Serbian Urban Culture Undergoes Revival

The end of the Milosevic era heralds a revival of Serbia's urban youth scene

Serbian Urban Culture Undergoes Revival

The end of the Milosevic era heralds a revival of Serbia's urban youth scene

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Plastered alongside layers of weather-beaten election posters, colourful night club fliers promote KUD Idioti, Haustor and Laibach, the biggest names from the New Wave movement of 1980s Yugoslavia.


Until recently, not only the guitars but the spirit of the entire urban cultural scene in Serbia had been subdued - and almost silenced outside the major cities. Today the country's urbanity is reasserting itself with a spontaneous flair in clubs, art, youth culture, the media, and not least, politics.


In Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, the obnoxious repetitive beat of 'turbofolk' - a synthetic mesh of techno and folk music - drowned out the clever lyrics and catchy guitar riffs of rock groups which ten years ago boasted followings across all of former Yugoslavia.


In Belgrade, alternative rock bands were dropped from state-run airwaves and the once vibrant club scene began to fade. Groups like the punkish KUD Idioti from Croatia or Slovenia's eclectic agit-provocateurs Laibach ditched Serbia from their tour schedules, and not only because visas and venues had become hard to come by. The same went for artists, theatre groups and film companies.


Turbofolk was more than an assault on the eardrums. It was a component of Serbia's political ideology, the score to which Milosevic set his 14 years in power. On cheap videos, the industry's garish silicone queens glorified the violent, greed-driven life of Serbia's gangster elite.


For young people, especially from the countryside, turbofolk's icons became the role models for making it in Serbia. The renowned turbofolk star, Ceca, married the notorious war criminal and gangster Arkan, who was gunned down last year in a Belgrade hotel.


"In terms of culture, nothing new was born in the last seven years," explains Natasha Milojevic, a professional journalist and activist in the progressive Social Democratic Party. "But now minds and ideas are free again to express themselves publicly. Among musicians, artists, painters, our rock and roll culture has been reborn."


Today, along Belgrade's Knez Mihailova Street, Iggy Pop and REM now compete with one another from the loudspeakers of rival stands. New art galleries, a Danish film festival and impromptu exhibitions have brightened up a dreary December in Belgrade.


A major catalyst in the urban renaissance, and a critical factor in the overthrow of Milosevic, was a student movement most of whose members were still in nappies when Laibach recorded its first albums. Otpor (Resistance) combined pop culture and politics, guerrilla tactics and youthful verve to mobilise thousands of people, young and old, across Serbia.


Otpor's brash anti-regime slogans and non-violent theories of resistance took opposition from the cities to the countryside, the bedrock of Milosevic support. Under its provocative icon, a simply stencilled black fist, the group pushed the message that every individual act of resistance was part of a nation-wide movement.


"The fist symbol itself is pop," said Marija Baralic, 25, a stick-thin Otpor activist sporting a Palestinian scarf. Rock bands, she went on, performed at the first Otpor rallies, "We promoted them because they had subversive things in their music and they brought in people who were turned off by politics."


There is also a good dose of the anarchic, rebellious energy of punk rock in Otpor. But without a Malcolm McLaren, Otpor is leaderless and anti-hierarchical - a key to having successfully avoided the dragnet of Milosevic's secret police.


Otpor is by far the most exciting civic movement in the Balkans and a possible model for democratic change elsewhere in the region. For the time being, at least, their civic-minded thinking - and the sudden death of the Milosevic propaganda machine - have virtually snuffed out the nationalist jingoism that poisoned the atmosphere here for so long.


Remarkably, on the streets of Belgrade today, the NATO bombing, Bosnia and the loss of Kosovo are non-issues. Otpor is looking forward, not backward.


With Milosevic gone, Otpor is in the midst of rethinking strategy and priorities. Observers admit that the movement may have lost some of its momentum. "There's a high level of awareness now," said Marija Baralic. "People saw that power and politics are not exclusive. But we have to fight against inertia and apathy setting in." The latest Otpor campaign is a boxed condom with an illustration of a brain on it. The slogan on the box: Use it!


During the election campaign period, Otpor has been mobilising people to vote for the democratic opposition, DOS. Its black-and-white posters, billboards and graffiti blanket Belgrade.


The 18-member DOS coalition looks set to win over two-thirds of the vote. "Our support for DOS isn't unconditional," said Milja Jovanovic, wearing an impossibly baggy pair of green army fatigues. "We don't want another one-party rule. In the future we'll be the opposition again."


Otpor is also pushing to cut mandatory military service to six months and offer an amnesty to those who dodged military duty during the 1990s wars.


The Laibach concert is just one of dozens that Otpor is sponsoring across Serbia. "We know that Laibach poses really critical questions about Serbia," said Milja, referring in part to the band's use of swastikas and fascist imagery to mock authoritarian ideologies. "But we're not afraid of those questions. If Serbia is becoming healthy again, it can't afford to be afraid."


Paul Hockenos is a regular IWPR contributor.


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