Futures of Novi Sad, Serbia (2006)

By Sohail Inayatullah

July 2006

I never thought I would see the cafés of Novi Sad packed with tourists from all over Europe, particularly 10,000-15,000 youth from England. But with the increasing fame of Novi Sad’s Exit festival, music lovers annually flock to this city by the Danube.

My first memory of Novi Sad was in November 1993. UN sanctions against Yugoslavia were in full swing. It was cold, brutally cold. I watched my partner-to-be, take her check from her position as teaching assistant at the University of Novi Sad and run from shop to shop, trying to find the best deal for groceries. With inflation at record highs, surpassing even the Weimar Republic, currency would lose value over a day. The basket of goods and services that the dinar bought was far from stable. The cost of getting a visa to Greece jumped once from 12 millions dinars on Friday to twenty million or so on Monday. The future was only predictable in the sense that things could only get worse.

And they did: Novi Sad’s cosmopolitan culture took two more serious fits. First were the NATO air strikes on its infrastructure, particularly its bridges in 199

Designed to humble the power of President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milošević, Novi Sad’s spirit was broken. The next change was the wave of refugees from Bosnia and Croatia. Predictably the migrant’s politics was nationalistic, they yearned to return to their homes, and voted for the extremist Radical Party, which continues to promise them a glorious return to lands lost.

Recently – the second week of July 2006 – a few days before the Exit Festival, there was a parade devoted to celebrating the difference – all different, all equal was the motto. Youth apparently associated with the Radical party broke up the parade. When the organizers asked the police why they did not provide security for the event, they intimated that it was because they thought it was a gay parade.

And yet young people have managed to organize a major international festival. Even with the tourists gone, the cafes are full. Citizens walk with a bit of lightness that seemed impossible a decade plus ago.

The endless debates on the Greater Serbia, on Croats, on the Bosnian Muslims is no longer the dominant discourse, Yugoslavia is a distant memory. Europe beckons. My wife’s grandmother, Baba Zora, has lived in nine different states in her 94 years, and she has never left her home in Kruševac (except as a young woman from a nearby village upon marriage), a city 5 hours drive from Novi Sad. From the kingdom of Serbia, to the many Yugoslavias, to Serbia and Montenegro and now to just Serbia, she has stayed still while geopolitics has changed with regular seasons. Perhaps Europe will be the 10th ‘state’ that she will live in? Will she be here when Serbia joins Europe, when Novi Sad joins Europe? By 2030?

For this future, there remain many stumbling blocks. First, the capture of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić – former leaders of the Republika Srpska for their violent siege of Sarajevo and murder of 7000 humans at Srebrenica. And now with the future of Kosovo still unknown, territory and power remain unresolved issues.

Momo Kapor, a Serb essayist, writes in his book, A Guide to the Serbian Mentality that it is inat, that is defining for Serbs. Inat is pique, a revenge, a willingness to ensure that a win-win situation reverts to lose-win. One can imagine Milošević after his death at Den Hague, shrieking out: “I won!” as he had claimed through defeat after defeat during the break of Yugoslavia and military defeats against NATO.

Novi Sad did not win – its rise to Europe (it was known as the Serbian Athens in the 19th century) as with Budapest or Prague or other cities was arrested. It had to go back to square one, watching others in Eastern Europe spring head and join the European Union.

The anxiety of almost about to win, to get the promised bus ticket, the way out, but to be denied over and over again, creates a culture of anxiety. The anxiety is neither transcended nor transformed. Rather the pain is dulled through two narcotics: tobacco and alcohol. Currently over 50% of adult Serbs smoke regularly, although this seems like an underestimate.[1] Walking around the city, it feels like up to 95% of citizens smoke and drink. Certainly smoking is accepted as the norm, even in government offices where there are no smoking signs, these are clouded over by smoke.

Smoking continues unabated even at Court, where judges and magistrates smoke during legal proceedings, despite law that prohibits smoking in closed public premises. If the Court openly breaks the law then what hope is there for cafés and restaurant owners, or other public places? How can they reinforce the law and why would they want to? Indeed while many fear depopulation because of an ageing society (low birth rate) – that they may disappear as the nation the future, very little is done to minimize some of the known risks to premature death. There are of course many reasons for self destructive behaviors in this region, and perhaps inat here also plays a role.

This negative scenario of decay, illness, self-destruction, exclusion and deterioration is the first future for Novi Sad. Never joining and always being apart. Always on the verge of success but failing every time: more than that – the failure coming at the moment of achievement. It is the anguish of waiting in a long line for something of value – a free pc at the internet café; a ticket on a bus, but the queue closing.

The result: more nicotine and more alcohol. In twenty years, we can well imagine the state of Novi Sad’s (and Serbia’s) hospitals. In total stress from:

  1. An ageing population with the best medical staff migrating to wherever they can,
  2. The range of cancers, heart disease, and viruses as a result of addiction to nicotine and 3. Alcohol related illnesses – diseases of the liver and even more, the breakdown of community, as alcoholics either become more violent or more depressed.

Without ecological consciousness, the factories and buses of Novi Sad will continue to pollute. And while pollution is not as bad as in Pančevo, another town in the province of Vojvodina, still pollution continues. Moreover, pollutants from the past endanger Serb citizens. This is primarily from the damaging impact of depleted uranium used by NATO during the three months of bombing in 1999. Without serious thought given to ecology, Novi Sad and Serbia will only hasten the drive to this scenario as the most likely future.


In the second future, Novi Sad becomes a European town. The charm is already here. The centre of Novi Sad has cobblestones, places of worship of Catholic, Orthodox Christian and Jewish persuasions, endless cafes… nearby is the Fortress, the site of the Exit Music Festival. And the jewel is the Štrand, the lovely beach along the Danube. No longer blue from decades of environmental pollution but if Europe does become greener, and sustainability becomes the dominant paradigm, Novi Sad could become the small romantic town by the blue Danube. In the last two days, I’ve been surprised by signs of subtle progress. At the beach today, I was able to order a soy hotdog. I never thought I would see that in Novi Sad – the unofficial pork capital of former Yugoslavia. Yesterday, I went to cranial sacral therapist, where for two hours I was in heaven. Even though the room was almost 35C, somehow his ability to call in angels transformed the heat, and coolness descended. Finally, at the baker today, I saw a man holding a magazine with the cover story: the futures of cities. A vegetarian hotdog, a healing therapist, and a book on cities may not be much, but looking back at 1994, none of this was possible. Only depression was. When we were to visit one of my wife’s friends tomorrow, I worried that she was a chain smoker. However, when there, her children told me that they had banned her from smoking at home and she is now no longer able to smoke at work because of company policy. This is true for others as well – a male relative of my wife reports that his children scream when he lights up in the car. This generation may be lost to the horrors of cancer, but the next generation may yet be saved. Finally, there is a tradition of healthy organic food in the region. While it is meat and beer that have made the region – Vojvodina – famous, as climate change continues and Europe eyes the sustainability prize, meat consumption will have to drop, organic vegetarian food will increase. The Exit festival in the future would not just be about music and fun but about music for a sustainable world, about youth going to Exit so as to create a greener Novi Sad. As Europe wakes up, so will Novi Sad. Already the European union is leading on climate changes (Kyoto and more), on health (banning smoking in public spaces), on peace (searching for political solutions to conflicts throughout the world) and on rights (protecting minorities when it can). As Serbia seeks to enter Europe and as Serbs seek to become European, these broader trends are likely to be defining.


Unfortunately, beyond the bleakness of the never satiated queue and the hoped for entry to Europe, there are empty spaces. Novi Sad does not have a 2027 project. City planning done well long ago during the Austro-Hungarian empire, under Empress Maria Theresa, has disappeared today. Build. Find money. Short term thinking prevails. E-governance has yet to take off. Indeed, Novi Sad has not even queued up for the digital revolution. The cybercafé I go to has 8 PCs …all with software from the 1990s, though my digital native son does content that one pc has windows 2005… there are always lines to use the PCs. Once one has managed to secure a spot, the electricity can go out, the mouse may not work, or one of the staff may light up a cigarette and the temperature continues to soar toward 37c even with the air-conditioning on.

Not only is it not digital, it is also an environmental disaster. Garbage is littered throughout the city. Residents have no qualms about throwing litter as they walk around the city. Bottles, cigarette butts, and gum destroy the landscape. As does graffiti. Novi Sad could be renamed Graffiti land – and while many try and clean up the mess, the next day, the vandals are at it again. It is not the graffiti per se but its poor quality. Obviously the young are looking for a venue, a form of expression of their anger.

This is then business-as-usual. An unplanned city. Money through the market and power through the state (party) rule. The small charming European town scenario disappears and creates the polluted crowded have and have-nots divided future. The migrants from Bosnia and Croatia vote radical while locals vote Democrat. Those that have understood capitalism make quick gains. Those still living the one future, one job, standardizes rules based, customer is always wrong approach become poorer and poorer, more depressed. An underground drug, sex, organized economy grows. The mafia links with politics and Novi Sad loses its way becoming a horrible mixture of environmental degradation, insider politics and divided houses – and there is gum all over the city that no one will clean up. The market works but only for the wealthy – the poor walk around, drinking, smoking, and waiting for the strong leader to help them recover. In this future, the Exit festival would just be about making money. Environmental costs, binge drinking, drug use, irresponsible sexual behavior would be externalities – issues that the organizers would not see themselves as responsible for – but rather as someone else’s problems. This is the used future, lacking innovation.


But there are some wild scenarios. Serbia has two sides. Besides its history of wars, being conquered and conquering, or at least trying to, there is a feminine side. This is expressed in stories of peace, of women not just taking care of men (as in patriarchy) but women taking care of each other and those that are marginalized by patriarchy (nature, children, minorities). A salaš city integrates the human soul and the soil of the Earth – in the words of Mika Antić, a famous poet from Vojvodina, “ a handful of earth and a handful of human spirit is the pillar and the roof of the world’. What would a women’s future for Novi Sad look like? Feminist scholar Ivana Milojević has argued that:

  1. Time would be slower, meaning there would be more time for connection and community. Slow time would be a choice and not forced on as in the old socialist queuing system. Food would be slow as well; the fast food wave going around the world would not be welcome in Novi Sad. It would be a slow city.
  2. Power would be democratic, not just via voting but e-governance and other ways that include citizens and nongovernmental organizations.
  3. Conflict would be mediated, not judicially but through non-violent modes of communication, transcend win-win solutions.
  4. Inner development would be as important as external development. Inner development is learning about self and others – understanding how they see their life story. This challenges the perspective that there is only an objective world out there that is given to us; rather, we construct the world through language and the meanings we give to reality.
  5. External development would be designed to create agoras, communities. Indeed, design would be so that sustainability and learning would be primary. Finally,
  6. The city would be a zone of peace, actively developing policies around multiculturalism and equity. Finally children would be heard, instead of ignored or alternatively yelled at and beaten. Roma people would be included.
  7. Cooperatives and women-run small business enterprises would take off, challenging the large state sector and the individual entrepreneur. We have already seen this in the USA where the majority of employment in the last 10 years has come from women-owned businesses.[2]

In this scenario, the Exit festival would not only be green – caring for the local and the global – but also about ensuring that the festival had music from around the world; that music would be about creating cohesive communities; that festival goers would be themselves be transformed, becoming part of the community. Exit would be an eco-spiritual festival, an entrance into a new world.

While this scenario is not plausible from today’s politics, the last 20 years have shown us that changes can be dramatic. Moreover, the seeds of these changes are in Novi Sad and spreading throughout the rest of the world. Finally, the purpose of scenarios is not just to point out likely futures, but to point out what can be.

This is my sixth trip to Novi Sad. From the freeze of 1994 to the growth of 2007, seeds of promise have emerged. I hope for a future around sustainability and women’s perspectives, however, a transformed Novi Sad in a transformed Europe would also enhance the lives of citizens. However, the fear of the endless queue – hope never delivered – and the business-as-usual future of unplanned poisonous and polluted growth remain likely.

I hope for a bright future for Novi Sad. I need to. My children intend to keep on returning and visiting their relatives. I want to make sure I can continue to learn from and enjoy the beauty of this European city.


[1] Anu Molarius et al, “Trends in Cigarette Smoking in 36 populations from the Early 1980s to the Mid-1990s: Findings from the WHO MONICA Project. American Journal of Public Health, February 2001, Vol., 91, No. 2. 206-212. Also see, Tolonen H, Kuulasmaa, K and Ruokokoski, E. Monica Population. Survey Data Book. Available at:

[2] http://www.cfwbr.org/press/details.php?id=54. Accessed July 4, 2007.


Also, see Lynn A Karoly, and Constantijin, W. A. Panis, The 21st Century at Work: Forces Shaping the Future Workforce and Workplace in the United States. Prepared for the US Dept of Labor. Santa Monica CA: RAND, March, 2004.