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Rock Festival Arrests Play Badly in Vojvodina

Detention of organisers of Serbia's most popular rock festival outrages liberals and reformists.
By Aleksandar Reljic

"Everything is political in Serbia and so is the Exit music festival," said the event’s general manager, Bojan Boskovic, on leaving jail in Novi Sad, where he recently spent eight days under suspicion of embezzlement.

"Some people in this country are annoyed by European and civilisational values and they attack Exit," he added. "It is a symbol for young people who do not want to bury their heads in the sand and this bothers the xenophobes."

Boskovic and another Exit organiser, Dusan Kovacevic, were detained on June 6 on suspicion of embezzling millions of dinars from last year's ticket sales.

The public prosecutor in Novi Sad claimed the two men failed to account for the sale of all 12 million dinars of tickets sold to the 2003 event and had pocketed 5.5 million dinars for their own use.

Their temporary release - the two remain under police investigation - means the festival can go ahead on July 1.

But with the prospect of charges hanging over the organisers, tempers have not cooled, with festival supporters claiming a political campaign is being waged against a pro-western music festival that irks Serbia's nationalist lobby.

The festival always had political undertones. The first was held in the summer of 2000, the last year of the rule of Slobodan Milosevic and was associated from the start with opposition to the regime's nationalist agenda.

The decision to hold the event was a gesture of cultural revolt by a generation tired of being force-fed nationalist folk music, known as turbo-folk.

"For a whole decade, Milosevic imposed the culture of 'turbo folk' on young people," Boskovic told IWPR after his release. "You were supposed to wear a gold chain round your neck and have a blond girl with huge breasts by your side."

After Milosevic's fall, the new democratic government of Zoran Djindjic signalled its approval of Exit by supporting the decision to hold a second festival in 2001, which 200,000 attended. In 2003, the event was officially opened by the Serbia and Montenegro foreign minister Goran Svilanovic.

Significantly, in 2002 tickets were also sold in several former Yugoslav republics. About 7,000 of that year's 300,000 visitors were from neighbouring republics alongside about 1,000 from the European Union.

Not everyone looked on the growth of Exit festival with enthusiasm. Nationalists, well represented in Serbia's northern Vojvodina province, saw it as a cultural Trojan horse.

They did not appreciate last year's title, "The State of Exit", the decision to issue visitors with "passports" and olive branches "issued by the state of love and tolerance" or the festival's multi-ethnic character.

A hostile campaign began in 2002, shortly after the ruling Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, parted company with its coalition partners the Social Democratic League and the Democratic Party, DS, in Vojvodina to join the opposition in the provincial assembly. That summer, the DSS denounced the festival as "a parade of drug dealers and junkies".

The Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, a key pillar of Serbian nationalism, took up the campaign.

When several youths vandalised a cemetery in Novi Sad last October, the Church blamed Exit's influence for the outrage, claiming the festival was a "hotbed of drug addiction and all sorts of vices" that naturally fuelled such violence.

The media seized on SPC complaints of vice, reporting on seizures of drugs and some visitors' allegedly immoral behaviour.

Slobodan Jovanovic, in the Novi Sad daily Dnevnik, complained of the sight of "drunken, drugged and worn-out girls and boys" as well as "withered women with bare buttocks and shaved genitalia".

The nationalist hostility to Exit explains why the arrests of Boskcovic and Kovacevic triggered accusations that political motives lie behind the case.

According to the two men's lawyer, a graded system of ticket sales, under which different prices were offered for one-day to four-day tickets, is the only possible explanation for claims of financial wrongdoing.

"All the cash from the ticket sales [in 2003] was paid into the Exit account and nothing was taken away," lawyer Vladimir Beljanksi told IWPR, adding there was "absolutely no proof" any criminal act had taken place.

Festival supporters preferred to train their ire on Novi Sad judge Zlata Rodic Knezevic, who ordered the two men to be placed in custody for a month in Novi Sad District Court so that they would not "influence witnesses".

Judge Knezevic is unpopular among liberals and reformists in Vojvodina, who claim she was a Milosevic loyalist.

The detentions provoked a furious reaction. Young people in Novi Sad and other cities held protest concerts "For the freedom of Dusan and Bojan", and wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "I won't give Exit away."

Posters and graffiti went up expressing support for the festival while thousands of young people signed a petition for their release.

Liberal politicians voiced concern. Some suspected the arrests formed part of an opening salvo by the DSS to win autumn's local and regional elections in Vojvodina.

"Exit is of immense cultural and national importance and I am not happy - as some seem to be - that the festival organisers have been arrested," said Milos Tomic, chairman of Serbian Oil Industry, NIS, and an official in the reformist G17 Plus party.

Nationalist politicians saw the arrests very differently. The local branch of the DSS welcomed the detentions as the start of a fight-back against vice and petty crime. "Finally a crackdown has begun on people pursuing their own personal financial interests under the guise of Exit," said the head of the branch, Dejan Mikavica.

Making it clear he saw the festival as an annual fundraising event for liberals and leftists, he added, "The Social Democrat League of Vojvodina and Democratic Party leaders came up with the idea to turn this festival into a reliable source of funds, to suit their own financial interests."

After public protests, appeals to release the Exit organisers and complaints that the arrests formed part of a nationalist pre-election campaign, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica acted to distance his DSS party from accusations of pursuing a vendetta against the festival.

He "had nothing against Exit", he declared, adding that he personally liked Iggy Pop, one of this year's expected guest star performers.

While the concert is now free to go ahead in the Petrovaradin fortress in Novi Sad from July 1-4, supporters of Serbia's premier rock event do not believe this was the last round in Serbia's increasingly vicious culture wars.

According to Boskovic, "Someone wanted to score political points on the eve of the presidential election but failed."

Ivan Lalic, of the Anti-Corruption Council, told IWPR he was "stunned" that Kovacevic and Boskovic were put in custody while "those closest to Milosevic have not been even charged with financial-related crimes".

"It reminds me of the year 2000," said Branislav “Kebra” Babic, of the popular rock group Obojeni Program. "These arrests were politically motivated, as someone had to issue orders. The police were not doing their job on their own but on orders issued by politicians."

On the other side of the political fence, the local committees of the DSS and several smaller nationalist parties are likely to continue to lobby for the festival to be closed or reduced in scale.

In a joint statement issued after a fire broke out in the famous Serbian monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos in March, several of these parties called on the Vojvodina government to divert funds from both the Exit festival and the Vojvodina Academy of Arts and Science, equally suspected as a hotbed of liberalism, "to devastated Serbian holy places and in this way show that they stand behind our culture."

Aleksandar Reljic is journalist with the BETA news agency in Novi Sad.

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