Serbia is swept by 'political cleansing'

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The Independent Online
VIDA OGNJENOVIC heard she was fired from her post as director of the Yugoslav National Theatre from the television. She was not surprised. 'I belonged to the (opposition) Democratic Party, that was my crime,' she said.

Since a celebrated incident two years ago she knew she was marked down by the ruling Serbian Socialist Party for dismissal. 'At an opposition demonstration I opened the theatre doors and let people inside. I only opened the doors because I feared people were being crushed, but I knew what the consequences would be.' Her replacement, Alexander Bercek, is a Socialist Party activist.

Ms Ognjenovic is one of hundreds of actors, doctors, academics, television and radio journalists, judges and schoolteachers who have fallen victim to a vengeful and systematic purge of suspected political opponents by the ruling party.

Under Draconian laws ruthlessly applied, employees holding innocuous and apolitical posts in theatres, schools and hospitals are being scrutinised and, if need be, punished. The dismissals are 'legal' and officially termed 'rationalisation'.

Dusan Obradovic, a founder of the secondary school at Koceljevo, in central Serbia, and head for 14 years, was sacked by direct order of the minister. He replaced him with the former boss of the local Territorial Defence force, who was also the outgoing local Socialist Party chairman.

Mr Obradovic believes his public links with the Democratic Party - he stood as a candidate in recent parliamentary elections - were the sole reason for his dismissal. 'The removal of school directors is a continuation of what is going on in radio and television, the university and the theatres,' he said. 'Expertise is pushed to one side in favour of political suitability.'

Schools and cultural institutions are only the tip of the iceberg in this sweeping 'political cleansing', which follows hard on the heels of the Socialist Party's triumphant election victory.

New laws grant the government direct authority to sack heads of hospitals and clinics. One law empowers the government to appoint half the members of the governing council of Belgrade University, sweeping aside a tradition of autonomy going back more than a century.

The new council has moved fast, sacking the Dean, Rajko Vracar, who was seen as too soft on student anti-government protests, and choosing as its chairman Mihajlo Markovic, the Socialist Party's outgoing vice-president. The media purge came earlier. Last month more than 200 journalists and technicians were kicked out of Serbia's state television and radio. The 'rationalisation' of the media left every board member of the companies' independent trade union out of a job.

Most of the former Yugoslav republics have seen their share of political purges of public institutions, starting with the media. Croatia's state companies, television and newspapers are an exclusive preserve of government supporters. But the extension of purges to non-political jobs in the arts or schools makes Serbia stand out in an ominous way.

Ms Ognjenovic says Serbia is heading back to a one-party state in which culture is tightly controlled by politicians. Like many of Serbia's brightest she plans to go abroad. 'When a lot of actors left I said I would stay and fight. But I cannot fight for ever - I want to work too.' Serbia is heading for 'a cultural catastrophe', she says. 'People are just leaving, leaving, leaving.'

Actors in the Serbian capital called on colleagues throughout the republic to stop work yesterday to protest against the abduction of a prominent Muslim actor, Irfan Mensur, Reuter reports.

Mensur was dragged by two men from the restaurant at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre in Belgrade on Tuesday and forced at gunpoint into a car. He was released later and said the abductors beat and insulted him.