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Tuesday, February 9, 2016
- As the May 6 date for Serbia’s general election inches closer, two young Belgrade playwrights have capitalised on the electoral war of words between the pro-European camp and conservative nationalists to highlight the dark side of propaganda and expose the omnipotence of party membership.
For the last few months, the airwaves and newspapers in Serbia have been thick with promises of a ‘better life’ for a nation struggling with aftershocks of the economic crisis, high unemployment and a painful transition to a market economy.
Election pledges also touch on rebuilding democracy and all its attendant institutions, which came into being only after the downfall of the country’s former leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 and have since suffered from a lack of efficiency, transparency and accountability.
Amidst the turmoil, Maja Pelevic (31) and Milan Markovic (33), whose plays are staged in several prominent Belgrade theatres, offered what they described as a new “cultural and marketing strategy”, which was quickly snapped up by every major political party in Serbia and propelled the two young artists into positions of political authority.
What politicians and the media failed to recognise was that the duo’s text, ‘Idea, Strategy, Movement’, was lifted right out of a 1928 speech by Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, entitled ‘Knowledge and Propaganda’.
“Everyone reacted positively,” Pelevic told IPS. “The nationalists and conservatives were the most open to us, as they have few young people in their parties. Others put us on their ‘cadre lists’,” she added.
The playwrights were also invite to advise the nationalist, opposition Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the biggest opposition group, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The newly formed United Regions of Serbia (URS) also took them in, as did the increasingly popular leftist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The LDP even put the young dramatists’ strategy on its website.
Culture trumps politics
The playwrights said it would be intriguing to see if anyone would recognise Goebbel’s text.
“We replaced Hitler’s name with Vojislav Kostunica (the DSS leader), as his party asked for a text to explain our ideas on development of culture,” Pelevic said.
“We also replaced the words ‘national socialism’ with ‘democracy’ and ‘propaganda’ with ‘political marketing’ and it worked fine,” she added.
The excerpts the playwrights chose to pull from the speech deal with Goebbels’ ‘theory’ of propaganda, in which he stresses that people are drawn together and then slowly indoctrinated with “creative ideas”; a theory that rests largely on the importance of political power to get ideas across to mass audiences.
None of the parties seemed disturbed by the text’s totalitarian ideology that most democratic societies now fight against, “such as gaining power at any cost; spreading one’s idea into the very pores of society and (carrying) out a ruthless propaganda campaign,” Markovic said.
“Another of our aims (with the social experiment) was to see if we could move up (the economic ladder) if we joined political parties,” Markovic said, since “it is impossible to work in Serbia now as an art director, or even a writer without the support of the party.”
For many years, Serbian culture has fallen victim to the tough economic climate, constantly side- tracked by one regime after another since Milosevic’s downfall. Budgetary cuts for culture are huge, with dozens of theatres, movies production houses and even the Philharmonic orchestra being left with small sums of money, barely enough to cover staff salaries.
On the other hand, party membership has become extremely important, swallowing up various aspects of social and economic life. Employment has been tied so tightly to party membership that, now, some of the biggest opposition parties are brandishing slogans such as ‘Jobs for all, not only party members’, or ‘No more employment through party membership’.
For sociologists, the link between party membership and the playwrights’ success comes as no surprise.
“Old habits die hard,” cultural sociologist Stjepan Gredelj told IPS. “In the communist era, party membership was important for employment. Although we have had a multi-party system for more than 20 years now, the line of thought remains much the same in the generation of new politicians as well.”
“Party loyalty works two ways,” added sociology professor Ratko Bozovic. First, by placing its own members and supporters in key positions, the party ensures its line is followed closely, while also “keeping an eye on its workers”.
Secondly, “party members are safe in their positions and privileges. Democracy is a feeble plant that has yet to develop and grow here…we still live in partocracy. The cultural (stunt pulled) by Pelevic and Markovic has only confirmed that,” he added.
Both sociologists agree that the situation is the same in nations of former Yugoslavia, such as Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina and even Slovenia, the only country from the former bloc to become a member of the European Union (EU).
Ivan Tasovac, director of the Belgrade Philharmonic, has also seized on the moment of controversy to expose just how far politics have infringed on cultural space in the country.
Tasovac, who has been selected as “man of the year” several times in the past decade by media workers, promised the votes of all 100 musicians from the prominent cultural institution to the political party that could provide the most money for the new Philharmonic concert hall – a promise that every regime has made for two decades – and prove that one of its top officials attended a single Philharmonic concert in the past four years, since the last elections were held.