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Serbia/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Milena Dragićević Šešić in cooperation with Hristina Mikić and Goran Tomka

It is a truism that a nation's culture cannot be divorced from its social, economic and political circumstances and, in all these areas, Serbia has continued to face severe difficulties since the Democratic Opposition overthrew the Milosevic regime in October 2000. According to a government report, "Serbia emerged from the ashes with the heritage of a dissolved Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and ten years of despotic and erratic rule, an economy in shambles and a legal and physical infrastructure badly distorted through the neglect and abuse of power."

The Belgrade Agreement of 2002 established the Federal State of Serbia-Montenegro, which was legally made up of two separate republics: the Republic of Serbia and the Republic of Montenegro, each with its own ministry for culture. Informally, the Republic of Serbia included two autonomous provinces, Vojvodina (northern part of Serbia) and Kosovo; the latter, however, officially remains under the control of a United Nations administration and therefore the Serbian government has no legal influence in Kosovo. The province of Vojvodina has its own Secretariat for Culture and Public Information. The Belgrade Agreement stopped being relevant after the Referendum on 21 May 2006, when Montenegro became an independent nation. This paradoxically meant that, without a stated intention, Serbia also became an independent nation.

Despite the devastation of the nineties, and the difficulties of the present decade, many of the surviving strengths of Serbian cultural life can be seen to be derived from a long tradition of cultural discourse shaping national identity. At the level of infrastructure and management, one can look back to the relative certainties of life under the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, in which decentralisation and institutional self-government were key characteristics of cultural policy as long ago as the 1960s. These traditional practices are still applicable today and are currently being adapted in response to the new social, economic and political conditions.

The development of cultural policy in Serbia, over the past fifty years, can be examined within six main phases of political change:

Social Realism and a Repressive Cultural Model (1945 – 1953): The first phase can be characterised by social realism copied from Stalin's model of culture in the former USSR. The function of culture, in an ideological sense, was utilitarian and did not encourage the idea of culture as a field for individual freedom of any sort. Luckily, this phase was brief and was followed by a period of progressive cultural action.

Democracy in Culture (1953 – 1974): Within the second phase, two parallel cultural developments can be identified; one was still under strong state and ideological control, while the other, which was more creative and vivid, slowly gained artistic freedom. By the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, many new institutions and prestigious international festivals for different art forms had been established. A large network of municipal cultural institutions, such as houses of culture, libraries and cinemas was also created. At the same time, many individual artists were sanctioned and their works (films, theatre plays and productions, books, etc.) were banned. This was not an officially proclaimed policy but was exercised through political and ideological pressure.

Decentralisation and Self-Governance (1974 – 1989): This third phase is particularly known for the specific policy initiatives to decentralise culture throughout the former Yugoslavia. Serbia had some additional particularities concerning its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural character. Two autonomous provinces (Vojvodina and Kosovo) were given full competence over cultural policy as a result of their multi-ethnic and cultural structure. The entire cultural system was transformed during this period. Self-governing communities of interest were introduced and "free labour exchanges" facilitated closer links among cultural institutions and local economies through, for example, theatre communities, private galleries, etc. In the mid-1980s, a strong nationalistic movement emerged among official and unofficial political and cultural institutions, which was especially stimulated by the liberalisation of the media.

Culture of Nationalism (1990 – 2000): Serbia and Montenegro was lacking a general concept or strategy for culture as well as a clear definition of cultural policy. This ambiguity, therefore, marginalised culture as a creative impulse and process in the modernisation of society and emphasised its role as a "keeper" and promoter of national identity. Self-government was abolished as a system, and cultural institutions were returned to state / municipal authority, nominating directors and controlling their activities. The role and contribution of leading cultural NGOs had been vitally important in Serbia. They first became a distinct feature of opposition to the official culture of nationalism and state control in Serbia during the Milosevic years. In fact, it has been claimed that as much as 50% of the resistance to the Milosevic regime, during the 1990s, was manifested through culture and the active struggle on the part of NGOs, independent publishers and artists for a different way of life. This struggle was spread throughout the country. Their actions received significant material assistance from the international community and notably from the Soros Foundation via its Open Society Fund, Serbia.

Culture in Transformation (2001 - 2011): This period is characterized by a series of attempts to set cultural policy on a strategic, democratic and well-planned basis, while at the same time there have been many political turbulences, changes of Ministers and transitional fatigue which have all together undermined and bracketed many of the attempts. Despite the attempts to introduce new order, the policy of this period has been incoherent and chaotic, somewhat due to the fact that the Ministry of Culture has changed its leadership 5 times in 11 years – noticeable all Ministers and main advisors have been male.

A special accent was placed on reforms of the main national cultural institutions and the public sector in general, demanding the introduction of new managerial and marketing techniques. The first evaluation of national cultural policy within the Council of Europe programme had been completed and was approved in November 2002 while the second one has been completed in April 2015.

Taking into account more than 10 years of devastation, extreme centralisation, étatisation and manipulation, the necessary priorities for all levels of public policy-making were: decentralisation and desétatisation of culture; establishing an environment to stimulate the market orientation of cultural institutions and their efficient and effective work; setting a new legal framework for culture (harmonization with European standards); multiculturalism as one of the key characteristics of both Serbian and Montenegrin society and culture; re-establishing regional co-operation and ties; andactive co-operation in pre-accession processes to the CoE, EU and WTO.

The cultural policy debate has been fading and many of the attempted changes have proven to be short lived. One of the most emblematic signs of such inability to run a coherent and strategic policy is the case of two of the biggest national museums (The National Museum and Museum of Contemporary Arts) which were in the state of refurbishment for more than a decade because of the lack of leadership and many scandals, which created a big gap between audiences and these institutions. In the same token, the National Cultural Strategy envisioned by the new Law on Culture from 2007 to be adopted in the shortest time possible, has not been adopted until 2018.

Still, a few interesting initiatives can be identified. In 2007, a new Ministry of Culture started to work on new priorities and strategies. Many working groups were created, to establish new laws (General Law on Culture, heritage protection, etc.), or to define new concrete programmes and strategies (digitalisation, decentralisation, cultural research development, etc.) or to introduce certain topics for public debate (politics of memory and remembrance, culture for children, intercultural dialogue, etc.). Public debates were held on drafts of new legislation, with the involvement of the Minister, representatives of the Ministry and experts (mostly cultural professionals), in the first six months of the new government. However, after one year, another new government had been created and a new Minister for Culture was appointed in July 2008.

While open competitions to fund cultural projects have been in operation since 2000, decided by commissions, the first competition for commission members was only launched in September 2006, changing the policy of nominations to the commissions to a more transparent procedure. However, this practice has had different levels of transparency and autonomy depending on the Minister or other external pressures.

Back to national unity (2012-2018): In 2012,a new Minister of Culture has been appointed, for the first time from the Serbian Progressive Party, followed by two other Ministers appointed by the same political option. There are several trends noticeable in this period. Short Ministerial appointments continued, with every Minister trying to leave a strong personal mark (still all male). The dialogue with the independent scene and the private sector, somewhat established in the previous period, was systematically and occasionally undermined. Most notably, in 2013 Minister cancelled a cooperation agreement with the Association Independent Culture Scene of Serbia (ICCS). The ministerial budget has remained very low (0.64% of government budget) despite promises. Finally, it can be noted that the focus was mainly on the "renationalisation" of Serbian institutions on material and immaterial heritage preservation and reorienting institutional cultural sector towards the strengthening of national cultural unity. In this respect, a new policy of memory and remembrance (focusing on the Balkan wars & World War One – wars in which Serbia was a winning party) complement a similar cultural diplomacy policy focusing on Slavic countries (a first agreement on cooperation was signed with Belorussia, in Minsk on 29 October 2012); a new draft of Cultural Strategy (2017) focusing on integration and strengthening “Serbian National Space”; increased support for Serbian Orthodox Church; linguistic measures that promote Cyrillic script and discourage the use of other scripts. Since, 2016. personal changes in public cultural institutions has been evident (at national as well local level). All most cultural institutions at national level have changed members of executive boards as well directors. In many cases, strong and professional cultural workers were changed with person outside cultural field and/or without professional integrity and achievements. Strong pressures on open mind cultural directors/professionals are evident especially on the local level.

Still, in this period, two of the biggest national museums were finally opened, Novi Sad has gained a title of European Capital of Culture and New Strategy for Cultural Development from 2017 to 2027 has been drafted.

Chapter published: 18-02-2019

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