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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."Belgrade, Trgrepublike

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 four 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 - 2004):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.

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 (harmonisation 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; and
  • active co-operation in pre-accession processes to the CoE, EU and WTO.

Stagnation period (2004 – March 2007): Continuing to act through procedures (competitions and commissions) established in the previous period, the Ministry of Culture had not officially changed or introduced new priorities, although by interviews and statements, as well as by funding allocations, certain shifts in priorities can be observed, from those previously stated, to support for the protection of Serbian national cultural heritage (mostly sacral built heritage). The cultural policy debate has been stopped. Still, a few interesting initiatives can be identified, such as the first prize for private – public partnership programmes, and the Cultural Infrastructural Development Plan within the National Investment Plan.

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.

After the Referendum on 21 May 2006, Montenegro became an independent nation. Some authorities on the former federal level have been reorganised and some of them have been abolished. See chapter 3.2 for more information.

Systemic changes attempt (May 2007 – July 2008): In May 2007, a new government of Serbia was appointed and the 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...). 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 first six months of the new government.

However, after one year, another new government had been created and a new Minister for Culture, appointed in July 2008, continued initially to realise the priorities set by the previous government.

Turbulence from Economic Crisis (July 2008 – 2011): The plans of the Minister for Culture were very ambitious. However, soon after he took office the economic crisis came to Serbia similar to the rest of Europe, which meant that the whole approach had to be re-defined. Cultural policy based on the keywords - transformation, rationalisation, concentration and innovation, aimed to assess the state of all cultural institutions; to create the potential for an entrepreneurial approach in culture; to continue with the on-going projects of the previous government and to focus on participation in international events. The Ministry of Culture insists on implementing the long term and strategic goals and has managed to adopt a new Law on Culture and to ratify a few important international conventions, preparing a set of laws about book and language (publishing, librarianship, rare bibliophile material and obligatory deposits, etc.) and the role of foundations and legacies. On the other hand, the crisis has led to a severe cut in the budget. Furthermore any development of new institutions has stopped and, instead, the new functions are being added to already existing ones, or some private initiatives are being supported (e.g. Vuk's Foundation will have the responsibility for the National Book Centre, which was initially planned to be set up in 2009; The Centre for Translation in Sremski Karlovci, which is a private initiative, got support from both the Ministry of Culture and Vojvodina Provincial Secretariat). The period from 23 April 2010 to 23 April 2011 had been proclaimed a Year of Book and Literature (with a slogan: Who reads, wins!).

Turbulence and incoherent policy (March 2011 - November 2014): In this relatively short period, the cabinet of the Minister changed three times. Most of the promises have been left incomplete; there was no coherent policy with clear priorities, which makes it hard to comment upon. Long-term planning and development hasn't even started and the claim that "there is no cultural policy" has become ubiquitous (at the same time, short periods of time in the office served also as a good excuse for cabinet members). During the reconstruction of the government in 2011, a new Minister was appointed and once again the Ministry of Culture changed its name and its internal structure. However, as this was a "transitional government", which lasted only one year (till the elections), the Ministry have not started any important new initiatives (even as the year 2011-12 was supposed to be a year of film, the ministry had no substantial action in this respect). In May 2012,a new Minister of Culture was appointed, for the first time from the Serbian Progressive Party, and once more the Ministry changed its name, to the Ministry of Culture and Information. Although very little has been actually done, from the statements and some actions as well as new nominations within the spectrum of national cultural institutions, it can be said that the focus will be on "renationalisation" of Serbian institutions and on material and immaterial heritage preservation and presentation. 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 Minskon 29 October 2012).

In the autumn of 2013, a new Minister was elected once again. Since he is a proclaimed cultural manager (of Belgrade Philharmonic), and not a member of any political party, his coming into office has been met with high hopes in cultural circles. It is too early to assess the success of the new cabinet, however many developments proposed by the Ministry will be presented and commented in the latter part of the text.

Chapter published: 14-08-2015

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