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Tense border region’s Serbs and Albanians may be at loggerheads most of the time - but the opening of the first university level faculty in Bujanovac has had everyone smiling.
Conflict-burdened South Serbia, home to a restive population of ethnic Albanians, finally has its own institution of higher education after an economics faculty for 69 students opened in Bujanovac on October 28.
The milestone event means that both Albanians and Serbs in the ethically divided region can now study locally in their native languages, hopefully contributing to the recovery of the impoverished border region.
Lectures at the outpost department of the Faculty of Economics of Subotica, which itself is a part of Novi Sad University in Serbia’s northern Vojvodina province, begin in November.
The provincial government will finance the studies of the 69 students, 40 Albanians and 29 Serbs and Roma.
The provincial authority last week said it had taken the decision in order to contribute to the stabilisation of South Serbia.
The region on the border with Macedonia and Kosovo is still recovering from an armed conflict between Serbian security forces and Albanian insurgents in 2000 and 2001.
This conflict lasted six months and ended through the mediation of NATO and the international community.
Nenad Vunjak, Dean of Economics in Subotica, says they were taking the initiative in South Serbia out of a sense of the importance of the region’s multi-ethnicity.
Subotica, a border town near Hungary, is itself a multi-ethnic community, made up of Hungarians, Serbs, Croats and many others.
“Professors who are Hungarians, Croats, Ruthenes, Slovaks, Slovenes, Bunjevci [akin to Croats] and Serbs will be travelling there to hold lectures,” he explained.
“They will talk only about the department, and will not be bogged down by the past,” said Vunjak, referring to South Serbia’s troubled recent history.
He emphasised that diplomas from his university are recognised throughout Europe and the world.
Galip Beqiri, president of the National Council of Albanians, a government body set up to handle culture, education, media and language issues, said he was delighted with the help they had received from Novi Sad and Subotica.
“We were negotiating with them on the opening of the Faculty in Bujanovac for months, so this is a dream come true for every [local] Albanian,” Beqiri said.
He recalled that they had first negotiated with two universities in Serbia proper, in Nis and Kragujevac, but staff there showed less enthusiasm.
“We were hurt that the economics faculties in these two cities did not want to open a department in Bujanovac, so we were all the more delighted when our friends from Vojvodina greeted us with open hearts,” Beqiri told Balkan Insight.
Beqiri added that the new faculty would be an important first step towards solving the old problem over higher education among Albanians in Serbia, who, because of the language barrier, often go abroad to study in Kosovo or Albania.
Since 2008, when Kosovo declared independence, Serbia has refused to recognise university diplomas from Kosovo.
As a result, hundreds of young people from South Serbia who finished degrees at Pristina University or who are still studying there cannot apply for many jobs in Bujanovac or Presevo, two majority Albanian municipalities in Serbia.
The Serbian government tried to fudge the issue two years ago by opening departments in Law and Economics in Medvedja, but that met with a poor response from both local Serbs and Albanians.
Medvedja is remote rural area, contains only a small Albanian population and the lectures are all in Serbian. In Bujanovac, a much larger town, lectures will be bilingual.
Professors from Novi Sad and Subotica will lecture in Serbian, while staff from the University of Tetovo, in western Macedonia, will lecture in Albanian.
The faculty in Bujanovac officially started working on October 28 in the House of Culture. The adaptation of the building into a university faculty was financed by the Coordination Body for Southern Serbia, a government institution set up to mediate between local and central authorities in South Serbia.
Nenad Vunjak says the lectures in Bujanovac will follow the programme established by Serbia’s Ministry of Education. Of the 35 weekly?? classes, 11 will be in Albanian and 24 in Serbian.
“Although we are separated by 500 kilometres [from Bujanovac to Subotica], we will not depart from the quality of lectures we give in Subotica and Novi Sad by a centimetre,” he said.
“We will be using our own textbooks, translated into Albanian,” added Vunjak, noting that “all people in Vojvodina are happy to contribute to the stabilisation of the situation in southern Serbia”.
Petrit Polozani, Dean of Economics in Tetovo, spoke similarly. “I am delighted that Tetovo is directly contributing to the wellbeing of the citizens of Bujanovac,” Polozani said.
Foreign diplomats who attended the opening of faculty in Bujanovac also expressed deep satisfaction.
Michael Davenport, British ambassador to Serbia, said that when he first heard about the idea in March, he feared it was too ambitious. “That’s why I feel all the more satisfied today,” he said.
Mary Warlick, US ambassador to Belgrade, said it was a “great day” for all the citizens of southern Serbia. “This is a great thing, a wonderful day for Bujanovac.
“A lot of institutions and individuals worked for so long on this idea. Thank all of you who made this possible for Bujanovac,” Warlick said.
Milan Markovic, president of the Coordination Body, said at the opening of the Faculty that it was a “historic day” for Bujanovac and the whole of Serbia.
“We have to confirm in practice that we are not hostages to the past,” he said. “This is an opportunity for you young people who want your future to be better than the past,” Markovic added.
He noted that the Serbian government was setting aside 500-euro bursaries for youngsters from southern Serbia who wanted to study at Novi Sad itself.
“Not all of the young can study in Bujanovac,” continued Markovic, who is also Serbia’s Minister for Local Government.
Riza Halimi, the only Albanian MP in the Serbian parliament, said the opening of bilingual faculty represented an important advance for local Albanians.
“I hope this project will enable Albanians to find jobs more easily in their own hometown on finishing school,” said Halimi, leader of the Party for Democratic Action, the strongest local Albanian party.
Mayor of Bujanovac Shaip Kamberi said the college opening should serve as an example for resolving other problems in the area.
The young, both Serb and Albanian, who were handed student cards at a ceremony on October 28 did not hide their satisfaction that they were now able to study in their own hometown.
“Because of the difficult economic situation I’m happy because I will be going to college almost free of charge,” Miodrag, a Serb from Bujanovac, told Balkan Insight.
“Even in high school I imagined studying economics, so I’m overjoyed that my wish has come true in the town in which I live,” Afrodita, a local Albanian, said.
Galip Beqiri from the National Council of Albanians, said he hoped the Faculty of Economics won’t be the only higher education institution to function in Bujanovac in the near future.
“It is not unrealistic, with the help from our friends from international community, to expect a couple of other faculties soon, such as law and technical sciences,” Beqiri suggested.
After Belgrade removed a memorial to ethnic Albanian fighters in Presevo, some locals called for political dialogue but others rejected cooperation with the government.
The South Serbia region, predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians, lies some 350 kilometres south of Serbia`s capital, Belgrade. In contemporary political language, the term “South Serbia” is understood to refer to the territory of three municipalities - Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja.
A snapshot of South Serbia's business and industry
Resources and institutions of South Serbia
Facts and figures on the population, ethnic composition and geography of South Serbia
Profiles of main political leaders in South Serbia
Profiles of main political parties in South Serbia
Snapshots of ordinary life in South Serbia show the people of Bujanovac and Presevo, and give a brief look at the symbols of the region.
If you meet someone who has a computer, a good car, a new house but no job, he just might be living in Presevo.