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Research 25 Jan 12

Law Fails to End Serbia's Cultural Chaos

BIRN research in 11 cities across Serbia shows that two years after the adoption of a landmark culture law, its anticipated benefits have not been felt and confusion is worse than ever.  Pročitajte ovo istraživanje na srpskom jeziku

By Nemanja Cabric and Jovan Ristic in Belgrade, Nis, Leskovac, Vranje, Pozega, Staro Selo and Sabac; Branislava Lovre in Novi Sad, Bela Crkva, Indjija, Backi Petrovac and Subotica; Pedja Popovic in Belgrade. BIRN

For 20 years the library in Leskovac, a town of over 160,000 in southern Serbia, has been seeking new premises. The library lacks funds to purchase books, the staff - whose salaries were paid six months late last year – are too few, while the reading room is so cramped that two children have to share one chair.

Since the Law on Library Information Activity came into effect in January, director Aleksandra Samokal Jovanovic  says she has faced an impossible task. The Law sets standards under which libraries in towns with populations like Leskovac’s ought to occupy a space of 2,800 square metres. This one has 700.

Instead of the 2 million dinars that the library currently receives from the Ministry of Culture to buy books, it should receive 8.8 million. It is also supposed to have 64 employees instead of the present 24.

“Owing to a lack of funds we are unable to stick to, or even come close to, the standards envisaged by the new Law on Library Activity adopted a few months back,” Jovanovic says.

This gap between what the law lays down and what is realistically attainable is obvious. But the fact there is a special law on libraries at all might still be considered a success on the part of Serbian legislators; this is one of the few areas in the field of culture that has been provided with a special law, following the adoption on August 31, 2009 of the umbrella Law on Culture, following delays lasting 17 years.

Today, two years after the adoption of this legislation, people working the field of culture have many objections to the Law. Some find it over-ambitious, others say it goes into unnecessary detail, while others again complain that it collides with existing legislation. 

Ministry: Existing Laws are Efficient 

BIRN: Why has the National Culture Council been given only an advisory role and why doesn’t it have decision-making powers like the Education Council?

Ministry of Culture: This is the first time that a National Culture Council has been set up in our practice and it has been brought in conformity with the role that such bodies play in most European countries, and it should not be confused with other bodies from other fields such as education.

BIRN: What other legislative steps will the Ministry take in the coming period?

Ministry of Culture: In order for the entire field of culture to be completed legislation-wise, we are yet to prepare a Law on Museums, a Law on Immovable Cultural Property and a Law on Cultural Heritage.

BIRN:  How many different areas listed in the Law as cultural activities will get a special law, and what are these areas? How will the areas that won’t be regulated by special laws be regulated?

Ministry of Culture: Following the passage of the Law on Culture, Parliament adopted the following laws: a Law on Endowments and Foundations, a Law on Library Information Activity, a Law on Old and Rare Library Materials, a Law on Obligatory Publication Copy, a Law on Cinematography and to be tabled in Parliament over the next few days is the Law on Archival Material and Archives, which we expect to be adopted in the course of this month. Each of these laws regulates different areas of culture in a modern and efficient fashion, and in conformity with European practices. Along with this, several dozen extremely important by-laws in the field of culture have been adopted. (We note the information from the beginning of the text saying that we did not have a single legal act in the field of culture for over 15 years).

One of the main objections centres on the National Council, which critics say vests too much power in the Minister of Culture.

In order for the Law, which is merely a framework, to be fully implemented, people working in various fields of culture are now demanding special laws or by-laws to regulate each individual cultural activity. They expect these laws to legally define 11 different fields defined by the umbrella law as cultural activities.

Only five such special laws were adopted by the end of last year. But even these are not being implemented. This is either because the date of implementation was postponed to the beginning of 2012 or because some necessary by-laws remain missing, or are unrealistic, and cannot be applied in practice. Leskovac library provides one example of this.

Three more special laws are in the drafting phase. But this process has come to a halt, either because of personnel changes in the Ministry of Culture, because the proposed solutions did not meet the requirements of the professions in question, or because those named by the state as sources of finance have objected.

Finally, the Culture Law envisages that a year after coming into effect, a Cultural Development Strategy is to be drafted laying down the guidelines, development priorities and criteria for the selection of projects on the basis of which local strategies should develop in the regions. But the Strategy also hasn’t been adopted.

As a result, cultural institutions have to function either on the basis of the outdated laws, some dating back to 1990, or on the basis of ad hoc regulations passed before the Culture Law was adopted. People feel confused and don't know how to behave in this legal muddle.

A good example of such chaos is provided by the organizers of cultural events who do not know how to apply regulations on pensions and disability insurance. 

Laws drafted in the past:

  • Law on publishing
  • Law on archival material and archives
  • Law on theatre

None of these laws have been tabled in parliament for further procedure. 

Organising the international Nisville Jazz Festival has been a nightmare, says festival director Ivan Blagojevic. “It is absurd that we have to pay pension and social and health insurance contributions for foreign performers,” he says.

Last June, Serbia’s tax inspectorate froze the Festival’s account because Blagojevic had failed to pay pension contributions for foreign guests.

The account was unfrozen just six days before the Festival opened in August, after the appeals committee upheld an appeal by the Festival against the obligation to pay the tax. 

This case is a typical consequence of the lack of unambiguous and explicit tax rules and of their different interpretations, but also of the problems involved in regulating double taxation with other countries. On top of this, no law separately or at least partly regulates the conduct of musical events.   

“Most directors of cultural events and institutions live in constant fear, paying the state all it demands... [and] don’t protect their festivals from such plunder. It's easier to pay what is demanded, because then you are protected”, Blagojevic says.

At the same time, Blagojevic adds, in its own interpretation of the law, the state “as an excuse uses (individual) agreements on double taxation with other countries” which envisage various different solutions and definitions. 

This happens even though “some were signed in the times of the SFRY [the former Socialist Yugoslavia], some in the era of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, some during the existence of [the State Union of] Serbia and Montenegro and others in the times of Serbia”. 

Instead of focusing on the Festival and its contents, Blagojevic is kept budy studying financial laws and provisions, which is why he advocates clearly regulating festival activities by means of a law.

Biljana Zdravkovic, president of the Serbian Association of International Art Festivals, describes this situation as alarming. “In different environments, in different financial organisations, in different agencies, offices and monitoring and control committees, and, consequently, in the case of different auditors and inspectors, the provisions are differently interpreted, and therefore the confusion is all the greater,” she says.

Zdravkovic complains that as far as legislators are concerned, “The performing arts, festivals as well, as a completely separate and special art and cultural category, remain on the margins of interest.”

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