Country reports

SERBIA

Expert authors: Milena Dragićević Šešić, Hristina Mikić and Goran Tomka
Last update: May 20th

On April 10th, Serbian Government adopted regulations related to the fiscal and direct financial aid, liquidity and other measures. The main aim of those measures is to protect the level of employment and to provide support to enterprises whose business is affected during the state of emergency.

Measures cannot be used by businesses that laid off more than 10% of their employed during the state of emergency as well as business entities (firms, entrepreneurs, companies) that temporary stopped their business operations before March 15th 2020.

Economic measures include tax policy measures, measures of direct financial aid and credit aid to preserve liquidity.

Tax policy measures include tax deferrals and repayment of those obligations in installments starting from the beginning of 2021. Tax deferrals include the following fiscal payments: salary tax, social security contributions and corporate income tax. Those measures are aimed to preserve the liquidity of business sector. Tax exemption refer to the VAT on donations of goods and services that are used in the prevention of COVID-19 (food, medical equipment etc.).   

Direct financial aid is a measure dedicated to the direct payments to legal entities (firms, companies, entrepreneurs and non-for profit organisations) with the goal to continue the payment of salaries during the COVID-19 emergency in Serbia. Direct aid to entrepreneurs, micro, small and medium size companies, as well as non-for profit organisations is the minimum net salary (30.000 RSD = EUR 255) for each employee. This direct aid will be paid up to three months. Direct aid to large companies is the half of the amount of a minimum net salary (15.000 RSD = 115 euros) for each employee. Those measures are aimed at avoiding layoffs during and after the state of emergency.

Credit aid for preserving liquidity is a set of measures related to loans and guarantees to business entities. The main goal of these measures is to preserve and improve the liquidity of a legal entity. The credit support is distributed through the Serbian Development Fund and the total budget for loans is EUR 200 million. Maximum credit aid is: up to 5 million RSD (ca. EUR 42.500) for entrepreneurs and micro business entities; up to 25 million RSD (ca. EUR 212.000) for small entities and up to 50 million RSD for medium entities (ca. EUR 425.000). The repayment period is 36 months with a 12-month grace period.

After adopting these measures and determining the beneficiaries (by the Ministry of Finance), it became clear that independent artists are not covered by Serbia’s COVID-19 regulation. Artists have launched a media campaign and appeals regarding the situation where artists are potentially left without any income and are being treated unfair in the sense of state aid. On May 7th, the Government adopted the Conclusion about state aid for independent artists. This direct aid will be paid to independent artists up to three months in the amount of 30.000 RSD (ca. EUR 255) per month.

At the same time, the City of Belgrade also adopted direct aid to artists who have contracts with Belgrade city cultural institutions. Artists who are not permanently employed will receive aid of 30.000 RSD (EUR 255) per month for the next three months. It is estimated that 309 artists involved in 17 Belgrade cultural institutions will be eligible for this measure.

 

April 17th

There are several layers of the COVID-19 impact on artists and cultural workers in Serbia, depending on sector they work in — such as public, civil or private culture and creative sectors, or even a specific art and cultural discipline.

Public sector

The COVID-19 crisis shows that the cultural workers employed in public cultural institutions will have a better income status than others. They can work remotely (at home) and their level of salary (average amount received in previous year) will be secured during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government of Serbia announced that it would pay salaries in public organisations and institutions at the same level as in a normal non-pandemic situation, and that it will secure that temporary contracts will not be cancelled.

Private sector

The situation in the private sector is completely different. It has been reported that at last 1000 small entrepreneurs temporarily closed their businesses in the first week of the COVID-19 pandemic (mostly self-employed individuals, to avoid paying taxes as the job can not be delivered). Out of this number, about 15% are entrepreneurs who worked in the cultural and creative sector. There are between 16.000 (narrow CCIs definition) and 22.000 entrepreneurs (broad CCIs definition) who work in the cultural and creative sector in Serbia. Thus, it seems that the first official COVID-19 report on its impact on business activities is still very small and unreliable. Conversations with some small creative businesses about the impact of COVID-19 on their activity shows their concern about covering expenses of their business (material, licenses, rents, etc.) due to reduced turnover and purchases.

In some cases, their activities have been reduced by almost 90% and they are working at the minimum level, trying to deliver and fulfil orders contracted before the COVID-19 pandemic. They reported as a huge problem closing postal delivery services, and, for some, quite impossible demand to change and reduce existing business model to online realm. For many cultural and creative entrepreneurs’ income from creative business is their main source of family income, and in many cases they are running creative business as a family entrepreneurship. Therefore, entrepreneurs are concerned, but they still don’t know how strong this situation is going to impact them (as no one knows how long it will take), and if the right business answer is to close the creative business.

Performing arts sector

The most difficult situation is in the field of live performing arts businesses. The main source of income for those entrepreneurs are cultural events (concerts, performances, festivals, etc.) organised by public cultural institutions, the government (April Days of Belgrade for example) or private event providers (e.g. event companies, festivals, concert agencies and production companies). Some of the data relating to the performing arts market income before the COVID-19 pandemic, shows that the public sector (public purchases, subsidies projects and public artistic events) is the major source of earned income for performing arts professionals and entrepreneurs (about 60%). As a result of this income structure, COVID-19 and temporarily closure of all cultural institutions and public organisations will definitely negatively affect their work.

Film sector

Based on a survey, the Film Association of Serbia concluded that the Serbian film industry had a loss of EUR 9.6 million in the first three weeks of March, as most of the companies (73%) cancelled all of their activities. Nearly EUR 5 million are losses of distribution companies and cinemas, which is estimated to be much higher in reality, as only 20 distribution companies and cinemas participated in the survey.

The survey engaged 130 enterprises out of whom 25 are members of SFA (40 production houses, 12 distribution and 8 cinemas), which presents 53% of the total number of enterprises and 47% of entrepreneurs and film professional production workers.

Only 20% of the production companies had kept their business at the same extent as the period before COVID-19, in a way that work is organised from home, mostly in the fields of postproduction, production of animation content, preparatory project management and preparation of project proposals for different calls in the country and abroad.

However, losses will be enlarged, as for the most of them the estimation for the future period April-June does not foresee any income, and for 27% of a fall of 50% is estimated. Only 4% of the companies (mostly involved in postproduction) do not expect big losses.

Independent sector and artists

Self-employed artists, artistic collectives and cultural workers in the so-called independent sector (NGOs and non-for-profit organisations) share the same situation. It should be noted that their dependence on public resources is greater than in other sectors, and turbulences caused by the COVID-19 lead to the interruption of creation and production process as well as to the cancelation of all public events. Conversations with several self-employed artists indicates that they already lost the possible income from (contracted) artistic work and they will remain without any kind of engagement during COVID-19. (Recently, on the demand of the Association of Drama Artists of Serbia, both the Ministry of Culture and the City Secretariat had publicly asked cultural institutions to treat “contracted artists” as is they are permanently employed, and pay to them the “contracted amounts”, although the work is not and will not be done during the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately, neither the Ministry nor the City of Belgrade explained how cultural institutions might pay contracted workers, as this is usually done from the box office receipts that are now absent due to programme cancellation.

Freelance artists and independent organisations are also concerned about the future of art and cultural work in Serbia after the COVID-19 crisis, due to the already marginal position of art and culture in Serbia. Neither the Parliament nor the Ministry of Culture has a strong voice regarding this, and the only measure they enforced was the wrong one – the cancellation instead of the postponement of the public call for projects in 2020. Thus, after the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be less public investment in artistic work and cultural production as those planned resources will be already spent or reinvested in other economic sectors and activities such as tourism, construction and trade or commercial activities of creative industries (such as gaming and commercials) that are often debated as the most threatened sectors by Serbia’s public officials.

The Serbian Association of Drama Artists was among the first artists’ association that indicated a lot of cancelled or postponed works of their members as well as arrangements for those whose future is uncertain. They proposed a crisis measure for self-employed and unemployed drama artists in the form of minimal monthly income (EUR 255 per month) for 240 self-employed and 187 unemployed drama artists. The proposal was sent to the Ministry of Culture and Information and the Belgrade Secretary for Cultural Affairs, but, besides the already mentioned recommendation to public institutions, there has been no direct reply. The Ministry published a statement that they are in the process of collecting data on artists’ status and  that measures will be taken in accordance with the governments’ overall plan for COVID-19 recovery. 

A similar proposal was announced by the Association of Fine Artists, which asked for help in the form of a minimal income for self-employed artists as well as for artists that cannot work during COVID-19. The Association also asked for the finalisation and realisation of public calls for co-funding of cultural and artistic projects at all public government levels (that were abolished), and for the introduction of new economic and tax policy measures for improvement of the economic status of self-employed artists.

Funding and general developments

As for the financing of cultural and artistic projects, there is no unique solution. The Ministry of Culture and Information extended the open call for co-funding until mid-May 2020, with the results being known after the COVID-19 pandemic during the normalization of life and work in Serbia. On the other hand, the Belgrade Secretary of Cultural Affaires as well as Novi Sad European Cultural Capital 2021 published statements that calls for the co-funding of cultural projects will not be realised. Responding to this situation,  the Independent Cultural Scene calls to governmental bodies to realise co-funding calls for art and cultural projects, to set aside decisions on the abolition of co-funding calls, to cover social security contributions for self-employed artists and cultural workers, to introduce grants for vulnerable artists and to give recommendations to public cultural institutions related to the urgent payment of artist contracts.

It is evident that several professional changes in the cultural and creative sector have come into effect due to COVID-19, but it also shows the insensitivity of cultural policy to the economic issues of the cultural sector, as well as the lack of capacity for prompt policy responses to the COVID-19 crisis in the cultural and creative sectors. There are not any kind of recommendations or policy proposals from the side of the Prime Minister, Council for Creative Industries or the National Council for Cultural Affairs, which are all responsible to give policy proposals for the development and improvement of working and production conditions in the cultural field.

Although the virus came in Serbia at the beginning of March, the situation became especially difficult for the arts and culture sector when the Government of Serbia proclaimed the state of emergency on March 16th. All public events had to be cancelled and from that day onwards, schools and universities had to move their all their activities online.

Cultural initiatives

Even before March 16th, many cultural and educational organisations stopped their regular activities. The first event organised online was the Festival of International Student Theatre (FIST) between March 14th and 20th, with an announcement at the beginning of March stating that “the FIST is arriving in a digital environment”. Since then, many other cultural manifestations in a virtual space followed, for example #MojOnlineFilmskiFestoval.

Thus, numerous artists and cultural workers of all sectors are trying to do their best to offer their work to a wide audience. The important Public Radio-Television of Serbia and Vojvodina had announced premieres of its serial programmes and numerous reprises of feature films, dramas and documentaries on its three channels. Of course, the situation in the public sector was easier, as salaries were guaranteed, thus the most of them found their way of working in the new circumstances, but not all of them.

Consequently, a new work regime of public cultural institutions in times of COVID-19 differs greatly, and it depends on the ambition of the institution’s leaders, but also on their digital potentials (archives) and digital equipment. Sometimes, it also depends on whether the institution already developed interesting forms of communicating with its audiences before COVID-19, such as the Kolarac Foundation whose Youth Council already prepared podcasts and YouTube conferences in order to reach younger audiences. Now, in new social circumstances, those contents are widely praised by the usual, older audiences.

Many public museums had offered virtual visits, as the digitalisation of museums and libraries had been at the forefront of related policy since 2001. More than ten years ago, the Museum of Yugoslavia was the first to offer its rich collection of photography. Now, it offers an online visit to two recent exhibitions: Project Yugoslavia (interviews with 100 interlocutors about the meaning of Yugoslavia then and now) and The Nineties: A Glossary of Migrations.

The National Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Arts and many others offer virtual visits of permanent and temporary exhibitions, but also a possibility to read their catalogues and to assist with conferences and lectures.  Many museums in the Serbian provinces did the same.

Libraries already had a very active outreach through its digital platforms. All public ones and one unique private library and book museum (ADLIGET) had found a way, through the University Library Svetozar Marković, to present their materials to digital users.

Through its channels on YouTube and Vimeo, the Yugoslavian Film Archive had offered a lot of its archived materials from the period till 1945, especially materials that are of interest to the wide layers of population (documents from the war history, but also about controversial political processes like the 1916 Thessaloniki process, which was a taboo both in the Kingdom and in Socialist Yugoslavia).

In the music sector, the most was expected from public cultural institutions. The Belgrade Philharmonics organised numerous concerts for children (28 200 entries till 25th of March). Every Monday, the blog “Musicians in isolation” is published, with musicians sharing their personal experiences. On Tuesdays, the platform is offering “meetings” with famous guests (conductors and musicians) whose concerts are delayed due to COVID-19. Wednesdays are reserved for audio experiences – listening to archived concerts. On Thursdays, the platform is offering “best moments” from the history of the Philharmonics, while Friday is reserved for the most popular concerts that will be streamed online. In the weekends, it is time for “world travels through music” and “musical humor”.

The theatres of Belgrade had been the first to close, but many of them had offered their audiences recordings of their performances. The very next day after the State of Emergency Proclamation, the National Theatre organised their first streaming of videotaped performances. Other public theatres of Belgrade, Šabac, Novi Sad and many other cities in Serbia followed.

The Yugoslav Drama Theatre is using its YouTube channel to broadcast different performances every week, starting with Hadersfield (Uglješa Šajtinac, dir. Alex Chisholm), then continuing with The Powder Keg (Dejan Dukovski, dir. Slobodan Unkovski); Grasshopers (Biljana Srbljanović, dir. Dejan Mijač) and finally The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare, dir. Egon Savin). These performances are without doubt the most significant performances of this theatre within the past 30 years, giving a stage to authors and directors not only from Serbia, but also from the region and other parts of the world.

The independent sector and individual artists had joined the fight against COVID-19 mostly through individual messages (#StayAtHome), or offering online concerts due to cancellations and bed time stories for children through social media. These activities are all voluntary and can be seen as a form of solidarity developed by independent artists and the independent sector.

Further examples of acts of solidarity: publishers have self-organised the offer of their books in emergency hospitals and some bookshop-owners are opening a shop next to food shops, as to offer books as support.

There are also many international solidarity projects: Philharmonics of the Serbian National Theatre and the Opera in Novi Sad, as a support to Italy, performed the most popular Italian song in former Yugoslavia – O bella ciao — with every musician in its home and with the Italian conductor Andrea Solinas. This action inspired numerous other actions of solidarity, also linked to Zagreb and the severe earthquake that hit the city as well. It will be difficult to enumerate all of them, but a research will be conducted to try to identify models of actions and activities.

COVID-19 in Vojvodina

Closures

Most of institutions and private cultural spaces have closed their doors for visitors and organised the work of their employees from home.

Novi Sad European Capital of Culture has announced closure of all live activities as well as spring calls for projects. All newly opened cultural stations – a hallmark of their bid – have been also closed.

A process of developing a nomination dossier and management plan for the inscription of Bač cultural landscape and its surroundings, has been limited to off-site activities. All workshops, meetings with stakeholders and field visits have been cancelled.

Going digital

In general, many institutions have selected already available content which is easiest to be digitalised and broadcasted or published online. The platform “Digital solidarity” has been initiated by the Serbian government. It maps and presents numerous online services and content that should ease and enable citizens life and work from home. Currently, 22 cultural institutions and private organisations have been mapped by the platform, which offer various online programmes. Museums, libraries and archives have opened their funds and collections. Particularly popular are movie collections that are suitable for digital consumption in the long evening hours.

The gallery of Matica Srpska, the national arts gallery located in Novi Sad (Vojvodina), has been quick to “move from gallery to virtual space” and offer contents and programmes titled “GMS with you and home” aiming to make home stays “more cultural”, and offering musical suggestions to parents and their babies, participation in “art challenges”, art games for teens and families, and filmed guide tours through its exhibitions.

The People’s Museum of Kikinda has been using its Facebook page to publish “museum object in focus” – stories about interesting museum objects that can’t be revealed during the exhibition visits.

Festivals, like EXIT Festival, are screening their previously recorded performances, organizing live events with DJs playing from their homes and similar music content. Cultural centres are organising online lectures, book promotions and theatre plays. Theatres like the Serbian National Theatre from Novi Sad and the Youth Theatre are publishing their recorded performances which can be watched on demand.

New initiatives and solidarities

There are also some fresh initiatives, locally as well as regionally. For example, at the initiative of the City Theatre from Podgorica, Montenegro, the First Internet Regional Children Theatre Festival (Prvi internet regionalni festival teatra za djecu – PIR) has been established. On their online platform, they will offer a range of regional plays for kids in the Balkan region.

The newly established local volunteer centre of Novi Sad that operated in the field of arts and culture has reoriented its activities and beneficiaries to those under lockdown (mostly elderly people).

New exclusions

There are also various troubling developments. The most troubling is the very sensitive situation that many freelance artists and cultural professionals have found themselves in. Several ongoing research initiatives nationally and regionally are trying to measure the scale of damage and precarity. Findings should be out soon.

In many public institutions, directors have seized power beyond usual. In some instances, this resulted in a programme that shifted much more into exclusive, discriminatory and nationalistic directions. The cultural centre of Novi Sad, known for some problematic events of that kind, has completely turned to the presentation of nationalistic, xenophobic content, promoting conspiracy theories, fearmongering, proposing new global geopolitical redistributions topped by Russia and China, and further side-lining female authors, minority cultures, marginalised groups and similar. This trend is to be observed in the close future.