KP: I would like us to focus in this conversation first on the countries of the former Yugoslavia and then to establish a relation to other Balkan countries. When you look at cultural policy practices in South Eastern Europe in the past 20 years, what are its prominent characteristics?
DK: In matters of cultural policy, there is a great degree of continuity between the pre-war Socialist Yugoslavia and the present-day countries of South Eastern Europe. What has changed? There have been some general changes as well as some specific ones. I am talking about them with a certain degree of reluctance, as I haven’t been living there for 19 years. I am an external observer and a frequent visitor but not a continuously immersed person.
The problems stem mainly from the continuity, whereas the improvements come from the discontinuity that is created by positive innovations. One has to apply a certain caution in matters of generalisation because certain specifics of some states and their cultural policies also have to be taken into account. In general, in the Balkans as well as in all Eastern and Central European post-Communist countries, there has not been a major, radical, thorough, systematic overhaul of cultural systems and policies — which means that all changes have by and large been cosmetic in nature.
In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, one sees that the infrastructural provisions inherited from the former Yugoslavia have been practically preserved — and that is not only positive, but negative as well. Also, the funding of public cultural institutions has not been changed. It is extended automatically without any proper analysis, monitoring or evaluation, and without any appreciation of the input-output proportions. Public cultural institutions automatically receive their money every year regardless of the quantity and quality of their output. Furthermore, the typology of cultural institutions has not been re-examined and altered, and improvements in the governance of these cultural institutions are not evident. However, there are probably many improvements in individual managerial strategies and practices.
Also, decentralisation of these national systems has been delayed, reluctant and paternalistic. In terms of available funds, national systems remain zones of considerable misery: when you look at per capita expenditure for culture — and this is the only relevant indicator — you realise that these are very poor cultural systems in comparison with European averages of 120-160 euros per inhabitant, not to mention Austria or Finland, which spend approximately 220-240 euros.
KP: How would you compare the situation in South Eastern Europe to other countries in the Balkans?
DK: It is not essentially very different. In other words, if the former Yugoslavia had some significant cultural-political, creative and cultural advantages over the so-called socialist countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and, of course, Albania, these advantages are not so evident today. In fact, they don’t exist. The problems are similar: limitations, poverty, lack of cultural policy innovation and a low quality of cultural governance are common to all.
The big change is the emergence of the NGO scene everywhere. This is, again, a positive trend occurring in all post-Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe — a rich re-constitution of a civil society with a great many cultural NGOs that have become the most active, propulsive, innovative and critical players in national, regional and municipal cultural constellations, and also the most connected with the rest of Europe. While the established cultural institutions find it very difficult to maneuver in the European cultural space, these NGOs have emerged thanks to their capacity to engage with their counterparts across Europe, to enter international networks, acquire new practices, get aid, and obtain grants. So, this is the common positive aspect.
Of course, the NGO scene has its own problems: not all of these organisations are of the same integrity — one might distinguish in matters of quality, but quality is not a factor of importance. There is some kind of built-in opportunism in the world of NGOs that comes from their own fragility and limitations of functioning in their own context. And there is a great deal of dependence on a very small number of steady and re-occurring funders. That is why cultural NGOs are often acting as clients rather than as autonomous protagonists or cultural players. Within many of these NGOs, their own governance issues have not been articulated. Also, many of them have been created by strong individuals who continue to run them, making them more of a private turf than a civic factor.
Hence, 20 years after the end of the Cold War and the end of Communism, and 19 years after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, I am posing myself a question: What about the next generation of cultural operators? Where do they fit in? Do they have to go to the public institutions? Do they have a point of entry to the established network of NGOs or do they have to set up their own NGOs and start the whole evolution from scratch in a much more competitive civil society environment where an increasing number of players will be chasing a continuously dwindling amount of available money from both public and private sources?
The third issue would still be cultural decentralisation: how does cultural policy manage cultural democracy in terms of the equality of people in smaller and larger cities? (Slovenians, I think, work on that with more care and attention than perhaps some others). The constellation of these cities is different — in Serbia, for instance, due to the autonomy of Vojvodina, Novi Sad is a cultural constellation of its own. I haven’t been to Mostar, so I cannot say anything about that. Macedonia is very problematic in that sense, because everything is concentrated in Skopje.
KP: I would like to go back to the issue of stabilisation of NGOs, which is one of the vital questions of future cultural policy. What we have in the Balkans is, on the one hand, the petrified policy of cultural institutions, which has not changed much, as you pointed out, in the course of the last couple of decades. On the other hand, there is the constantly precarious and volatile situation of NGOs in terms of financing, which is so uncertain that it endangers their existence. Cultural institutions and government bodies of most of the Balkan countries are not very open to the dialogue with NGOs. They know they have to cooperate with them on some level, mostly because of the NGOs’ connections to the world. So it is a kind of compulsory relationship. In some countries though, it functions better — like in Croatia, for instance, where this compulsory relationship is much more developed and brought to an almost voluntary level, thanks to the coherence of the NGO scene, its aptitude and competence.
DK: In some countries of the region, there are no national public funds set aside specifically for the funding of NGOs. In Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo, there are no such funds. They exist in Romania, Hungary and Croatia, but not in Bulgaria. There is, in the first place, no clear funding scheme for project funding, and then also, there is no possibility for prominent and proven NGOs to come up with a three-year contract, as is the case in Slovenia, Hungary and Latvia . If that is something that has not been achieved up to now, it is not likely to be achieved over the next three years since all of the national governments are dealing with the hardships of the prolonged economic recession. They will not have extra channels for money. What we actually see, for instance, is the Serbian Ministry of Culture, which had a budget of 45 million euros at the beginning of democracy in 2000, after the toppling of Milošević regime; this budget rose to over 70 million euros and is now back to about 50 million. There is some money in Vojvodina and in the city of Novi Sad and there is some extra money in the city of Belgrade, but the rest of municipalities are very poor and cannot spend much on the financing of culture. You cannot make new policies without extra money — this is the rule. In answer to your question: the NGO world will remain precarious and fragile, confronting the inability of public authorities to adequately support it. At the same time, it is already experiencing the shrinking of available foreign donors active in the area. Pro Helvetia is wrapping up its operation; OSI has sharply reduced its commitment to culture and no longer has cultural coordinators in national foundations. Pre-accession money for culture is not going to all candidate member states — Macedonia, for instance.
KP: A rather bleak picture…
DK: Precisely so. That is why BIFC is very important. Moreover, it is an extremely precious source of funding because there are no other sources!
KP: Does that mean that there is a huge burden on the BIFC in terms of expectations and demand in the region?
DK: It might be so, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a small fund. Also, it is a fund with two programmatic goals. The first one is the cooperation among West Balkan players; the second is the cooperation that advances European integration. Again, BIFC will be able to fund a very small selection of NGO cultural activities — not everything. Which means a lot of ideas, projects and programmes which the NGOs will have on the table will not qualify for funding because the funding will be very competitive in terms of money available versus the number of applications.
KP: Considering this bleak perspective, does it make any sense to speak about the quality of projects?
DK: Quality is a notion I try to stay away from. It is a slippery slope, a container notion: everyone puts in whatever he or she wants. I could talk about professionalism, a sense of urgency — how people react contextually to things that are happening. I could talk about collaborative attitudes and mentality and intercultural competence, that is, an awareness of cultural differences and a willingness to transcend them with respect, through engagement and cooperation but without an effort to erase them. These would be for me some key criteria rather than this very oblique notion of quality.
KP: Like most other European cultural foundations, BIFC is putting forward the notion of European integration as the main criterion for a project’s value.
DK: When we talk about European integration, it also means certain standards of operation, transparency, governance and managerial integrity. NGOs cooperating with dubious partners or who are letting themselves be used for money laundering are disqualifying themselves. This is the essence of it. There is a tremendous amount of money laundering in the Balkans. There are two ways of doing it: one is private money laundering through sponsorship. The other one, which is even more perverse, is when political parties, through their appointed officials, give NGOs a grant but secretly make a condition that a part of the grant has to be re-channeled to their clients for some fictitious or non-fictitious work. For instance, you as an NGO ask me as a municipal official for a grant; I give you a 1,000 euro grant, but I say, “Well, 570 euros have to be spent by employing Jack or John and his NGO for whatever excuse and this money will go to them.” This means that a party is feeding its own clients through a grant given to NGOs.
We know that this pathology exists everywhere and I am extremely disturbed by the perversity of this multi-party feudalism. It has emerged prominently in Belgrade, where major political parties have divided among themselves their own patronage over specific cultural institutions, which means that they have the privilege of appointing chairpersons of the boards and members of the board of directors according to party loyalty. Then, those chairpersons of boards or boards of directors contract party clients and members feeding them through the operating budget of the institution. This is a perversity of the multi-party system and it has actually made the Belgrade cultural constellation sick in a way that it had never been in Communist times: back then, people who were competent and respected professionals did not have to be members of the then single party in order to be directors and do the job with integrity. This is something truly outrageous and yet it is not challenged in public, but tacitly resigned to as some sort of inevitable fact of life.
KP: When we talk about intellectuals or professionals and their position and influence in the previous system, what we have witnessed in the past 20 years, especially in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, has been a true exodus of this social and cultural strata — a tremendous brain drain that has produced dramatic consequences in the cultural as well as every other sphere. Do you see any possibility now or in the future of integrating the experience, knowledge and perspective of the émigré intellectual and artistic population into the situation taking place in their homeland?
DK: I’m afraid I don’t. Moreover, the exodus continues. It has been slowed down not by the lessened desire to emigrate, but by fewer opportunities to find jobs in a Europe itself struck by the crisis. That only means that people will emigrate further away: to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, from where they will have even less possibilities to have any positive impact on the Balkans. Again, this is a negative factor.
What interests me in turn is the following questions: Is there finally an awareness of the need to create broad inclusive advocacy platforms of cultural players? It seems that there is: Asociacija in Slovenia and Clubture in Croatia are such platforms. Last week, the first meeting of NGOs in Serbia to articulate something similar took place. It is still non-existent in Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia. As a former President of EFAH — now called Cultural Action Europe — I have for years insisted that cultural players in both public institutions and NGOs, in contemporary creativity and in cultural heritage, have some common strategic purposes and objectives, despite all their competitive inputs; that they should try to advance them through these broad inclusive advocacy platforms, especially because the professional associations inherited from socialism, based on a particular artistic profession or artistic discipline (such as associations of dramatic artists or composers), are not able to take on the advocacy role but are to a great extent privilege maintenance clubs. They have become in many ways obsolete and anachronistic and, furthermore, have taken on different additional roles in order to survive that are incompatible with their potential advocacy role. So, broad inclusive advocacy platforms should be a sort of pressure group or pressure process to fight for some necessary innovations in cultural policy. Politicians won’t do it unless someone pushes them. That does not exclude the continuity of specific institutional lobbies of big museums or repertoire theatre companies, which will always insist on their own privileged position in which they are unchallenged and unquestioned about what they are doing with public money and therefore simply demand that everything remains as it is except that they get more money. That is an occurrence broader than the Balkans: it happens in Hungary, Poland, etc.
The other important question is: To what extent are cultural NGOs finding a way to articulate some common strategic goals with other NGOs that are not in the field of culture but in those of human rights, gender equality, interculturalism, environment, peace, anti-discrimination and so on? This is, in my view, a very serious topic. I don’t see it, but just because I don’t see it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Still, that is something that should certainly be put on the civil society agenda.
This is why it is so important to ask what the opportunities of the next generation of NGO operators are. You can imagine the veterans of NGOs that launched their organisations 20 years ago are quite entitled to feel tired. So, if that generation enters a phase of systematic fatigue, then the big question is whether the next generation is coming in and what kind of tools, strategies, attitudes and transversal channels of communication it is opening up.
KP: This is in direct relation with a chronic lack of creative people of a certain profile that are not involved in creative production: producers, managers, cultural operators who are able to articulate visions and assess the call of the times for a certain kind of cultural and artistic production. This is a big problem, at least in the countries of the former Yugoslavia: generations of young, capable people are coming out of production studies and going more or less straightaway into marketing, television, the film industry. The lack of such a profile is putting a great deal of burden on creative people and artists who run NGOs and who have to be their own managers and producers.
I want to ask you about something, which was practically non-existent in the time of socialism and has now been growing timidly and slowly over the last 20 years, and that is inter-Balkanic cooperation. How do you see it today?
DK: Twenty years ago, “Balkan” had an automatic negative connotation everywhere in the Balkans except in Bulgaria, where, on the contrary, it has never had a negative meaning. “Balkanic” was thus a disparaging term. For my generation, for instance, it was characteristic that we traveled through the wider world, but not through the Balkans. So, I went to Balkan countries outside of former Yugoslavia for the first time only after I left Belgrade in 1991. My first trip from Amsterdam, as a matter of fact, was to Bucharest, where I had never wanted to go before. Still, when I wanted to go from Belgrade to Tirana in 1989, it was impossible. I had to wait until 1996.
Among the cultural players in the Balkans, there is a kind of very positive and encouraging emergence of new structures of curiosity for each other. Especially among the younger generation, there is a surprising discovery of unexpected similarities and communalities that are seen as inspiring and encouraging. There is definitely a readiness to engage. But there is a serious obstacle to that wish: they are all poor. You can be very motivated and curious, but if everyone in the cooperation club is poor, a lot of simultaneous poverties won’t yield much cooperation: who is going to foot the bill? So you can see very enthusiastic initiatives emerging, but they are very slow in developing because everyone is struggling for survival. No one has something extra to put in. Here, of course, the BIFC could play a role.
Also, the fact is that the ministers of culture of the Balkans are talking with one another, like a club. I don’t see much coming out of it, but at least they are talking. There is a visible increase in all sorts of bilateral projects among Balkan countries. Not on all sides, however: on the line Serbia-Kosovo or Serbia-Albania you won’t see much happening. But the increase is there, even if it is on a very rudimentary exchange level.
Multilateralism is still a rarity. Perhaps it is more visible in the film industry, where you need many partners in order to complete the financial construction and qualify for additional Council of Europe and European Union financial subsidies. But overall, in relation to 10 years ago, there is no knee-jerk resistance to inter-Balkanic cooperation. There is a certain good will. But this good will is not being supported by financial means, so the good will remains a kind of abstract emotion rather than an established cultural practice.
Let me stress some things that I find very important: Many of the NGO cultural players have found their way to joining European cultural networks and have profited tremendously from this immersion and exposure. This needs to be a cultural policy objective: to stimulate the participation of local cultural operators in European cultural networks. Cultural networks remain the rudimentary and essential infrastructure of international cultural cooperation. Without these numerous pulsating, vibrant, inclusive, dynamic, learning networks, nothing will be happening in international cultural cooperation.
Yet, Bosnians, Kosovars, Macedonians and Albanians remain seriously under-represented. The visa obstacle that has been very heavy has been eliminated for some and soon it will be eliminated for others. This is already a great improvement in terms of this basic mobility.
And another vital thing, which I have kept repeating over the last 19 years to all my colleagues across Europe: Go there. Show your interest. Go and explore. Recently, I was in Delphi with Pascal Brunet, director of Relais Culture France, a renowned French cultural player, and he said: I have just come from Belgrade. It turns out he is going to Belgrade regularly because he has established, together with Pascale Delpech, the Director of the French Cultural Centre in Belgrade, a very good training programme in cultural management. This was very encouraging news. Still, apart from the willingness of a serious cultural player from Europe, for this to happen, one needs someone like Pascale Delpech who has the knowledge of the context and hence the credibility.
I remain very concerned about Kosovo because of its isolation; Macedonia because of poverty, isolation and internal tensions of competing and escalating nationalisms, both Macedonian and Albanian; and I remain very concerned about the post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina, where this entire Dayton construction is in itself an obstacle to not only political stability and economic growth, but also to any cultural consolidation or productive cultural engagement, both within that country as well as in a broader Balkanic and European context.
Still, we have to be aware that the situation in Romania, which is a European country, is also very serious. And we should not forget the terrible situation in Ukraine and Belarus, which is so easy to forget because it is not made prominently visible or transparent. That is why I am against Balkan-centric infatuations and the culture of complaint. Europe has a lot of these problematic pockets, of different sorts and to different degrees.
Aug 03, 2010 | Katarina Pejović