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European Capital of Culture, Master Plan, ecology, and violence against citizens – towards a Novi Sad Waterfront?

Note from LeftEast editors: This article by Svetlana Subašić was originally published on July 26, 2022 by Mašina. We publish its translation by Anastazija Govedarica Antanasijević as part of a cooperation among Eastern European leftist media platforms in ELMO (Eastern European Left Media Outlet).

For more additional on the Waterfront project in Belgrade, listen to this podcast.

Police cordon at the protest in Novi Sad; Photo by: Dobrica Veselinovic / Ne davimo Beograd (Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own)

It is absurd and cynical that, just one day after violence was unleashed on citizens who protested against the adoption of the new Master Plan of Novi Sad, the organizers of the European Capital of Culture Novi Sad 2022 invited the public to the “Danube Sea” program, which aims to raise citizens’ awareness of environmental problems by “connecting art and ecology”.

The European Capital of Culture (ECC) is an EU project established in 1985 with the aim of promoting the richness and diversity of European cultures by pointing out their common history and values. At the same time, ECC is conceived as an opportunity to improve cultural, social, and economic well-being. Its special dimension is the idea of ​​urban regeneration of host cities, with a focus on the development of cultural infrastructure that would remain a permanent benefit for the artistic community.

As ECC 2022, Novi Sad is a venue for a large number of events designed through the prism of the cultural policy of the EU, which are included in the program “bridges” called Rainbow, Freedom, Love, and Hope. Each bridge contains “program arches”: the Rainbow bridge, which promotes diversity, contains program arches “Welcome” (dedicated to the diversity of the peoples that make up the ethnic structure of Novi Sad) and “Migration” (migrations, dynamics of change); the Freedom bridge, under the slogan “The beginning of the new. Now!”[1] consists of program arches that empower children and young people – “Future of Europe” and women – “Heroine”. The program bridge Love, composed of the program arches “Fortress of Peace” (European peace policy and culture of remembrance) and “Danube Sea” (environmental issues) takes place under the slogan “Let’s discover our treasure”. 

And finally, there’s Hope bridge, a program unit consisting of the “Kaleidoscope of Culture”, promoting the culture of unity of the local and international art scene, and the “Other? Europe”, oriented towards alternative cultural actions.

Various events such as art exhibitions, performances, gastronomic events, puppet theatres, scientific societies’ projects, traditional, jazz, and electronic music concerts, acrobatics and dance, fashion and literary events, as well as hiking, folk dances, and handicrafts are organized through these platforms. It is a festival model of cultural production in which art is seen as part of creative industries. Tourism, business, and culture converge through such events not only of cultural but also of an entertainment-commercial nature. What is certain is that the autonomy of artistic work is under the threat of disappearing in such a model.

ECC NS – From hope to freedom and back?

The critical concepts of the European Capital of Culture are fully a reflection of the EU’s liberal and identity policies, carried out through programs and topics that concern the empowerment of diversity, multiculturalism, minorities, and marginalized social groups, with a special focus on youth and children. The woman (feminist) question is also present, i.e. a program platform which is realized through contemporary female performance and programs that underline the roles of significant women in history (the “Heroine” program arc) highlighting local history, affirmed scientists, artists, but also philanthropists in the sense of educators and patrons. Participants of the revolutionary socialist movement and their legacy are not recognized nor included in the “Heroine” arc – apart from Jovanka Broz.[2] The ECC presents her art collection and her as a woman belonging to the glamorous jet set.

In addition to the primary source of funding – the ECC Foundation – the entire project is generously supported by the Ministry of Culture and Information of the Republic of Serbia, as well as funding from the provincial and the City of Novi Sad budgets. ECC has also gathered a large number of partners and sponsors, which are by their nature incompatible with the values ​proclaimed by the names of the program arcs. This brings us to the absurdity of Erste Bank acting as the sponsor of the Freedom bridge program. It is not necessary to explain the absurdity of the fact that banks (the essence of whose activity, i.e. profiteering, is binding clients into debt slavery by raising interest rates, often illegally) find themselves participating in programs that celebrate and proclaim freedom.

One of the hosts of the ECC NS, namely one of the venues for cultural events related to the Freedom Bridge program, is the luxury resort “Fruške terme”. It was built with generous subsidies from the state, but the price of using the pool complex is 5900 dinars[3] per person for one day; therefore, every citizen has the freedom to use the natural wealth of Fruška Gora, its thermal water, if they can pay the so-called “Access to the water world” of this hotel.[4] The mentioned resort, the place of ECC’s promotion of freedom, not only usurped the natural wealth of Fruška gora but also damaged a large part of the public property of the Fruška gora National Park by building a hotel and is now being sued for environmental crimes against Fruška gora NP.

Urban planning and violence committed against citizens

The question of who has and who does not have the access to freedom and natural resources leads us directly to the question of ecology and another absurdity related to the European Capital of Culture. Namely, the whole event, and in particular the program arc related to ecology (under the name “Danube Sea”) is taking place in late July – in the same period the city government of Novi Sad, much like in other cities in Serbia, passed the new city Master Plan, tailored to fit the interests of the political elite and developers, at the expense of the public interest.

In the days when the ECC program arc related to ecology began, the institutional legalization, that is, the parliamentary vote of the Master Plan of Novi Sad took place. This plan continues and intensifies the concreting of Novi Sad, and, among other things, endangers parts of the Danube coast – Dunavac, Kamenička Ada, Ribarsko Island, as well as the green oasis of Šodroš, which is the habitat of hundreds of rare plant and animal species. The so-called “Novi Sad Waterfront” project and the construction of a new bridge, which is a part of the same plan, threaten to destroy all that.

During the session in which the Master Plan was adopted, activists organized a protest in front of the Assembly of Vojvodina to express their disagreement with the plan for which more than 10,000 objections were submitted, when private security in civilian clothes used force against the gathered citizens.

The gathered citizens requested that the activist Nebojsa Milenković enters the building of the Assembly as a citizens’ representative and uses the right to publicly attend the assembly session, which he duly and timely announced. While Milenković addressed the crowd and the police in front of the Banovina (Assembly) building, a force was used by the security guards, whom the mayor of Novi Sad, Milos Vucević, identified as employees of a licensed security agency hired to do security work for the city and, in this case, secure the building. If such guards maintain public order (which is exclusively the responsibility of the police) and intervene in the street, it is a violation of the Law on Private Security, according to which security guards engaged by private agencies are authorized to operate in the facilities themselves, i.e. guard their interior – in this case, the Banovina building. In addition, among the mentioned goons (security guards) a man was identified against whom legal proceedings are being conducted for inflicting serious bodily injuries and who, according to the Law on Private Security, should therefore not be able to perform that job (Article 12).

After the city authorities refused to allow a discussion and after the brutal beating of several protesters took place, an act of spilling green paint on police shields was carried out by self-organized citizens, in moments when the freedom and safety of the gathered were under threat. It represents a social-activist-artistic act that renders the need for any subsequent ECC program on the topic of ecology (and also freedom) completely meaningless.

(Systemic) violence as a connecting piece

Just one day after these events, on July 22, a new program arch of the event called “Danube Sea” began on the banks of the Danube River. Events at the “Pavilion on Strand” were guarded by officers belonging to the same agency that, with the brutal use of physical force, illegally prevented freedom of movement and the announced entry of the protesters’ representatives into the parliamentary session. “Danube Sea” comprises a series of artistic events created according to the concept of the meeting of art and ecology. The ecological platform “Danube Sea” consists of a large number of events ranging from performances by an acrobatic group, a series of film screenings on environmental topics, programs related to biodiversity and botany, performances by choirs that want to raise awareness of environmental changes, jazz concerts, scientific research associations and performances by artists who warn of climate change and/or river pollution, up to activism in the form of clean-up actions and art installations on the river bank, while special environmental awareness programs are designed for young people and children.

Calling for action and dialogue through the fusion of art and ecology, which is the basis of the “involvement” of this arch, in the light of the events of the previous day, takes on an extremely cynical meaning, devoid of the essential issues that this, as well as all the other bridges, arches, and programs of the European capital of culture Novi Sad 2022 bypass: state policies of neoliberal servility towards large, corporate and investor financial capital, whether foreign or domestic, to which economic policy is subordinated by awarding subsidies, tax breaks and other economic and political privileges that blatantly violate the public interest, workers’ rights (from working conditions up to the social security of workers, including cultural workers in the ruling system that are not part of the ECC program and the concept of care for a better society) and exploit natural resources.

Therefore, the project of the European Capital of Culture is characterized by the absence of hot social policy topics, as well as declarative, false criticism contained in a series of programs that encourage, strengthen, and criticize while in reality the interests of the state and large capital that finance these programs are not threatened. 

[1] Wordplay with the meaning of Novi Sad, which can be translated as “New Now”.

[2] Jovanka Broz was the wife of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito.

[3] This converts to around 50Eur.

[4] This means, of course, no accommodation service, only the swimming pools: