years. This was decided by academics, the vast majority of whom voted to re-elect him to that function. In his first address to the public, in this exclusive interview for CorD magazine, the SASA president says that preserving the Serbian language and culture remains the priority of this institution. The work of the Academy is often overlooked because, as professor Kostić estimates, for almost 30 years we’ve been living through a “dramatically decisive moment” in which politics “consume everything”. That’s why SASA will continue to offer alternative content, based on science and art, and to create space for communication on these and similar issues for all thinkers and worried fellow citizens, says its president.
Professor Kostić, you said in your first address that you were afraid of such a large number of votes for you to remain at the head of the Academy. How much were you jesting when you stated that you marvelled at the fact that you haven’t made more opponents among academics over the past four years?
Of course, I see now, it was to do with an unsuccessful joke. Or, better, half-joke. Specifically, if you manage or coordinate something, or if, like me, you’re led into a situation where you are, somewhere and sometimes, the first among equals, and are thus forced to make decisions, it is necessary to abandon every dream and illusion of “unrequited love” that you will receive from people around you.
And if nobody has found fault with you and hasn’t done so (imagine!) for a full four years, then you’re just a more or less successful demagogue – at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SASA) those sorts are read quickly and easily. I think, however, that my colleagues recognised that I expressed my views to them honestly, to their faces, without hatred and some personal interests, out of the box and intrigue – even when I was mistaken (and I made mistakes!). And that’s why I’ve been “punished” with four additional years, regardless of my “good rule”.
You consider that Serbian society overlooks a large number of SASA activities due to politics having “consumed everything”. Do you intend to change something in communicating with the public, or will you perhaps more vehemently oppose the dominance of politics?
I do not think SASA is the only one, nor a special “victim” of the overlooking of the work and activities of scientific and artistic institutions. Over the past decades we’ve created an everyday atmosphere of political and historical “fractures”; our country has for almost 30 years been in a dramatically decisive moment, an “either-or” situation, “arrive and flee, and exist in a terrible place” – unfortunately, I will reiterate, for us this is not a moment, rather it’s been an everyday state for decades. We are rather reluctant to plan, because, here, “it’s just about to break!”, so we’ll deal with it afterwards. It would be improper of me not to say that this isn’t only collective paranoia – to which we, like other societies, are prone, but rather it is also a mental state with many rational reasons (for example, the hijacking of Kosovo). But in such a rigorous everyday life, we declare ourselves and the “small” things of life as ephemeral, we get angry, for example, when someone speaks about the plastic bags that have overtaken our landscapes, about museums around Serbia etc., etc. – with the kind of response, where have you now found that; as if we don’t have more important things to deal with. And this overlooking of life and daily existence will cost us. I see the solution – at least when it comes to SASA – in the realisation of alternative contents, based on science and the arts, but also on creating space for communication regarding these and similar issues for all thinking and worried fellow citizens. Which is precisely what we’re already doing!
When it comes to the issue of academic honesty, SASA was among the first to organise a summit on this issue a few years ago, and from the SASA ranks have come not only initiatives, but also proposals of legislative texts regarding the issues to which you are referring
As one of the priorities of the Academy during your new term, you’ve mentioned: “preserving the language” and continuing work on the Dictionary of the Serbian language, which already has 20 volumes, while the Serbian Language Institute say that this is only half. Discussion of the Serbian language is sometimes vulgarized with the question: do you write in the Latin or Cyrillic scripts. How do you view this “dilemma”?
You’ve mentioned some of SASA’s key priorities in the sphere of culture, which were actually defined as such as far back as1842, when our predecessor, the Serbian Learned Society, was founded. Specifically, one of the problems caused by globalisation is the phenomenon of the English language, which has become the “lingua franca” of the scientific communication, while command of English is almost a condition of the global literacy of an individual.
Huntington cunningly consoles us by suggesting this is about the de-ethnicised language, which is separate from some specific culture that its use would silently impose on us. Nor are Karmani and Penikuk much more serious in their attempts to promote the “innocence” of the monopoly of the English language in various spheres by citing the fact that Islamic terrorists spoke it fluently when they attacked American landmarks on 11th September 2001. I’m afraid that small nations are again awaited by a double job: to persistently nurture both their own language and multilingualism, as an imperative.
Do you still consider it a challenging issue to preserve, during times of globalisation, the culture and language of a nation that’s small both in terms of territory and population numbers?
In two programmes of the SASA Executive Board, in the space of four years, this issue has been emphasised as being crucial: that which we must not forget and what we have to put into the bundling our own identity through the erased space of globalisation. This time and its communication technologies are not favourable to small nations. Moreover, the seemingly unobtrusively drawn stance that we are closer to the shores of some global civilisation and cultural course, and that we’ll receive everything we need when we get there – is only enough for us to forget what has been and what we were. Blissful ignorance of the future! Although these words of mine will probably be understood as the mystification of identity, I consider its preservation as a prerequisite, a kind of deposit for free, straight and creative communication with the world. Finally, I consider it a prerequisite for self-determination, without which we are lost in the current historical, political and cultural labyrinth – tradition, language and culture are our Ariadne’s thread.
In the previous year alone, and only in the building in Kneza Mihaila Street, the most diverse activities have been carried out at SASA on an almost daily basis, which have been attended by between 150,000 and 180,000 citizens
Individual critics of the Academy resent the alleged aloofness regarding burning issues both regarding Kosovo and regarding the situation in the academic community, which is contaminated by accusations of fake doctorates and the hyper-production of college degrees. Should the Academy participate more actively in such discussions?
Incorrect and sad! In the previous year alone, and only in the building in Kneza Mihaila Street, the most diverse activities have been carried out at SASA on an almost daily basis, which has been attended by between 150,000 and 180,000 citizens. When it comes to Kosovo, during the dialogue that has been launched, the shortcomings of which we’ve noted very specifically, we didn’t want that which we considered and that which we said to sink under the sand, rather we are – as far as I know – the only institution that has published a book containing the stances of its members. This, you’ll admit, is something that’s more enduring! That book was offered for free to anyone who showed an interest. Within the book, alongside the stances of academics, hundreds of references (books, monographs, studies, papers…) that SASA has published about Kosovo are exhaustively cited, in order for the continuity and intensity with which SASA deals with this problem to be seen.
Also functioning within SASA is the Academic Committee for Kosovo, which regularly publishes anthologies with exceptionally significant texts, about which one of our politicians said spontaneously some time ago, “Well, if I’d had them when I needed them!” And those texts were freely available.
When it comes to the issue of academic honesty, SASA was among the first to organise a summit on this issue a few years ago, and from the SASA ranks have come not only initiatives but also proposals of legislative texts regarding the issues to which you are referring. At least 10 meetings have been held since then, at which problems in the sphere of academic ethics have been addressed, and all those gatherings were open to the public. And here we see that even you haven’t been informed about that.
The third issue is the persistent pushing for SASA to declare its political, and even partocratic commitment. They don’t even ask why we don’t declare ourselves, but rather why don’t say “this and that” loudly. It’s like we’re a loudspeaker for the opinions and interests of others. If the prerequisite for acknowledging our engagement and activities is that we uncritically reiterate the words of others that will be submitted to us from all sides, then let the false claim that SASA “doesn’t do anything” remain in this intoxicating blogosphere.
We are obliged to imagine all the frustrations (even psychological), alongside undoubted and key economic problems, that contribute to our readiness to get involved in planning and to support the “great escape” of our children
You stated in one recent interview that the state leadership has never called on the Academy with regard to resolving the issue of Kosovo. If they had, do you believe that SASA would be able to respond with a unified voice?
Often looming behind the unanimity of an institution is the cowardice of individuals, who avoid defining their stance, choosing institutions to hide behind, even when they are not entirely concordant. That’s much more comfortable. On the other hand, SASA is not a choral institution, and much has already been said about that, although various groups send us finished texts and definitive stances that we are supposedly meant to read unaltered. Finally, let me ask a question if we all think the same thing, why would one even initiate a discussion?
Diversity of attitudes and ideas is a bigger “gift” in one’s environment and a more responsible way of fulfilling the duties of institutions like SASA, universities etc. If nothing else – unless you nurture the illusion, like many in this Serbia of ours, that the truth is solely in their possession – we’ll have something to discuss.
Do you consider that any agreement between Belgrade and Priština must also address the issue of the cultural and religious heritage in Kosovo and whether it should remain “Serb” rather than Kosovar, as it is argued in the request for Kosovo to become a UNESCO member?
In one interview a long time ago that I was criticised for, I wrote some words that went unnoticed: “Kosovo, of course, implies a huge part of that which constitutes our cultural heritage. We have to fight tooth and nail regarding that, for the simple reason that it is an attempt to actually subvert something that constitutes a substrate of our history and part of our psychology, and whatever you want.” I haven’t changed my opinion, and I perceive the idea of “the cultural heritage of Kosovo” as a mockery, as another irrational attempt at humiliation. I will not hide from the apostles of political correctness who pillage Europe and I cannot believe for an instant that those who targetted their attacks against 236 churches, monasteries and other objects owned by the Serbian Orthodox Church suddenly and idyllically feel at one point that these are valuable treasures of civilisation that should be preserved.
I don’t believe that those who were burning them down until yesterday, without the feeling that they belonged to the civilisation and any other context in which those monuments emerged, would struggle with the rankling of conscience for the church of the Virgin Hodegetria from 1315, the Church of St. Nicholas from 1331, the Church of Saint Saviour from 1348, or the Hermitage and Monastery of St. Peter of Koriša from the early 13th century. How can modern cynicism explain the sorrow of 5,261 (that number has unhappily increased in the meantime) tombstones destroyed or damaged at 256 of our graveyards, while at more than 50 of them not a single monument remains intact.
If they take from us the care and context of “Serbian monuments”, they will only convince me that the powerful don’t want either peace or reconciliation in those areas, but rather only a useful open wound for their pathetic and ruthless geostrategic circumvention.
In describing Dečani Monastery, academic Mihailo Lalić, in Zatočnici, the second volume of the memoirs and diary of Peja Grujović, writes: “I knew a little, more from poetry than history, about this monastery; I also saw it in pictures, but that he stands there new for six centuries, outlasting Serbs, Turks and Albanians with white caps and their frequent scuffles, long periods of hate and shortlived reconciliation – that seemed unbelievable. It seemed to me, and still appears to me now, that there is something supernatural in that building – some miraculous fusion of ennobled matter and a soul caught in matter. Without such a balance between distant and opposing elements from two halves of the cosmos, without their embrace, it could not have happened that something would endure for so long in a land where everything is short-lived and disappears quickly… I would like to see it again, to check if its soul is really in beauty, as I think, and beauty in the promise and hope it gives to everyone who sees it, regardless of the faith to which they belong.”
I’m afraid that we often overlook that in choosing our priorities here. We negligently leave it for the end of our daily agenda, under the item “various”, and given that our meetings last too long, we leave that part of the agenda for the next meeting… and so on
You’ve expressed concern that Serbia’s relations with the international community, in which you’ve noted that there was cruelty towards Serbia, could again reach the stage of dangerous isolation. If we add to this the fact that political decisions in the world are dictated by “military and economic” power, how can such a scenario be avoided?
For me personally, the bombing of Serbia was an inappropriate and irresponsible crime. Today, twenty years later, I’m still not able to understand the harshness and exclusivity with which it was carried out: in all of that there is something irrational, some strange historical and ideological resentment and vulgar prejudices. However, it is essential for us to try to understand, even demented motives, that exclusivity and cruelty, in order for that scenario not to repeat itself. In conversations with people from abroad, when we try to shed light on that time and those circumstances, I’m not as insulted by the ease with which our arguments are rejected as I am by the disinterest and indifference, even there where we don’t expect it, which convinces me that many of my interlocutors wouldn’t be overly disturbed if everything were to be repeated. However, no less dangerous than those who politically and militarily initiated the bombing are those around us, but also among us, who advocate for positions that lead to Serbia’s isolation. That attitude also encouraged me to include the following lines in the previously cited SASA book about Kosovo: “In the choice of its own decisions, I believe that Serbia should take care not to be isolated again and excluded from the flows of the wider environment to which it belongs. (Only) with defiance reinforced by experience, which I share myself, that the isolation and sanctions imposed on Serbia were unjust and destructive, it is counterproductive and – if it is made absolute in a political stance – is contrary to the interests of citizens, the nation and the state…
Moreover, Serbia’s isolation would be the ultimate success of its hypothetical “cursed enemies” (under the proviso that they exist), because we are all aware of the difficult demographic, economic, technological and other consequences of isolation which we have experience of from the not-so-distant past.” How to achieve this is not a question for one man, but rather for a multitude of people and institutions.
According to the more optimistic scenario, Serbia could become a member of the EU by around 2025. Do you believe in such a possibility?
Frankly, no. I don’t believe I will await that moment during my lifetime. It’s true that if I go earlier, before 2025, perhaps some chance actually exists.
What exactly do you mean when you say that “the ‘future’ is the most expensive Serbian word”?
It is actually that for all nations, so naturally also mine, that future is the most expensive word. I’m afraid that we often overlook that in choosing our priorities here. We negligently leave it for the end of our daily agenda, under the item “various”, and given that our meetings last too long, we leave that part of the agenda for the next meeting… and so on.
As a professor at the Faculty of Medicine, you have certainly witnessed a great interest in leaving the country among young people. The devastating information recorded by statisticians as a novelty is that they are now largely supported by their parents in that intention. Do you believe the scenario that suggests there will soon be “nobody to treat us” in Serbia?
As a layman who’s heard a lot about this problem in recent years, it seems to me that these are terribly complex issues that aren’t only hitting Serbia. With an apology in the case that these words remind you of another text: an anathema is circling Europe, an anathema of negative demographic trends. The resounding statistics cited at one recent symposium at SASA are quite scary: specifically, it is estimated that the Serbian population fell in the period between censuses (2002-2014) by between 367,000 and 422,000, with the migration component contributing between 15 and 26 per cent to this decline. Over the period of a quarter of a century, Serbia has recorded negative natural growth year-on-year. Serbia’s loses around five of every 1,000 inhabitants per year. Apart from departures abroad, internal migrations are also unfavourable: seven consecutive censuses reveal that populations are abandoning most settlements, with populations growing only in Belgrade and a few urban centres.
Somehow, the belief that “there is no life here” has crept in and settled. I don’t recall having seen on television until recently those students who rank top at domestic colleges, while with almost sweet pleasure we show the wonderful young people who were accepted by foreign universities and who, precisely because “the best are leaving” (though nobody has ever proved that precisely – it won’t be the case that only the incompetent stay here), only illustrate the initial premise that we have placed an unquestioned axiom on a pedestal.
I’ve been shaken even more in recent years by the fact that it is not only people at the beginning of their careers who are leaving, but rather established, middle-aged experts of 40-45, who take their families with them. I wouldn’t want anybody to think that I mean people only leave because they are spoiled, but some also leave due to an absence of full insight and information. We are obliged to imagine all the frustrations (even psychological), alongside undoubted and key economic problems, that contribute to our readiness to get involved in planning and to support the “great escape” of our children. Are they and us, as their parents, with our opportunism and resistance to every change to the status quo, with the perseverance of the elderly, that it is not them but us who need to plan their future, one of the reasons… But that was written about in an incomparably better and more talented way by Duško Kovačević.
As for the scenario that there soon “won’t be anyone to treat us”, it also imposed on my generation the notion that those who remained weren’t very worthy. I can’t speak in global terms, but at the Neuroscience Clinic I see that there are five or six young specialists in my group alone who know much more than I knew at their age, who have no reason not to be better doctors and researchers than me in the years to come (perhaps that’s not much, but it’s the most proper comparison as far as I’m concerned). If they stay…
You’ve cited bringing the Academy closer to young people as one of your goals. How do you intend to achieve that?
Certainly not through paternalism! Probably with more considered contents of work. If there is a certain interruption, or at least a weaker signal in trans-generational communication (and I believe that exists), and if we accept as a postulate that there are no better or worse generations (only younger and older), then we are duty-bound to try to understand the younger generations and their time. I realised that I am infinitely caricatured and pathetic when I speak with my children, even with my grandchildren, starting my tirade with “in my time” – my eldest grandson answered me without a lot of sentiment, saying “your time has passed!” Apart from that, it is our responsibility to nevertheless make them aware that our experiences and the values that we’ve held (to the extent to which we held them) perhaps are still of some value to them. Such attempts have been made at SASA over the last four years, but they weren’t particularly successful.
How important is international cooperation to the work of the Academy and, in this context, what does the recent signing of the Cooperation Agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences mean for SASA?
International cooperation with other national academies was also extremely important during the previous leadership, and we merely continued with this policy. Of course, one should bear in mind that the structure of national academies is heterogeneous: in some place, they are academies similar to ours, while in some places academies of science and academies of art are separate entities.
In China, for example, there is a separate Chinese Academy of Science, devoted to natural and mathematical sciences, with which we signed an agreement, and the Academy of Social Sciences, with which we will soon have a meeting, and in some countries, like Greece, there is no institution similar to the national academies of the majority of other countries. Our priority is regional cooperation, but unfortunately, not ideally, it is slower with some neighbours than SASA would wish, though we are aware that politics continues to have a significant impact on the decision-making of some of our neighbours. I’m not overly optimistic, at least not for the near future!
As for cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, there is a striking difference in size and potential: for example, operating within it are over 100 institutes with around 70,000 researchers and scientists, under its auspices operate three universities and a number of organisations that facilitate the exploitation (even commercial!) of scientific achievements, with a turnover that’s around 1.5 times higher than the entire Serbian budget. Others rush to cooperate with such a powerful institution. We are evidently awaited by the job – given these frustrating relations – of defining spaces where we have something to contribute. Some of this is already unfolding through bilateral projects. Finally, it is important for us to emphasise that we’re also awaited this year by the signing of an agreement with Germany’s Leopoldina Academy of Science. In short, it turns nonetheless.
It is necessary to abandon every dream and illusion of “unrequited love” that you will receive from people around you
I consider it a prerequisite for self-determination, without which we are lost in the current historical, political and cultural labyrinth – tradition, language and culture are our Ariadne’s thread
Diversity of attitudes and ideas is a bigger “gift” in one’s environment and a more responsible way of fulfilling the duties of institutions like SASA, universities etc