Plastered alongside layers of weather-beaten election posters,
samizdat-style nightclub fliers announce the concerts of
KUD Idijoti, Haustor and Laibach, the biggest names from Yugoslavia's
New Wave movement of the '80s. Until just recently, not only the
guitars but the spirit of the entire urban cultural scene in Serbia
had been subdued--and almost completely silenced outside of major
cities. Now this country's urbanity is re-asserting itself with
spontaneous flair, in Belgrade music clubs as well as elsewhere
across the country in the art world, youth culture, media and, not
In Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, the obnoxious repetitive beat of
turbofolk, a synthetic mesh of techno and folk, drowned out
the clever lyrics and catchy guitar riffs of rock groups that 10
years ago boasted followings across all of Yugoslavia. In Belgrade,
alternative rock bands were dropped from state-run airwaves, the
once vibrant club scene banished to isolated niches. Groups like
the punkish KUD Idijoti from Croatia or Slovenia's eclectic agit-provocateurs
Laibach wouldn't consider playing Serbia, even if they could have
received visas or venues to perform. The same went for artists,
theater groups and film companies.
Turbofolk was more than an assault on the eardrums, blaring
loudly and nonstop from
cafés, television sets and taxis. It was a component of Serbia's
political ideology, the score to which Milosevic orchestrated his
14 years of rule. On cheap videos, the industry's garish silicone
queens glorified the violent, greed-driven life of Serbia's gangster
elite. For young people, especially from the countryside, turbofolk's
icons became the role models for making it in Serbia. The renowned
turbofolk star, Ceca, was the wife of the notorious war criminal
Arkan, who was gunned down last year in a Belgrade hotel.
"In terms of culture, nothing new was born in the last seven years,"
explains Natasha Milojevic, a professional journalist and an activist
in the progressive Social Democratic Party. "But now minds and ideas
are free again to express themselves publicly. Among musicians,
artists, painters, our rock 'n' roll culture has been reborn." New
art galleries and impromptu exhibitions brighten up dreary Belgrade
A major catalyst in the urban renaissance, and a critical factor
in the overthrow of Milosevic, was a student movement, most of whose
members were in diapers when Laibach recorded its first albums.
The underground youth organization Otpor ("Resistance") combined
pop culture and politics, guerrilla tactics and youthful verve to
mobilize thousands of people, young and old, across Serbia. Otpor's
brash anti-regime slogans and nonviolent theories of resistance
took opposition from the cities to the countryside, the bedrock
of Milosevic's support. Under Otpor's icon, a simply stenciled black
fist, the group pushed the message that every individual act of
resistance was part of a nationwide movement.
"The fist symbol itself is pop," says Marija Baralic, 25, a stick-thin
Otpor activist with a Palestinian kaffiyeh around her neck.
Rock bands performed at the first Otpor rallies, she says: "We promoted
them because they had subversive things in their music, and they
brought in people who were turned off by politics-as-usual."
Though funded by foreign governments--including the United States--as
well as the Serbian diaspora, Otpor's influences are closer to home:
the World War II Partisans, the '60s student protesters in Yugoslavia
and the '80s Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) movement, a group of iconoclastic
artists from Slovenia.
There is also a good dose of the anarchistic, rebellious energy
of punk rock in Otpor, but without a Malcolm McLaren or Johnny Rotten.
Otpor is leaderless and anti-hierarchical, a key to having successfully
avoided the dragnet of Milosevic's secret police, and, as the kids
put it, a natural response to a lifetime of leadership cult.
Perhaps most profound, the students don't exude a trace of the
ugly nationalism that
held Serbia in its grip for so long. For the time being, at least,
their civic-minded thinking--and the sudden death of the Milosevic
propaganda machine--have virtually snuffed out the nationalist jingosim
that once poisoned the atmosphere here. Remarkably, on the streets
of Belgrade today, the NATO bombing, Bosnia and the loss of Kosovo
are non-issues. Like Otpor, people are looking forward, not backward.
With Milosevic gone, Otpor is in the midst of rethinking its strategy
and priorities. Observers admit that the movement may have lost
some of its momentum. "There's a high level of awareness now," Baralic
says. "People saw that power and politics are not exclusive. But
we have to fight against inertia and apathy setting in."
During the campaign period late last year, Otpor mobilized young
people to vote for the democratic opposition coalition, the 18-party
Democratic Opposition of Serbia, or DOS. Otpor's black-and-white
posters, billboards and graffiti blanketed Belgrade. But now that
Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and the DOS are in power, some activists
remain vigilant. "Our support for DOS isn't unconditional," says
Milja Jovanovic, wearing an impossibly baggy pair of green army
fatigues. "We don't want another one-party rule."
Otpor is also pushing to cut mandatory military service to six
months and offer amnesty to those who dodged military duty during
the '90s wars. The Laibach concert is just one of dozens that Otpor
is sponsoring across Serbia. "We know that Laibach poses really
critical questions about Serbia," says Jovanovic, referring to the
band's use of swastikas and fascist imagery to mock authoritarian
ideologues. "But we're not afraid of those questions. If Serbia
is becoming healthy again, it can't be afraid."