Serbia bans festival that enabled collaboration between artists from Serbia and Kosovo

Protest graphics shared by civil society after the ban of the Mirëdita, Dobar Dan! festival. Image by Belgrade's Youth Initiative for Human Rights, used with permission.

This article is based the coverage by An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation. 

The organizers of the Mirëdita, Dobar Dan! (“Good day!” in Albanian and Serbian) Festival announced on June 27 that they received a notification from Serbia's Ministry of the Interior banning all their events in Belgrade, which had been scheduled to start that evening. Festival-related unrest began two days earlier after police allowed “various hooligan and neo-Nazi groups” to freely occupy the venue and block the nearby streets.

The ban, which initially came verbally and then in writing, was formally communicated as “an order to cease the gathering,” and encompassed all activities associated with the festival that had been promoting peace between Kosovo and Serbia. Such events had been happening since 2014 in the capitals of Priština and Belgrade, with the ultimate goal being reconciliation and healing of the wounds left from the past wars.

Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs Ivica Dačić confirmed that the ministry issued orders to end the festival “because of danger to the security of people and property, and the danger of violations of public order to a greater extent.”

“With this order,” festival organizers warned that “the Ministry of the Interior violated the Constitution of Serbia, specifically [the right to] freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, as well as a number of laws, including at least two articles of the Law on Public Assembly due to the application of disproportionate measures.”

They disagreed with the ministry's move to place the burden on the organizers “instead of addressing the hooligans” associated with extremist and neo-Nazi groups Delije Sever, Peoples’ Patrol, Group 451, and Zetropa Serbia, saying that “failing to ensure the gathering runs counter to the legal and constitutional order of the Republic of Serbia, as well as the standards and practices upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.”

Ban breaks a decade-long tradition

Founded in 2014 by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, the Civic Initiative from Belgrade and the Pristina NGO Integra, the Mirëdita, Dobar Dan! Festival aimed to promote cultural exchange. By bringing together artists, rights activists and opinion makers, it hoped to foster “a tradition of collaboration” that would contribute to permanent peace and the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Balkan Insight reported that, while the festival has been denounced by right-wing groups since its inception, “authorities in Belgrade have largely let the festival pass without comment” — at least during the first ten years of its existence. This year, however, Serbian officials voiced strong criticism, culminating in an official ban.

Festival-related unrest began on July 25 after “various hooligan and neo-Nazi groups” were allowed to freely occupy Dorćol Platz, the designated cultural space where the festival was to be staged. The building's outer walls were defaced with threatening chauvinistic messages targeted at festival guests. The next day, festival organizers cleaned the hateful graffiti.

On June 27, a group of about 150 hooligans stopped traffic along Dobračina Street and blocked the entrance to Dorćol Platz so that no guests or festival organizers, not to mention employees who work in the area, could enter or leave the complex:

Festival organizers said that there was an insufficient number of police in the area and in addition, the Ministry of the Interior failed to send reinforcements, “leaving the impression that there was no will to hold the festival at all.” After the ban was declared, the right wing nationalist extremists who were blocking the venue celebrated by setting off fireworks and lighting flares.

Organizers specifically blamed Minister of Culture Nikola Selaković, Minister of Family Welfare and Demography Milica Đurđević Stamenkovski, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vulin, the Mayor of Belgrade Aleksandar Šapić, and Minister of the Interior Ivica Dačić for the hateful campaign against the festival. They also found it ironic that the promotion of hatred and intolerance by those whose responsibility it is to protect people and promote peace, were the ones who fostered the hostilities, fundamentally leading to the banning of the festival:

The Mirëdita, Dobar Dan! is not the enemy of the state, but the hooligans whom it has sided with, and for whose sake it has failed to fulfill its own obligations. The fundamental duty of the state is to ensure the freedoms and rights guaranteed by law, and to appropriately sanction those who infringe upon or organize against these freedoms and rights of citizens.

The festival committee also revealed that they were “ordered, under threat of consequences,” to ensure that all foreign participants leave Serbia. The bus carrying participants from Kosovo was stopped on the outskirts of Belgrade and forced to returned to Kosovo under police escort:

“By banning the festival, the Ministry of the Interior and the Government of Serbia have once again demonstrated that freedom of assembly applies only to hooligan groups, not to festival participants and guests,” a festival statement stressed. Visitors already in Belgrade for the event were also forced to leave:

🫂Today together with our comrades we sent off the participants of the festival Mirëdita, Dobar Dan!

📌We regret the decision of the Ministry of the Interior to ban the festival Mirëdita, Dobar Dan!

Organizers also expressed “profound concern for the state of society characterized by violence, hatred, and intolerance — a model of behavior that officials and institutions fail to recognize as contentious and perilous.”

Condemnation of the ban

Leading Serbian civil society organizations, including CRTASlavko Ćuruvija Foundation, Humanitarian Law Center, YUCOM, Helsinki Committee for  Human Rights and Centre for Nonviolent Action, expressed solidarity with the festival.

On July 2, 91 civil society organizations from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, North Macedonia, and Serbia issued a joint proclamation condemning the decision to ban the festival, which it said had been the target of “attacks by criminal structures [and] members of far-right groups, which endanger safety and gravely threaten its organizers and participants.”

The  international community also reacted, starting with Serbia's European Union Delegation. As a candidate for EU membership, Serbia is obliged to uphold human rights:

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights also expressed grave concern:

On July 4, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights expressed gratitude to everyone who offered support via social networks.

While it engages in EU-facilitated dialogue to normalize relations with Kosovo, the current Serbian government doesn't recognize its independence, which was declared in 2008. Composed of coalition of populist parties that utilize Serbian nationalism and regional hegemony expressed through the irredentist political ideology of the so-called “Serbian World” — modeled on Putin's “Russian World” — many top officials were members of Slobodan Milošević's regime in the 1990s. Since they came to power again in 2012, there has been a shift towards authoritarianism, including the repression of domestic opposition and civil society.

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