Exit Still Has Its Political Voice

The political climate has cooled since Exit Festival’s founders set up an event that was basically a two-fingered farewell to deposed former president Slobodan Miloševic, but it still has its campaigning voice.

In the lead-up to this year’s gathering, which attracted a sellout 50,000 crowd to the old Petrovaridan Fortress at Novi Sad, Serbia, the festival spoke out against the "Schengen visa regime," under which other mainly European Union countries require citizens from some of the former Soviet satellite states – including Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Albania – to undergo a rigorous visa procedure before granting entry.

The first festival was so named because it signaled Miloševic’s imminent departure and the country’s emergence (or exit) from what its youth saw as a long dark political tunnel. Now the word’s used to try to help young Serbs find an easier way to get out of the place.

The festival’s supporting a "Visa Abolishment Campaign," which is trying to do something about the long and complicated permit procedure making many young Balkans feel like prisoners in their own country.

Visiting an EU member state is virtually impossible, as Serbs are asked to show that they own some real estate or that they have high incomes, both apparently seen as a type of guarantee that they’re likely to return home.

With neighbouring former Soviet allies including Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and even the former Yugoslav state of Slovenia already in the EU, the Exit team believes Balkan youngsters are being made to feel they’re living in a ghetto.

Last year Exit instigated a "Not60Euros" campaign to protest against the actual visa fee being hiked from euro 35 to euro 60, more than a week’s wage for some Serbs, and managed to generate so much publicity that the visa fee for western Balkan countries was frozen at euro 35 for the next two years.

The fee is only part of the cost of the application and the whole procedure often comes out at about euro 200 to euro 250, the equivalent of the average monthly salary in Serbia.

During this year’s festival, there was a large billboard of a photograph of the Eiffel tower with the words "Greetings From Europe" written on it.

Visitors were invited to have their picture taken in front of it so the image could be sent to them as an e-card together with the e-mail addresses of various EU institutions, western Balkan governments and media contacts – all part of Exit’s drive to show that Serbs look much the same as any other tourist standing in the centre of Paris. The difference is that it’s nearly impossible for them to go there.

In November, Exit co-founder and festival manager Bojan Boskovic addressed an EU Parliament seminar on the subject. It was organised by the alliance between the parliament’s Liberals and Democrats For Europe (ALDE).

Franco Frattini – the European commissioner for justice, freedom and security – was one of the speakers.

Last year the Exit organisers made a cartoon computer game of a young Serb trying to battle through the visa procedure and sent a link of it to every member of the European parliament.

The EU parliament is targeted because it’s mainly member states – including Belgium, Germany, France, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and all the Nordic and old Eastern Bloc countries that have recently joined – that formed the Schengen agreement.

The "Schengen" agreement eases free movement of people between all the states that subscribe to it but will only accept visitors from some outside countries, including most of the Balkans, if they’re carrying a visa granted after the bearer has gone through the entry procedure.

Exit’s rising profile has added volume to its European political voice. This year, one-fifth of the 50,000 crowd came from the U.K. and it’s been winning more fans among journalists on the serious British papers.

"One out of five? There were times when it sounded like one out of two," joked Exit press chief Rajko Bozic, pointing out that the percentages didn’t include all the scores of Brits who came as either part of an act or as crew.

Those entertaining the stay-at-home Serbs and the various British and EU visitors that turned up to the Petrovaridan Fortress July 12-15 included Audio Bullys, Basement Jaxx, Beastie Boys, Lauryn Hill, Snoop Dogg, Robert Plant & Strange Sensation, LTJ Bukem & MC, CSS and Groove Armada.