Eventually, they came for the artists too

Eventually, they came for the artists too

We condemn Serbia’s ban of the Mirëdita Dobar Dan! Festival and stand in solidarity with festival organisers and supporters who have been targeted by a horrific hate campaign. Below we reflect on how the festival cancellation is a part of a systemic and systematic persecution by the government of Serbia in the region, as well as its obstruction of democracy in Serbia itself.

Last week, the Serbian interior ministry banned the ‘Mirëdita, Dobar Dan!’ festival in Belgrade, an event that aims to bring together artists and human rights activists from Kosovo and Serbia to foster peace and cooperation. Though this decision came after relentless criticism by government officials and a protest by nationalist factions in Serbia, the decision of the government is by no means merely due to ‘public pressure’; rather, this is perfectly in line with the anti-Albanian bigotry of the Serbian government and Serbia’s continuous obstructionist stance towards Kosovo. This, at the same time, needs to be viewed in tandem with Serbia’s obstructionism elsewhere in the region, which remains enabled through the EU’s and US’ appeasement politics towards Serbia. 

The annual ‘Mirëdita, Dobar Dan!’ festival has brought together artists and human rights activists from Kosovo and Serbia since 2014. In its tenth anniversary in 2024, ‘Mirëdita, Dobar Dan!’ had remained the only cultural and institutional exchange between Kosovo and Serbia as the relations between the two have continuously been worsening over the past ten years. The festival was primarily financed by the EU, in the realm of the EU’s touted “normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina”. As the EU in Brussels continues to praise the dialogue process that has been constantly associated with partial implementation, vague results and lack of vision, among others, it is the very same “normalisation” that is being actively decimated in Serbia proper. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the EU office in Serbia tweeted out condemning the banning, but then continued with business as usual. 

At the forefront of the anti-festival campaign has been the majority of the governmental entourage in Serbia such as Minister of Culture Nikola Selakovic, Minister of Family Welfare and Demography Milica Djurdjevic-Stamenkovski. and Deputy Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vulin, amongst others. It was the recently appointed mayor of Belgrade, Aleksandar Sapic, who stated that he would never allow the city to provide any kind of support to the festival and spread misinformation about the festival’s aims. One day after the ban, Serbian Prime Minister Milos Vucevic said that the festival was pointless and that the organisers only deserved to be detested. 

The hate campaign launched against the festival organisers in Belgrade reached dangerously low and gruesome levels as sending the decimated head of a pig in a box filled with hateful messages to Sofija Todorovic, director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) in Serbia. It is important to clarify that actions such as this one are not coming from ‘isolated football hooligans’ or ‘far-right nationalists’; the very composition and ideology of the current government in Serbia is the quintessential embodiment of these two groups. An elaborate report of the New York Times in 2023 brings to the fore some jaw-dropping revelations – many known to people in the Balkans – about the connections of the football hooligans and Serbia’s current leadership. 

Short of cancelling other cultural events, Serbia has also not allowed individual artists critical of its government to enter the country over the years. In 2018, Shkëlzen Maliqi, an art historian and philosopher from Pristina, was denied entry into Serbia while en route to Belgrade for the promotion of a joint publication “Case Study Përtej,” which documented 20 years of collaboration between Serbian and Kosovar artists. More recently, Feđa Štukan, a Bosnian actor and writer, was detained at Belgrade’s airport and denied entry into Serbia, having been called a criminal by Vucic in the past. Štukan has been supportive of and active in demonstrations in Belgrade over the last year and has been outspoken about his views about Serbia’s destructive role in the region. While his reason for coming to Serbia in June 2024 was to attend the KROKODIL literary festival held in Belgrade, authorities cited a “negative security risk assessment” as the reason for their refusal to let him enter the country, resulting in his online participation while in detention at the airport. Faruk Šehić, another Bosnian author, recently published a reflection of his own visit to the same festival, during which he was confronted with pervasive symbols of Serbian nationalism, including numerous Serbian and Republika Srpska flags, banners proclaiming, “Serbs are not a genocidal people,” and messages emphasising unity between Serbia and Republika Srpska, one of the two Bosnian and Herzegovinian entities from first landing in Belgrade throughout his visit. His description of the banners and slogans all over Belgrade as “dystopian kitsch” and “orgiastic spasm or anxiety” are juxtaposed with the importance of cultural and intellectual exchanges like the one he ultimately took part in, in fostering dialogue.

As spaces for this dialogue among artists are actively reduced, cancelled, or shut down in Serbia, the potential for struggles over how to even engage, not to mention critique, are erased.  

Trends inside Serbia: Paving the way for extremism and violence

Serbia’s obstructionist politics in the region and its policing of cultural events within its borders focused on regional cooperation and exchange, exist in tandem with a normalisation of violence and extremism within its own borders. 

The coming to power of Aleksandar Vucic, once the Minister of Propaganda of the Serbian government under Slobodan Milosevic, coincided with the West’s prioritisation of stability in its borderlands over genuine peace, democracy, and prosperity becoming blatantly obvious. Ever since, Vucic has become “Europe’s favourite autocrat”, even when he repeatedly said he had no intentions of entering into legal agreements with Kosovo in the EU facilitated dialogue between the two, when his regime would continuously curtail the media and the political and individual freedoms of Serbian citizens, or when this government still refuses to impose sanctions against Russia, all the while being hailed as an “EU frontrunner” by the EU. In fact, even the serious charges of major irregularities, voter intimidation, and election rigging during the December 2023 elections, which ultimately led to Vucic tightening his grip to power, did not lead to the EU changing course in its approach towards their ‘favourite autocrat’. 

The tightening of this autocracy is evident across the board within Serbia. Approaching the festival date, Serbian newspaper, national TV stations, largely controlled by the government, instigated a witch hunt campaign against local organisers digging into their old social media profiles, noting their public engagement as further ‘proof’ to their innate anti-Serbianness as well as their stances on Kosovo. In fact, the Serbian government has also been very clear on where Serbian academics should stand on their stance on Kosovo by providing university staff with guidelines on how to refer to Kosovo in international conferences and in their publications. 

The hate campaign against the festival organisers has unfolded within the context of a broader normalisation of violence that has been taking place in Serbia for the last three decades, evident across multiple levels – from the denial of the genocide in Bosnia, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo to domestic violence in Serbia proper. For example, 62% of women in Serbia report experiencing some form of violence after the age of fifteen, and 22% report physical violence by an intimate partner. Sometimes domestic violence incidents involving a firearm have also resulted in mass shootings beyond the domestic context. In June 2023, a thirteen year old school pupil opened fire at pupils and staff at an elementary school in Belgrade, killing ten people and injuring six. This was followed days later by another public shooting spree in the Mladenovac and Smederevo areas, resulting in nine deaths and twelve injured. Despite motives not being clear, what we do know is that Serbia has a high rate of illegal gun possession – 39 per 100 people – despite strict laws, and many of these are thought to be left over from the 1990s wars. In the school shooter’s case, court documents suggest that the shooter was taught to use weapons by his father who kept a weapon at home. 

The mass protests against violence that ensued across Serbia in the days following the shootings, spoke to broader issues of a normalisation of violence in the country at all levels, from the political to popular culture, as well as a refusal to reckon with the country’s past and role in the wars of the 1990s. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the school shooting, a TV programme invited Voljislav Seselj, convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and an otherwise frequent guest at TV shows, to comment on the tragedy. This is merely one instance of convicted war criminals being offered platforms, if not even glorified in the public space in the country. The role of the media is critical here, with freedom of expression and the level of public discourse being closely related. In Serbia, they are under the continuous and systematic control of the government, whether it is related to undercutting the amount of educational children’s TV programmes for entertainment and highly politicised content, or uncritically serving as the government’s megaphone. In this context, the protesters rightly recognised the institutional and systemic normalisation of violence in Serbia, and requested the resignation of key government ministers, and the suspension of media licences for TV channels broadcasting programmes that normalise violence. 

Trends outside its borders: Serbia’s obstructionism towards Kosovo 

Nowhere are the authoritarianism and extremist tendencies of the current Serbian government as apparent as in its stance towards Kosovo. While the dehumanisation and the racialization of the Albanian subjects has historically been part of Serbian metaphysics, to a large extent, that dehumanisation was also the case for the Yugoslav experience – spare for a brief period of the 1970s. Casted as second-hand citizens and seen and reified as less than human within Serbia and Yugoslavia – as shown in the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (1985-1986) – the Kosovo Albanian to this day remains what Vladimir Arsenijevic has called “Serbia’s negro and Serbia’s enemy.” 

Historically, Serbian – and Yugoslav – state apparatuses have engaged in systematic and systemic repression against the Albanian majority in Kosovo with Serbia routinely engaging in ethnic cleansing campaigns in its settler colonialist project in Kosovo in its quest to empty, if not ‘purify’, the ‘holy Serbian land’ from the Albanians and ultimately change its socio-demographic composition. Differently from settler colonialisms elsewhere, populating Kosovo and Macedonia through the agrarian reforms of 1919, 1922, 1933 and 1959 had a prominently national tone: levelling the demographic structure which was described as “horrible” amongst the Serbian elite of that time which ultimately led to hundreds of Albanian families dispossessed of their land  These enterprises have traditionally involved not only the state authorities but also religious, cultural, academic and artistic institutions.

Since the NATO intervention in 1999 and even more, since the declaration of Kosovo’s independence in 2008, successive governments in Belgrade have actively worked to obstruct the agency and the subjectivity of Kosovo both within and at the international stage. In September 2023, the relations between Kosovo and Serbia reached another low when a group of 30 masked and armed Serbian men entered the monastery complex near Leposavic (Northern Kosovo) in the attempt to orchestrate a large-scale attack against Kosovo Police. A Kosovar policeman, Afrim Bunjaku was killed in action. The Serbian paramilitary group was headed by Milan Radoicic – who, until September 2023 was the vice president of Srpska Lista, the main Serbian political party in Kosovo, a party largely seen connected and directed by the government in Belgrade. Radoicic who was taken into custody in Belgrade was released after 48 hours after admitting being behind the attack.

The ripple effect of Serbia’s obstructionism 

On July 2, 2024, the Serbian government and the government of the Republika Srpska embarked on implementing an all-Serb Assembly Declaration, with one of the points proposing a “peaceful dissolution for Bosnia and Herzegovina”. For many, this sets the foundations for the so-called “Srpski svet” (the Serbian World), a reinvention of the “Greater Serbia” project, mimicking the “Russian World” foreign policy doctrine that has routinely justified Russian interventionism abroad in support of Russian-speakers.

Serbia has been the site of persistent ultranationalist and aggressive fervour that is both excessive and threatening, in line with its obstructionist politics in the region and beyond. For example, in August 2023, Serbian Defence Minister Milos Vucevic openly threatened Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania for their recognition of Kosovo, stating “[y]ou made a mistake and it will hit you on the head, just like in Ukraine, it hits everyone who promoted Kosovo and Metohija as an independent state […] You have opened Pandora’s box.” In thinking about this ultranationalist and aggressive fervour, we would be remiss not to mention Vucic’s own ‘performance’ of draping the Serbian flag around himself while at the UN General Assembly in May 2024 as the Resolution on the Srebrenica Genocide was passed, demonstrating his rejection to recognise, face, and deal with Serbia’s role in the Yugoslav wars and the efforts to address the atrocities from that time. In another performance at the UN Security Council, Vucic aimed to obstruct Kosovo’s delegation bringing testimonies of rape victims from the 1998/99 and called Slovenians ‘disgusting’ for supporting the discussion in the UNSC as a non-permanent member, something for which he ultimately apologized to ‘Slovenian people’, but not the UN diplomatic mission of Slovenia. Playing a ‘victim card’ for years, Vucic previously accused Croatia that it is only increasing its troops in KFOR to ‘additionally humiliate Serbia’ and continues to contest any court judgements on war crimes against Serbian individuals claiming they are done under ‘suspicious conditions’;  Acts such as these are emblematic of a broader resistance to international norms and a reinforcement of nationalist narratives that deny culpability and glorify individuals implicated in war crimes, while reinforcing victim narratives of Serbs and their need to defend themselves from (imagined) attacks. 

Finally, the “Mirëdita, Dobar Dan!” festival was largely inspired by the legacy of the late actor Bekim Fehmiu, a Kosovo Albanian actor in the Yugoslav cinematography, who in 1987 walked off the stage at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre in Belgrade – and soon after film too – in protest at the Yugoslav’s government’s treatment of Kosovar Albanians. He continued to live in Belgrade with his wife, Branka Petric. For the organisers of the festival, Fehmiu was “a symbol of joint past, together with all its challenges, achievements, and misunderstandings”. An attack on the festival for us, is among other things – an attack on the very imagination of a joint future. Against this backdrop, the banning of a festival that is aimed at the betterment of Serbo-Albanian relations is not surprising; it is a natural prolog to an already well developed authoritarian, hostile and expansionist policy that eventually comes for the artists too.

Categories: Analysis, Solidarity