Move Over Paris, Serbia Embraces European Culture

BATTERED by nationalism and xenophobia, Serbia's benighted cultural life could soon experience something of a renaissance.

President Slobodan Milosevic, in his new guise as Balkan peacenik, is set to spend the equivalent of millions of dollars on lifting the arts out of the nationalistic mire he plunged them into during his war-mongering years.

Novelists, film directors, playwrights, and musicians are being encouraged to abandon jingoistic trash and embrace Western European traditions. Television commercials and posters promoting the ''Year of Culture'' exhort the public to patronize museums, galleries, and classical concerts. ''It's empty without culture,'' runs one of the government's campaign slogans.

This contrasts with the dross Mr. Milosevic has fostered since he came to power in the late 1980s. Under his leadership, culture has been dominated by gaudy Orthodox religious iconography, Serb mythology, and ''turbo-folk'' -- folk music put to a disco beat.

''More books with Serb in the title have been published in the last three years than in the last 300 years,'' says prominent opposition politician Dragoljub Micunovic.

This kitsch invasion threw Belgrade, formerly one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Balkans, into cultural darkness.

Rock music, jazz, cinema, theatre, and bohemia -- all of which once flourished here -- were marginalized and frequently branded insidious and degenerate. The Serb leader filled the vacuum with an ugly, xenophobic culture to fuel war fever.

Stalls hawking nationalist paraphernalia littered once-fashionable shopping arcades; private television stations broadcasting little more than turbo-folk and pornography proliferated while tawdry depictions of Serb triumphs on the battlefield became vogue.

But of late, this cultural morass has become a hindrance. The extreme nationalists it helped spawn are fiercely critical of Milosevic's backtracking on ''Greater Serbia'' -- which encouraged the international community to lift crippling trade sanctions against Belgrade.

Serbian political analysts say that ridding the arts of excessive nationalism is part of Milosevic's bid to undermine his opponents, creating more room for maneuver as he strives to persuade recalcitrant rebel Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia to renege on their demands to break away from those countries.

The cultural tide may be already turning. State-controlled television is broadcasting more classical music, quality drama, and cutting down on turbo-folk. To the delight of Belgrade youth, the authorities recently sponsored the city's first ''rave party.''

''We have to show that we are ready to rejoin the world community,'' says Assistant Cultural Minister Vasilije Tapuskovic.

But Milosevic's critics point out that virtually all the leading cultural institutions in Serbia are headed by avowed nationalists resistant to the revival of the arts.

Serbia's main opposition leader Vuk Draskovic says, ''You can't compare the energy they are putting into promoting peace with the energy they put into promoting war.''

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