As published in The New York Times

Music to Make Glum Serbia Want to Sing Again

By Daniel Simpson

Kael Alford

NOVI SAD, Serbia, Jul. 29 - To most young people, the idea of inviting both their favorite D.J.'s and government ministers to the same party would sound distinctly uncool.

But Bojan Boskovic and Dusan Kovacevic, two 24-year-old Serbs brimming with the can-do confidence they acquired as leaders of student protests, look at it differently. 

The first time they organized a music festival, it lasted almost 100 days, mutating into one of the mass political protests in the fall of 2000 that culminated in the downfall of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia. It was an intoxicating experience that became a powerful source of motivation.

"We really moved society," said Mr. Boskovic, his eyes alive with an infectious energy. "I can't explain what it feels like to get 15,000 people singing, 'Save Serbia and kill yourself' to Milosevic. To celebrate, we decided to organize the biggest cultural event ever to be held in southeastern Europe."

The nine-day festival they created last summer, and repeated this July, is a strange blend of cutting-edge music and provocative debates, featuring human rights advocates and members of the reformist cabinet that replaced Mr. Milosevic's authoritarian rule.

The organizers freely concede that most of the 300,000 visitors who flocked to this year's gathering in this northern city are most interested in seeing foreign stars. That is still a novelty for young Serbs after a decade of wars and being ostracized for Mr. Milosevic's policies.

But even though the earnest discussions about problems like corruption, police brutality and the brain drain have attracted only small audiences, it would be difficult for festivalgoers to escape the message.

A vast red banner still hangs outside the ruined 18th-century fortress beside the Danube where the festival took place. "Serbia, are you ready for the future?" it asks of anyone who approaches. The slogan is plastered all over the site and on billboards across the country.

Although the government in Belgrade has dispatched Mr. Milosevic to face a United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, it remains far from creating the normal country that many Serbs crave.

The nationalism that was whipped up during the conflicts of the 1990's, as Yugoslavia disintegrated violently into several independent countries, still endures, as it does throughout much of the Balkans. That has stifled the acceptance of wartime guilt that would be needed for regional reconciliation.

The economy has also yet to recover from the battering it took, made worse by international economic penalties and by the lingering problems of transition from a Communist-style system. Cronyism is rife and poverty widespread, while a handful of people have become extremely rich, often through criminal connections.

The festival's name, EXIT, has an escapist ring. But to its organizers this means shaking off xenophobia and political apathy and encouraging young people to build a more democratic and multicultural country capable of joining the European Union.

"That's why our message isn't 'EXIT 2002: come and have fun,'" Mr. Boskovic said. "By putting on an event of this size, we're showing people that what looks impossible can be achieved."

Mr. Kovacevic, more reserved than his friend of 10 years but no less ambitious, hopes the festival will inspire those who attend not to slip back into inertia.

"Young people have to take the initiative in this country if we are to make progress," he said.

Changing the world with a music festival seems a lofty ambition. But the zeal and professionalism of the organizers has secured them influential backing. The United States gave them $180,000 through the Agency for International Development for this summer's event, which had a $1.5 million budget.

Tickets, which provide the bulk of the festival's revenue, were sold in all the republics that were part of the old Yugoslav federation.

The prospect of watching 500 artists from the Balkans and beyond has given a few young Bosnians and Croats a rare incentive to visit Serbia, the dominant republic remaining in Yugoslavia and still widely perceived as their enemy.

"The Yugoslav foreign minister, Goran Svilanovic, came and thanked us for what we're doing," Mr. Kovacevic said. "He told us that people cannot imagine how hard it is to change this country's image abroad. But there are a lot of young people here who opposed what was done in their name over the past 10 years."

Almost everyone working at the festival, which provides temporary jobs for more than 1,500 Novi Sad residents, is under 30.

Their next target is to establish the festival as a regular fixture in Europe's summer calendar. But what appears to motivate them more is the prospect of finding new ways to persuade other talented Serbs that emigration is not the only passport to success.

"The idea of being a student in Serbia is to finish your degree and get the hell out of the country," Mr. Boskovic said. "We could have done that too, but this is more of a challenge."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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