Vladimir Kostić, President of the SANU: Towards the future

“Our goal is to form a Strategic Research Centre at the SANU in the relatively near future, where other people, apart from the SANU members, would work too and thus make our society more successful in forecasting and in using scientific methodologies.”

In the six years, he has been at the helm of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU), one gets the impression that Vladimir Kostić has managed to revive the Academy and make it more present in the public. SANU has become a frequent topic in the public media, not only because of its importance and rank. Vladimir Kostić, on the other hand, readily expresses his view of the current and important events in society, but he does aspire to impose it. In this interview, we talked about the ongoing pandemic, the state’s attitude towards the SANU, the protection of cultural heritage and the dialogue between the authorities and the political parties.

Vladimir Kostić, President of the SANU

At the beginning of June, at the symposium in Belgrade, new facts about Covid-19 were discussed, and at the end of the month in Novi Sad, there was a discussion about the post-pandemic society. Both gatherings were organized by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Furthermore, the SANU members carried out scientific projects related to Covid-19. What other activities did the SANU undertake regarding the pandemic?

Back in February 2020, a commission was formed at SANU to monitor the course of the then “indicative pandemic“. This commission provided information, public scientific explanations or on the SANU website, promoted vaccination (in general, but also in the SANU and its institutes), determined its work according to certain events that were questionable from the aspect of the pandemic and performed other activities. We should bear in mind, however, that these activities were based on self-initiative, because as an institution, we were not invited to make an active contribution. At a time when the situation seemed to calm down, we considered it our obligation to sum up the results at two expert meetings in Belgrade, which could be attended by anyone interested, in a medical-biological balance report called ” COVID-19 pandemic: messages, new knowledge and dilemmas “, and soon after in Novi Sad, a social report titled „Society despite the pandemic “. In addition, out of 8 strategic scientific projects financed by the Science Fund dedicated to COVID-19, three were helmed by members of the SANU. Plus, academician Čolić is preparing another one on “immune memory” testing. However, if you ask me if that means we think it is indirect – the aforementioned Commission continues to work.

One of the tasks of the Committee for the Serbian Issues, established at the SANU, is to highlight how jeopardized our monasteries and other cultural goods in Kosovo and Metohija are. What the SANU thinks would be a feasible and sustainable solution to this problem in practice?

The committee you have mentioned was formed with a much greater goal to deal with key strategic and civilizational issues that are emerging in the decades ahead or are just looming waiting for us in an ambush in the near or distant future (not only in Serbia) so that we, as a society, a nation and a state, are not constantly surprised or taken aback by what is happening to us. The idea is that as a serious, historical and state-building nation, we will walk towards the future. Ultimately, our goal is to form a Strategic Research Centre at the SANU in the relatively near future, where other people, apart from the SANU members, would work too and thus make our society more successful in forecasting and in using scientific methodologies.

At the very beginning of our committee’s work, it was clear that the situation in Kosovo and Metohija was the issue above all issues. Two conferences were held recently – one on legal issues of secession, with a special focus on Kosovo and Metohija (a book with contributions from this gathering was published soon after) and, a couple of weeks ago, another two-day scientific conference called “Protection, preservation and affirmation of Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo and Metohija ”, with over 30 people in attendance. In anticipation of the book from that gathering, we will deliver our views and conclusions to all relevant institutions and individuals on possible steps to make. No matter how boastful it may seem, this is just a small segment of the SANU’s activities on the issue of Serbian cultural heritage, that, as I said six years ago, which went pretty unnoticed, we must fight tooth and nail for. I still think the same.

One of the current topics in Serbia is the dialogue between the government and the opposition. In an atmosphere of great antagonism between these two options, which dominates our political and social life, is an agreement possible at all?

Conversation and eventually, an agreement is the necessary ‘valve’ on ‘the Papin cooking pot’ of every society. We all know what happens when a valve breaks. I have been talking about that dialogue for years, and I was even accused of being banal and that I was equalizing everything, although even a cursory reading shows that this is not the case.

“Conversation and eventually, an agreement is the necessary ‘valve’ on ‘the Papin cooking pot’ of every society”

Jean Baudrillard wrote somewhere that “great men once had the privilege of forgiving”. With all the mortgages of parliamentary democracy (or only its illusions), with the dramatic social entropy, the distortion of space that allowed the contact of the “political class” with the “plebs”, to which I belong, a change happened where “the greats” of today would like „to be forgiven“. The absence of an agreement, I’m afraid, will not include forgiveness. Once again, I am afraid of such an outcome.

The public thinks that you have “awakened” SANU and made it an active participant in everyday life. How do you cooperate with state bodies? Does the government respect your views? It was recently heard that the Committee on Higher Education did not receive a response to proposals on how to improve the Law on Education, which is currently being amended.

SANU is not a mechanical watch that can be repaired or accelerated by winding a spring. I have no merit here and my role should not be mentioned, and especially not exaggerated. For the past six years, apart from occasional „dark clouds on the horizon“, we had good relations with the line ministries (science and culture), overall. At one of the last meetings of the SANU Assembly, I said that I was under the impression that “until only recently, the dominant concept of the relationship between SANU and the government was based on understanding the differences in the essence of their activities and the culture of honest and constant dialogue, with the hint of the necessary distance, imposed by intellectual scepticism and political non-alignment“, It seemed to me, and I have been saying this in the last few years, that the relationship has slipped into a space of indifference and cold courtesy, parallel existence in indifference, with a significant increase in the otherwise traditional gap and I am afraid, of not accidental marginalization of the SANU. Even though the government fulfilled its obligations towards the SANU to the detail, it conspicuously did not show too much interest in using the capacity we have as an institution in the advisory sense. On the other hand, we did not exert ourselves too much to overcome that relationship of not noticing. I wish I was wrong.

Arnaud Guillon, a French and Serbian humanist, recently assessed the insistence on having gender-sensitive words for occupations as discriminatory and restrictive, wondering why we should say that Desanka Maksimović is one of the greatest female writers when she is simply one of the greatest Serbian writers. What is your view? 

If I have learned anything in the last six years, it is, among other things, the attitude that the science of language is a painstaking discipline, with its own laws and rules, and that faced with it, I am only an amateur observer. That is why I would predominantly leave the abovementioned issue, and not only this problem of language, to experts to deal with. And without unnecessary haste.

“SANU is not a mechanical watch that can be repaired or accelerated by winding a spring”

Why dominant and not complete? Because the whole problem comes out and overflows from the language drawer. The only comment I would make is to avoid the Scylla of Political Correctness, which itself is, after all, based on “parasitizing… on an incorrect other” and is often „a mixture of eternal self-blame and arrogance “and a Charybdis of conservatism that rejects the possibility that language must reflect emancipation, which we have been shouting about from the rooftops.

SANU is facing an election assembly. On that occasion, you stated that the SANU is the smallest academy (in terms of the size of a country’s population) in the region. Why is that so? And what does it depend on?

National academies are very different from each other. In addition to the generally accepted principles, the differences are a consequence of the idiosyncrasies in the needs of the society that gave birth to them, in the degree of development of science and art in a certain environment and in a tradition that is not without some internal logic and utilitarianism. In some countries, the academies of sciences are separate from art academies. In profiling our Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, it seems to me that there are no convincing reasons for its important redefinition, and especially not for division. The prevailing attitude was that the optimal number for Serbia would be around 150-160 members, while today, it stands at 124 alive but not necessarily active members. During the term of the current Executive Board, many important academics died. The ongoing pandemic did not spare us either. The elections on November 4 this year are a chance for the SANU to get “fresh blood”.

Can the SANU be neutral, and its only criterion be the truth, even when that truth does not speak best about the country whose name it bears?

I will answer with a counter-question: “When was the SANU neutral?” Critics who sometimes say something similar don’t care what any of us think – they ask, with a self-assigned right, to repeat what they would dictate to us and nothing else. The question of the relationship between truth and loyalty to an environment does not exist, provided that you think well of that environment. In my response, I would like to refer to the words of the people wiser than me, which I can utter in such a way. The great Jovan Sterija Popović, one of our founders, writes: “Whoever fails to tell the family the truth, should not teach the people”. To define our mishandlings unmistakably (I do not exclude myself as a possible subject of these stingy words), I would like to quote the following: “You know everything – what the Russians think, what other courts think, but it is difficult for you to know what you think.” Finally, only a few decades later, Jovan Cvijić, one of the presidents of the Academy, started his notes “On the responsibility of a public worker and intellectual before his own people” with these words: “To seek and govern the truth … To create the mentality of the people on the truth.” To add anything to their words would be not only superfluous but also unforgivably stupid.

By Sonja Ćirić

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