5 Cultural Policy Resources in South East Europe
Last updated: 23.09.2016

HOME  E-library  Articles & Reports  5. Decentralisation
30.07.2002 | author: Corina Suteu
“Small Europe”: Why Decentralisation?
Policies for Culture Journal, July 2002; Dnevnik Supplement - Bulgaria, April 2003
Corina Suteu
is an expert in European cultural policies and cultural management courses, currently president of ECUMEST and head of the Cultural Management Unit (IHT - Nantes).
Speaking about “the Europe of tomorrow”, Denis de Rougemont exclaimed, some thirty years ago: “When one looks at Europe from far enough away, it’s evident what Europe is! If one looks at us from the perspective of, let’s say, the United States, it is clear that we are all Europeans. (...) When one looks at Europe from too close by, however, gone is Europe! It’s like the story of the biologist who wanted to study an elephant through his microscope - he never could find the “unity” of his studied object”. Further on he concluded: “It is on the regions that we shall build Europe (…) the policy of the European Union must be to efface our divisions and give free play to our diversities” (D. de Rougemont, Lettre Ouverte aux Européens, ed. Albin Michel, 1970)

Would this “effacing of national divisions”, this “federalisation” and, consequently, regionalisation of Europe bring more visibility to a unified Europe when taking a “close look”? Let us try and develop some arguments within these lines and see whether decentralisation measures in countries in Central and Eastern Europe could bring about a better policy of cultural cooperation and engage participation in the wider European project.

Coming from an exclusively centralised system, post communist countries discovered early after 1990 the possibilities to perform structural changes to induce more autonomous decision-making processes at a regional and local level. Faced with transitional economical and social crises, national identity problems and uncertainties at central state level, the local and regional public authorities in Eastern Europe slowly but surely developed a sense of urgency to break through the centralised pattern and invest in locally powerful and active actors (be they economic or cultural). Regions and cities became the “attractive spots”, especially since they could respond more quickly to shifting mechanisms, engage strongly in replacing the common, genuine, community values and promote them.

“Local societies have to preserve their identities and build upon their historical roots in spite of the economical and functional dependencies of a space in movement”, writes Manuel Castells (La société en réseau, 1996). This is closely linked to the need to develop “new centrality” (through regional or interregional agencies, observatories, local organisations, etc.) that can efficiently ensure implementation of strategic central measures, because they “create transactional spaces, through which the transnational institutions, often with overloaded bureaucracies, can share their sphere of influence with decentralised organisations” (E. Delgado, Roots and Visibility, Varna, 1998).

But even if the need for this local autonomy seemed obvious, the inert top-down approaches continued to persist for several good years. Strategies at ministerial level in the Central and South-Eastern European countries did not go beyond structural reshaping of ministries, some more or less achieved delegation of powers to local decentralised agencies or initiation of often today outdated legislation on the subject.

Europe and the Regions

Poland secured a degree of local autonomy and cultural competence very early, in March 1990, through the “Territorial Government Act”. This Act delegates the power and responsibilities for local cultural policy to the 2500 communes in Poland, in coordination of course with the central power, but dependent on local funds. Later, the Polish government had to revise this act, according to the unbalanced resources available within the communities and “help” local budgets face the important core expenditure of theatres, museums and libraries.

Romania, the second largest country in the region, only succeeded to formulate some clearer legislation for the regional and local authorities from 1996 onwards. The measures adopted were very much like the Polish ones. Very soon, however, problems arose, as no preparation of the new measures was carried out, in consultation with the local public authorities: “The result of such an approach can be seen as a “trap” into which the decentralisation of institutions and cultural activities in Romania seems to have fallen. (...) What will happen to the cultural institutions most affected by the transition: the community cultural centres or arts schools, the centres for the promotion of popular or amateur artistic creation (...) and, most of all, what is the responsibility of the local authorities who find themselves, all of sudden, in charge of cultural institutions they are not interested in?“ points out parliamentary Cultural Committee expert Virgil Nitulescu (PfC workshop dossier- The legislation for culture in Romania, Sinaia 2000).

In 2002, the publication of the Strategy of the Timis County, supported and encouraged by Policies for Culture, coordinated by a highly active local (Timis) expert and benefiting from French and Dutch expertise, succeeded in gaining national awareness for the need for a coherent methodology in the successful implementation of regional cultural strategies.

From this point of view, Bulgaria is more pragmatic. Cities such as Plovdiv, with a strong local identity have seized the opportunity to develop a local strategy and disseminate the results at national level (PfC Action Project, 2001). On the other hand, the focus of Bulgarian central cultural policy establishes decentralisation as a priority. For example, using the strengths of the Euro-Bulgarian Centre, which was created as a result of the EC’s Phare Programme in Bulgaria (implemented by the British Council and the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture) and the Council of Europe’s pilot project “Cultural policy and cultural diversity”, an initiative related to cultural entrepreneurship and the efficient use of around 3500 Bulgarian local cultural and artistic centres (“Chitalishte”), the initiative “Cultural diversity and cultural entrepreneurship” aimed at highlighting the diversified values of the Bulgarian society and facilitating the development of the local and regional enterprise.

In Croatia, local cultural policy strategy was reshaped entirely after 2000, by a conscious top down initiative launched by the Croatian Ministry of Culture, which delegated the design of a “decentralised” cultural strategy to a group of Croatian scholars, asking them to devise and plan the implementation of this strategy in the name of the Ministry. The first implementation results by the 22 Croatian counties are still too fresh to be assessed. Consultation with local experts and agencies during several seminars, organised in the framework of the CoE’s MOSAIC programme, do indicate however, sufficient symbolical will to encourage local action as a key to engaging internal and foreign partnerships.

The “Drive” towards the Local

What seems to emerge as a general trend for the region, and the study “Competencies and Practices in European Local and Regional Cultural Policy” (prepared by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Europe - CLRAE in 2000, CoE) confirms this, is that Central and South-Eastern Europe is able to deal better with the difficult issues of heritage preservation considered by all the Eastern countries as THE priority and international and interregional cooperation projects (seen as the key to identity preservation but also as “boosters” of image development) at a local and regional level. Also, where smaller countries like Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic tend to solve the lack of local financial resources with a strong privatisation policy, for larger countries, such as Romania and Poland, changing legislation related to the heavy cultural infrastructure inherited from the communist period remains the main instrument that can engage change. The mechanisms in place are still too heavy to stimulate efficient privatisation. The immediate and most negative consequence for the former larger countries is that, at a local/regional level, traditional and conservative art forms prevail, to the detriment of emerging artistic creativity, whilst smaller regions have developed in the late decade “new” artistic families and understood the need to reconnect internationally through modernity in contemporary art, as one of the ways to regain a place in the international circuit of values. If Poland or Romania could benefit from a better-implemented local autonomy, this would bring about smaller scale action in the arts and, consequently, through interregional exchange, a quicker evolution towards contemporary art forms. Towns such as Timisoara (Romania), whose exchange with Serbian and Hungarian communities is alive, or Wroclaw in Poland, where contemporary forms are developing through contacts with the neighbouring Czech and German communities, are telling examples.

But the “drive” for decentralised cultural action is not only a way to better deal with already existing potential of a given cultural space, but also, as the latest policy note by Ilkka Heiskanen on behalf of Council of Europe (Nov 2001, Decentralisation: Trends in European Cultural Policies) shows, still one of the major strategic themes of cultural policy in Europe. “Direction and leadership from the top is still needed”, the author says: “Yet, we have collectively lost faith in the capacity of governments to “engineer” change through top-down strategies. A re-balancing of central direction on the one hand and responsiveness to local need on the other is a core governing challenge”. Engineering change and concentrating on solutions to solve the core dilemma of striking the right balance between decentralisation and centralised control ARE the issues that, if correctly and constantly handled by policy makers, will surely provide for Central and South-Eastern European countries an issue to escape from the prolonged management of crisis - “minimum survival kit” logic of artistic and cultural development. “A good local and regional policy is also a guarantee for greater governmental commitment to culture”, the above-mentioned study affirms. And, we would add, a guarantee that government policy is really shifting from a centralised authoritarian type of leadership towards a more modern, governance-oriented leadership logic, based on trust, networking and partnership with the third sector.

Regions and Territorial Memory

“The EU enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe was subject to great Western enthusiasm when it was impossible, and became a difficult, highly problematic issue as soon as it became possible” comments the American scholar Tony Judt in his book Europe of Illusions. On one hand one has to deal with problems emerging from post-war or post-communist unsolved items. Be it in Silézia, a frontier region situated between Germany and Poland, where the population requires the recognition of the “Silezian” minority, as the most European of Polish regions, or in the Sudete region (Czech Republic), where after the Second World War the “Benes decrees” determined massive exclusion and sometimes extermination of Hungarian and German populations, or the Timisoara and Sibiu regions in Romania, where the German population left almost completely during the totalitarian Ceausescu regime or the ex Yugoslav territory, where Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Montenegro provide enough reason for border tensions, as formerly in Slovenia and Croatia, or Moldova striving to ensure independence and rights to its Romanian roots. The memory of territories, hosting communities and their past, proves thus to be a stronger binding element than the administrative borders delimiting and separating the nation states within the region.

On the other hand, the items emerging lately in Western Europe include: policy for minorities related to immigration problems; revival of nationalistic movements; fears of endangering the welfare state because of the enlargement process; finding workable instruments to introduce and smoothen and make the enlargement process possible; making national frontiers flexible and open to otherness. The European vocabulary, including both the technocratic harmonisation requirements, but also concepts such as “sustainable development”, “cultural diversity”, “cultural rights”, “cultural governance”, “cultural ecology”, all need a reality check at a local and regional level before becoming items on the agenda of the intergovernmental organisations. Even more so in Central and Eastern Europe, where social cohesion is still weak and decontamination from ideological cultural symbols is still so present. As for the Central and South-Eastern European region, the urgency to rebuild a positive image of the territory remains crucial, and relies, as Raymond Weber faithfully writes in his key note speech on inter-regional cooperation (Vienna, 2000): “The Balkans, with their genuineness, their fluctuating community identities, their traditions and their inexplicable singularity in European history, have the potential to be the “laboratory of the future”, envisaged by UNESCO’s former director general, Federico Mayor”.

Of course, we all know that there is a “Europe of words”, and a “Europe of practices”. Regions and a better autonomy for cultural action at a local and regional level might simply bring them together.

print this page send page by email

Featured projects

The artist's corner features have surprised projects that through their vision and action have contributed to a change in the context for the arts and culture in the region. Visit the section's...

read the full story

Cultural Policy Education Group (CPEG)
© 2008  policies for culture  (ECUMEST Association & European Cultural Foundation)  
contact home page ECUMEST Association European Cultural Foundation