Artists and Cultural Workers Stage Massive Protests in Serbia
On Saturday, June 22nd 2013, over 800 cultural workers and artists went out to protest in the Square of the Republic in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, as well as in Novi Sad, Niš and Vršac. Such a protest on a massive scale is almost unprecedented in the country. These protests did not come out of thin air. A lot of accumulated anger and dissatisfaction with many socio-economic and political issues in recent years culminated yesterday.
The most important structural, social and political causes for the protest are: corruption and nepotism in the field of culture and non-transparent redistribution of the resources; poverty of workers in the field of culture; the change of the government from democrats to conservatives on in the Republic of Serbia and the cutting the funds for so called “non-patriotic” art; the fact that freelance artists and cultural workers are not able to renew their health insurance, because social benefits have not been paid since January 2013 by the cultural department of the city of Belgrade (governed by the Democrats).
It was a silent protest, that did not feature any official speakers and was not meant to be clearly articulated politically, taking into consideration many differences among the protestors, united for the first time on such a massive scale. Many cultural workers in Serbia are divided by their position in the process of cultural production between those employed by the state, freelance artists and those with the so called freelance entrepreneur cultural workers (NGO) status. Although all of them are dependent on state and international (mostly EU) funds, their unity was the most important factor to drive this first massive protest. The general discourse of the protest was not focused on social problems, the precarious position of the cultural workers and corruption, but it was more about culture and moral values and directed against any political party power over art and culture.
A group of artists and activists decided to make several actions within the protest itself. A week ago, artist Saša Stojanović and activist and artist Vladan Jeremić published a statement about the urgent need to articulate a protest toward social problems (the text of their statement is bellow), to connect the protest with other workers struggles in the country and internationally. Many artist colleagues supported this initiative and distributed their statement during the protest. Peace activists Women in Black participated in a joint action within the protest, supporting their artist and cultural workers colleagues. Slogans on banners read: “Stop Cultural Racism! Stop Exploitation! Culture is not a Commodity, We won’t Give the Public Goods! Stop Ethno-Clericalization!”
This year, the public budget for culture was dramatically cut down to 0,6 % (international standard is around 2,5) of the total budget. The cuts were criticized previously in the media and there was even a soft critique of cultural industries vs. art and culture at a meeting of the liberal cultural elite a few months ago. Already the previous democratic liberal government started massive neoliberal reforms and introduced commercialization and privatization in the cultural sector. Projects supported by the state right now are mostly in the creative industry field, such as the MIXER festival or patriotic and church projects such as “Edict of Milan – 113-2013, Serbia” or reconstruction of the museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Both major art museums, Museum of Contemporary Art (visited last year by the ArtLeaks committee), and National Museum are closed to the public.
Funding has also been cut to other important cultural institutions, including the October Salon, an annual art exhibition, the theater festival BITEF, the Palić Film Festival, the International Children’s Theater Festival, etc.. The recommendation to artists made by some members of the Ministry commission was to promote “patriotic values” in their work. Surprisingly, these austerity measures did not stop the organization of expensive productions for the state program. Here are a few significant cases among many that have triggered anger and contributed to the massive protest to happen.
The first is a theater play called “Constantin”, part of the official State program for the anniversary celebration “Edict of Milan – 113-2013, Serbia”. The show was developed this spring, in 20 days (!) with a mostly state funded budget of 180.000 Euro – while the director of the play, Jug Radivojević, and video designer Jug Radivojević shared an artist fee of 15.400 Euro each. In turn, several citizens and politicians of the opposition protested against the misuse of state funds in Niš, where a drafted budget for the play was passed by the city parliament under irregular circumstances and pressure from above. “We call the citizens of Niš to boycott the play dedicated to Constantin, because this show costs 180.000 Euro, because it is impossible in Serbia and elsewhere to earn 20.000 within 15 days, except you are part of a drug cartel” said member of city parliament Srđan Pešić for Al Jaszeera Balkans. Any recording of the play that was performed in Belgrade, Niš and Novi Sad, was forbidden for journalists, which produced a minor scandal in Novi Sad. Open protests or critical media reporting on corruption in culture are rare, but do exist.
Last year, “Whistle” (“Pistaljka”), an internet platform that investigates abuse of office in among government, public and private enterprises and other institutions in Serbia, made public that the Historical Archives of Belgrade declared the amount of Dorijan Kolundžija’s artist fees a state secret. His gallery “Studio for New Media Solutions” delivered consulting for fireworks and light design for New Year’s Eve 2012 and the opening of the new Ada Bridge. Dorijan Kolundžija at the same time produces projects through the non-profit organizations KIOSK and MIKSER that, according “Whistle”’s research, were given from the state budget, around 50.000 Euro per year since 2008. Some media reported that due to the high rank of his mother, Nada Kolundžija, head of the Democratic Party’s “Club of the Serbian Parliament,” Dorijan is among the best payed “artists” in Serbia.
These are just some of the many cases of corruption and non-transparent distribution of public funds that led to these larger protests.The reaction of the Ministry of Culture of Serbia after the protests was typical: they claimed that all money has been spent and that the reason for the current bad situation is the global economical crisis. Serbian artists and cultural workers announce new protests and actions in the next days to happen.
Saša Stojanović and Vladan Jeremić’s Statement
With this declaration we support the protest of artists and cultural workers. We call all citizens to join and to participate in this initiative!
The so-called democratic authorities that took over institutions after 5th of October 2000, increasingly alienated them from artists and cultural producers under the shabby excuse of „necessity of transition“ and quickly melted into the old clientelistic networks, fantasizing of the great global market of cultural industry that will bring wealth.
Today, at the moment when even these clientelistic networks cannot be satisfied anymore, conditions are ripe for a general protest! The precarious position of cultural workers is unbearable, as creative labor has in fact turned into unpaid labor. Neoliberal austerity measures, closure of public institutions and budget cuts present a trend that will worsen if we won’t struggle against it.
Abstract attacks on “the state”, “bad governance” or ministries won’t lead to the solving the much more profound problems at hand, nor help elucidate their causes. Citizens are brutally deprived of a public cultural life (two museums are closed to public: the National Museum because of restitution and the Museum of Contemporary Art because of bad management), culture is being re-traditionalized, we are witnessing cultural racism, clericalization, attempts to bring back monarchy and similar phenomena. Neoliberal politics demand commercialization of culture and closing down of public institutions.
The state of affairs in culture can’t be isolated from the broader societal conditions in which Serbia and the region are situated. Our protest needs to be linked with the struggles of all workers for the defense of public goods. Only politics of solidarity and economic democracy can create preconditions for cultural institutions that will support the production of social values and creative freedom.
Saša Stojanović and Vladan Jeremić, artists, Belgrade, 18. 06. 2013
Photo-documentation of the protests in Belgrade curtesy of Deana Jovanović and Rena Raedle
Video-documentation of the protest