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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 July 2006, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Festival helps Serbia exit the past
By Neil Arun
BBC News, Novi Sad

Festival goers party until sunrise at the Exit Festival in Novi Sad, Serbia, 2005
Festival-goers will party until sunrise at the fortress on the River Danube
In an ancient fortress on the banks of the river Danube, the young have gathered to witness the birth of the Balkans' newest "nation state".

The "State of Exit" is a festival, drawing thousands of music lovers from the region's war-scarred countries to the Serbian city of Novi Sad.

Its organisers describe it as a temporary nation, issuing visitors with "passports" instead of tickets.

Its fans say it is the former Yugoslavia's only "state" whose borders are not drawn in blood.

Much has changed since the first Exit in 2000, a festive offshoot of the youth movements which campaigned against strongman leader Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s.

Milosevic died in March this year at his prison cell in The Hague, where he had been on trial for war crimes.

Exit organiser Bojan Boskovic
The mission may have changed since getting rid of Milosevic - but we are still using music as a powerful tool
Bojan Boskovic
Exit organiser

Most of the bridges of Novi Sad, bombed by Nato in 1999 to drive Milosevic out of Kosovo, have been rebuilt.

And organisers expect this year's Exit festival to be the most popular yet.

More than 150,000 people from all over Europe will converge on Novi Sad's Petrovaradin fortress to spend four days, starting from 6 July, enjoying some of the biggest acts from the world of rock, pop and electronic music.

Performers booked to appear this year include Morrissey, Franz Ferdinand, the Pet Shop Boys, Scissor Sisters and the DJs Jeff Mills, Dave Clarke and Hernan Cattaneo.

It is the largest of several youth events in the former Yugoslav republics which aim to use music to unite communities at war with each other barely a decade ago.

Map showing Serbia

For Belgrade journalist Tanja Matic, the happiest moment of the festival comes when the day breaks over a scene that symbolises music's power to unify.

"The crowds who have been up all night are heading out of the fortress to their camps by the river," she says. "Above their tents, lit by the dawn sun, are all the flags they have brought of the former Yugoslav republics."

Dragan Ambrozic, a veteran of the Belgrade music scene, says Exit's unique spirit stems from the post-war crowd's eagerness to enjoy itself.

He explains how the region's big cities had a thriving music scene until the war, when they were starved of the latest releases and shunned by the mainstream touring acts.

Exit Festival, Serbia
The finishing touches were being put to the festival on Thursday
They emerged from the war with a raging appetite for new music.

Foreign performers "brave enough" to visit the festival were, Mr Ambrozic says, "gratified to find a knowledgeable, passionate audience - very different to what the media had led them to expect".

'Betrayal'

Amid a changing political landscape, Exit retains its capacity for controversy.

YOUR FESTIVALS
I'm off to Exit - it looks like it's going to be blue skies without a single cloud for the next 10 days
Vladimir, Belgrade

While the original Exit was conceived as a challenge to the authority of Slobodan Milosevic, the modern festival aims to address the unhappy legacy of the wars associated with his leadership.

Bojan Boskovic, Exit's general manager and one of its founders, says: "The mission may have changed since getting rid of Milosevic - but we are still using music as a powerful tool."

However, critics of the festival have argued that Exit's mission has not so much been changed, as betrayed outright.

Most controversial has been the festival's decision to co-operate with Serbia's right-wing Radical party, which struck a deal to support Exit shortly after it won control of Novi Sad's city government in local elections two years ago

The Radicals' leader, Vojislav Seselj, was allied to Milosevic and is currently on trial for war crimes in the Hague.

The festival's fiercest critics, including some who helped found it, say it has abandoned its ideals to guarantee its survival.

'Negative stereotypes'

Mr Boskovic rejects the charge, arguing that the deal struck with the city government does not give it control over Exit.

Main stage sound check for band Franz Ferdinand
Performers booked include Franz Ferdinand and the Pet Shop Boys

"All we wanted," he says, "was to make sure we could continue using the fortress for our festival. We cannot be criticised for that."

The festival is primarily about music, he says, but "we are not running away from the fact that Exit also has a political meaning".

Today, dozens of non-governmental organisations use Exit as a platform, campaigning against human trafficking, drug abuse and ethnic intolerance, among a host of other issues.

As the festival's profile has grown beyond the Balkans, it has become a vehicle for promoting Belgrade's image abroad - particularly in the EU, which Serbia seeks to join.

"I want people to come here and discover a Serbia of young and friendly people, who are highly educated and not afraid of questioning their leaders," Mr Boskovic says.

"We are still trying to fight a lot of negative stereotypes in this part of the world," he says. "Exit will keep up the fight - until the very end."


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