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Balkans part 2: Novi Sad 2021, my new hope for a positive cultural narrative.

Danubebeach with one of the bridges in Novi Sad

Though Belgrade is the capital of Serbia, the honour is for Novi Sad to be their first European Cultural Capital. The steering group started creating the concept in 2012 to apply for the title in 2015. That means that the same group has been working on the program for already 6 years and they have another 3 years before the big year. The process for applying is always years in advance, and especially for Novi Sad as they applied as city outside of the EU. But these years of preparation actually creates the opportunity to not solely focus on the year 2021, but to use the process to stimulate the international network of Novi Sad and the quality of the cultural sector in Serbia. Their motto is ‘New bridges’ which stands for the rebuilding of their physical bridges, demolished in the war. And also for their relations with their neighbor countries destroyed during the war. This international attitude and deep understanding of the power of culture in the reconciliation process, is why their project is relevant for everyone in the EU and Europe to keep an eye on.

To understand why this title is important not only to the region, I had to update my historical knowledge. Novi Sad profiles itself as the city of immigration and a multicultural society. As during the history many different ethnic groups passed by this region or stayed in the area. Their history and architecture is a mixture of different cultures and groups, like the Germans, Hungarians and Slavs.

As capital of this region, Vojvodina, Novi Sad is chosen to be the Cultural Capital for many good reasons. Geographically seen, it is placed between Eastern Europe and Central Europe. Vojvodina shares borders with Croatia, Hungary and Romania. It has been part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, has been sovereign and part of Yugoslavia. This development has resulted in a situation where many different nationalities are living together and have influenced the area. Novi Sad naturally holds a certain European dimension as of its geographical central position just outside the Balkans, in between Western and Eastern Europe. The city has bloomed due to its intercultural society. As second biggest city in Serbia and capital of the area Vojvodina, it has developed a sustainable cultural sector. Some important parts of the Novi Sad 2021 program, like the art school, cultural centers and festivals have been part of the city for decades.


Novi Sad 2021

The second day I was in Novi Sad I went to the office of the international relations manager, Vuk Radulović. We sat down and he started talking, he did not need a question from my side nor an explanation what I was doing. His story was a solid story that he has told many times before. As International relations manager this is also his work, talking to people and convincing them of the program. He is also the one who fills in the administrative and grant paperwork requested by the EU. With his background in Law, he understands the administrative side and is not afraid of the complicated paperwork, something that many people will bounce back from. Combine that with a solid knowledge on cultural management and policy, and you get a very convincing International Relations manager.

Their story is so solid that up till now they did not yet encounter hard criticism on the project from the people of Novi Sad or from the government. This is not only because they tell the story so well, the program itself is very well thought through and the team invested a lot of time to learn from the previous cultural capitals. They have taken a couple of wise lessons from these cities and have taken some measures. So first of all they are taking their time building up towards this year. The year is used as an instrument for development in the cultural sector of Novi Sad and Serbia. Their main focus is on the international connections of the cultural sector. The international connections can be split up in a couple smaller targets, like the modernization of production, efficiency in managing the cultural events, applying for international grants and creating an international cultural network for cooperation and reconciliation. At the moment they already started some of the programs that they have established to reach these targets before the year of 2021. By placing the emphasis on the growth of the cultural scene, the year 2021 and its program is just part of a bigger cultural investment.

One of the programs with which they have started is based on the physical exchange between artists of Novi Sad to other parts of Europe and the other way around, artists in residency. For the Serbian artists this is an important opportunity as they do not have many programs to apply for as exchange from Serbia to other parts of Europe. The first step to create a great program for 2021 is to link their cultural sector to the European cultural networks and work together on projects to gain experience and a European dimension for their content. These changes are especially very welcomed by the younger generation who understand the scale opportunity and the effect it will have on their future careers.

The second part of the program that they already started is the modernization and creation of the cultural centers in Novi Sad. The ones that already exists receive courses for modernization in production process but also in cultural management. One of the main goals in this is to teach them how to apply for EU grants successfully. If they teach enough cultural managers how that process works, they can earn the investment back that they made in setting up these courses. Another part of this is the mobility grant, with which they send their cultural managers to international festivals to gather knowledge and more experience.

But the city is also investing in more cultural centers to give the sector an influx. In 2021 there will be 4 centers, all with their own expertise. These centers are supposed to be more than centers for events. By talking with the citizens and their neighbors the centers are tasked to make art based on the needs of the people. With this method they hope to make the project part of the society and from the people of Novi Sad. While implementing this they do encounter some problems with the public services and public institutions as they are more traditional then the newly established organizations. They have to explain the relevance of the modernization and new forms of cultural and public management to the older more traditional generations. It is the classical division between the older generation and the upcoming young generation that can cause some friction in the process of modernization. A problem that is recurring for most of the European cultural capitals and mostly in the end worth the fight.

Student short movie festival at the Danube in Novi Sad

Another important part of their story is how they envision their own role. He described it to me as mediators between the public, the citizens and the European dimension. By stimulating the contact between the citizens, artists and cultural managers of Novi Sad and the rest of Europe, they hope to foster the process as candidate for the EU. They believe that culture can establish new relationships between them and their neighbors. Being the cultural capital is an instrument for reconciliation with Europe, but mostly their direct neighbors. As organization they are the mediators as it is up to the artists and managers to maintain the relationships after their exchanges and international experiences. Up till now they were given a free pass from their government to do this. He believes that as long as they can show that what they are doing is working both in society as financially, the government will not interfere. Mostly the governments of the countries and cities become nervous when the year is approaching. But as their program is far more reaching than just that year, the outcomes of their hard work will be visible anyway. Actually some of the changes that they have been putting in place are already paying off both in tourism as in the quality of the cultural sector of the city. The investments made so far are already returned in grants and till now this amount only has been growing.

When I was in the bus to Podgorica I met two Turkish travelers. They asked me which sites I liked the most during my trip, I replied amongst others Belgrade. They looked at me with confusion and said, ‘But that is Serbia...’ In the way they said it and the surprise in their faces I could feel the negative ideas that they have about Serbia. I think this was one of my first encounters with a real rejection of Serbia. As in Bosnia I heard many people talking about the siege in Sarajevo, the war in Mostar, the genocide in Srebrenica, but they always ended their stories that they wish all the countries could be together again like Yugoslavia was. I did not hear the real hate against the country of Serbia or Serbs as ethnicity, more specifically to certain police or certain families living in specific regions. Mostly it was a well nuanced story about their perspective on Serbians.

In Bosnia I came to realize that for me it has been really good to first pass through Serbia and than to Bosnia. As in Serbia I could enjoy the youth culture, the cities, the architecture, their story, without already feeling the pain of Bosnia. As much as they are trying to be open and live together, there's still much pain and unsolved problems. I think it is difficult to first go to Bosnia and then still see the beauty of Serbia, as you’re influenced by the Bosnian side of the history. But when arriving in Novi Sad and Belgrade, that history is on the background. It was about moving on and how you get further from that point. Obviously this attitude also attracts an amount of critics from the nations with whom they were in war with, as it may come across as ignorance. I do not feel it is my place to have an opinion about either, as in the end there will always be a story to show you the other perspective. The best I can do is tell the stories that I did hear and to show the optimism that the young people that I met showed me.

Sunrise at Belgrade from a sqautted boat.


Some of my thoughts on Nationalism and ethnicity in Europe.

To me this was one of the most interesting interviews I did. They are so keen to improve the reputation and have a clear understanding of how to do this. Culture is much more than a hobby, it binds and it divides, it urges for debate and it creates part of the public sphere. These people understand that culture can be used to bridge gaps that politicians can't. When Novi Sad will accomplish to show how beautiful the city, polite the people and cultural active the public space is, they will be able change the international opinions. This could offer an opportunity to the young Serbians to overcome the history and be accepted in Europe and the EU. It could change the international perspective on Serbia and create some nuance in the debate on the reconciliation. Some hard questions have to be answered in the end. How long will a nation be held responsible? How can the nation make up for the terrors done by the previous generation? How do you make sure that the next generation does not inherit the hate from their families? These are questions that are almost impossible to solve on the political level, but can be discussed through culture and public debates.

Junker gave the speech ‘state of the Union’ this week and said that we have to appreciate that we are living in a region that has had peace for decades. But this war has not been that long ago and most of Europe was involved through the UN. It is shortsighted of Junker to state this, as the war was more than a dispute among the Southern Balkans. It is a perfect example of the problems that can be caused by the mobilization of nationalism and the power of capitalism and identity politics. This is common to most of the European states and looking at the populistic politics that has been rising, a very relevant problem still. We should fight against the categorization of nationality and ethnicity, while I feel like especially in Western-Europe is has become a very popular form of politics again. Not recognizing this war and keeping it on the background, makes it hard to learn from the mistakes made. Maybe it is to soon, but Western European populistic politicians should open their eyes and realize the danger of their mobilization by feeding nationalism. A nationalistic war is never that far away in Europe as long as we keep talking about races, ethnic groups and homogeneous nations.

My next article will tell the story of an arthouse in Sarajevo and some young, enthusiastic, brave people who, with their stories and positive energy, gave me a really amazing afternoon. This third article will also be the last one on the Southern Balkans and one the last articles during my trip!

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