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

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01.11.2002 | author: Violeta Simjanovska
Transition and Cultural Policy in the Republic of Macedonia
Policies for Culture Journal, November 2002
Violeta Simjanovska
is the director of Performing Arts Centre Multimedia, Skopje, Macedonia.
The Republic of Macedonia is geographically a European state but one that is situated in the heart of the Balkans. In Turkish, ‘Balkan’ means blood and honey. It is a name that fits us. Too much energy still needs to be spent maintaining a situation that is civilised, especially in the light of events in neighbouring countries over the past ten years. This is a region where historic, political, religious and spiritual elements are interwoven. The mixture of languages, cultures, and traditions did not, however, break down completely the
differences between nations.

After more than forty years of socialism, Macedonia has become an independent country. In this period of transformation and transition many Macedonians have experienced such problems as unemployment and inadequate wages. Indeed, the adoption of market criteria brought the whole society into a state of uncertainty and tension. It has also led to a post-socialist emphasis on cultural heritage, a heritage of false grace and greatness.

There are difficulties in defining the term ‘cultural policy’ in Macedonia. We discussed this with experts in Macedonia, including those at the very top in the Ministry of Culture, and basically their attitude was that cultural policy did not exist in Macedonia and that we had
to start to establish it. When we spoke to experts from Europe, however, we found that they had a completely different attitude. They maintained that a kind of cultural policy did exist in Macedonia, though it was unclear what its values were. As Oliver Bennet remarked: ”The difficulty with the term ‘cultural policy’ is that its meaning is never stable. The parameters are never fixed, which means that cultural policy is always questioning and requestioning its own terms of reference.”

In the process of democratisation, the role of government in cultural matters changes. The Macedonian Ministry of Culture enacted a new Law on Culture, which was one of the first things that needed to be done. However, Macedonia’s problem is less with its legislative framework than with implementing the laws that do exist. The Law on Culture, according to many important players, is very unclear, and leaves a lot of room for personal interpretation. The real power rests with the Minister. In Macedonia, however, Ministers
frequently change office, on average every six months. The negative consequences of this are substantial. With decision-making being so centralised, the non-institutional sector is almost completely marginalised.

The National Programme is a subject about which all people active in the cultural field should give their opinion. Macedonia, though, does not have a tradition of public debate. For the Bylaw Regulation concerning the National Programme, the Ministry of Culture gave people just two months to send their remarks or suggested amendments to the Ministry of Culture. This was a two-month period in which many people took their holidays. Another difficulty was that the Minister of Culture changed again.

Not only Ministers of Culture act as though they were the sole decision-makers in Macedonia. This is true of those at the top in almost any public institution. Proclaimed as experts (by themselves or others), their word is final. They do not permit space for new ideas and initiatives compatible with the current needs of the people. The old infrastructure of public institutions must first be changed in the minds of the new managers.

Poor Relationship with the Ministry of Culture
The expanding NGO sector, in which only a few work in the field of arts and culture, faces absurd operational difficulties. Unfortunately, the small number of organisations that do exist receive no real backing from the Ministry of Culture. Communication between NGOs and governmental institutions is not highly developed. There are several possible reasons for this, including personal ego and fear of competition.

The experience of Performing Arts Centre Multimedia, one of the most important NGOs in Macedonia, provides a vivid example of this poor relationship. Covering most areas of arts and culture, it has operated now for four years and has provided a great deal to the art community and the public generally. Multimedia was faced with a situation that shocked the Macedonian public. The City of Skopje Museum, an institution supported by the Ministry of Culture, provided a venue for Multimedia’s workspace. Following a change of Government, a new museum director was appointed who was unwilling to continue the collaboration and decided to expel Multimedia, even though they had an agreement in writing that they could use the venue. The expulsion was dramatic: the electricity was switched off, locks were changed, and Multimedia staff were ordered to leave the space within five hours. The whole Macedonian public was shocked and completely against this action, including the most powerful journalists from all relevant media and the country’s most prominent artists. This strong condemnation was communicated to the Minister of Culture. He did not react. The venue has become a Playboy Night Bar.

Despite such difficulties, NGOs have begun to play an important role in the democratisation of our society. One example is the project initiated by PAC Multimedia, called: Citizens’ Initiative for determining the strategy for cultural development in the Republic of Macedonia.

In the context of strained relations that escalated into a war, it might seem absurd to be dealing with possible strategies for cultural development in Macedonia. However, culture has the potential to ease tensions and can offer a broader perspective on the strategic issues that our country is facing.

The changes that should have taken place in the past ten years largely failed to materialise, especially in the sphere of culture, which should be the precursor of a more radical opening up of society, serving as an important integrative and cohesive factor in the broadest sense.

Contemporary ideas of culture link it more and more with community, with immediate social surroundings, and with minorities of all kinds. On the other hand, there is also a strong trend for turning culture into industry, which is what makes the EU pay more attention to and attempt to compete with the powerful American cultural industry. Macedonia persists with an outdated cultural model that is facing complete collapse. A strategy for cultural development is needed urgently.

This civil initiative for preparing possible strategies for sustainable cultural development aims to stimulate dialogue and to strengthen the democratic culture. In this phase of our work, before the main goals are precisely articulated, it is necessary to assert our principal point of view, which is that we need to ensure the pluralism of cultural orientations. Macedonian society is both complex and colourful. This is one of our basic development resources.

Cultural Policy Debates (1)
After a year of negotiation with the Ministry of Culture, we finally succeeded in becoming a partner in this particular project. The Ministry has assumed responsibility for implementing the proposals that emerge from the initiative. We decided to have six national debates and two regional debates. At the moment we are preparing the fifth national debate. These are the themes:

1: What is culture? What are the instruments of cultural politics?
2: The Macedonian cultural concept in a European context
3: Transition and culture; privatisation and models of financing
4: Culture and identity
5: The media and culture
6: How can we build trust between political institutions and culture?

From the debates held so far we can conclude that cultural policy in Macedonia should have the following objectives: the decentralisation of power; the reconstruction of the Ministry of Culture, the development of market-oriented culture and art; the education of professional managers; the denationalisation of cultural institutions; the involvement of civil society in formulating cultural policy.

Transforming a way of life and changing society’s norms, values and spiritual patterns is a long process. Our experience since Macedonia became independent in 1991 proves that the civil sector must fight for these new values to prevail.


(1) The Skopje Debate Centre is a local project initiative associated with Policies for Culture.

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