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Macedonian Culture Strategy: Milestone or Wish List?

November 19, 2012

While officials laud the new strategy for 2012 to 2017 as a breakthrough, many working in the field question whether it is much than a list of good intentions.

Klimentina Ilijevski, Maja Nedelkovska, Aneta Risteska and Valentina Stojancevska, Balkan Insight, 15.11.2012


The strategy sets priorities in the field of culture | Photo by: MNT

Macedonians with a stake in the country’s rich culture hope that the new National Strategy for Cultural Development, covering the period from 2012 to 2017, will bring about wide-ranging changes.

The recently proposed draft of 30 pages, among other things, envisages a new Institute for Cultural Research and a Book Centre, modernised galleries, support for independent and alternative dance production and renewal of the cinema network.

It pledges to boost the independent cultural scene, which has so far been neglected.

While officials praise the strategy as a breakthrough, some critics describe it as a chaotic and unrealistic wish list.

They also note a significant anomaly: the strategy does not even mention the costly makeover of the capital, “Skopje 2014”, on which the Culture Ministry has spent a great deal of money.

The Culture Minister, Elizabeta Kanceska-Milevska, is upbeat. This is “the first time in Macedonia that such a strategic document has been prepared, based on professional and scientific knowledge,” she said at the presentation of the draft.

“The Strategy identifies priorities in all fields of culture, especially those related to the protection of cultural heritage and cultural tradition in the country,” she added.

Vlado Kambovski, president of the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, MANU, agrees it is an important document.

“After years of transition, it will clearly define a relationship between the state and civic sphere that accords with European values,” he said.

“Macedonia should be developed not only as economic – legal state, but as a cultural state,” he added.

“This is the only way toward membership of the European family, which respects the highest standards of multiculturalism, an integrative approach, dialogue, tolerance, respect and protection of all different cultures.”

But other observers are less impressed. Some remain critical of the practice of the Culture Ministry, which has been to equally distribute money among various institutions, which has stretched thin funds while maintaining a certain equilibrium.

This year’s program by the Ministry for support of projects of national interest amounts to 13 million euro, some 25 per cent of the ministry’s overall budget of 52 million euro.

This program provides support for a modest number of museum and gallery exhibitions, archaeological and conservation projects, participation by experts at conferences and projects run in partnership with UNESCO.

The money also covers the cost of publishing over 450 literary works and translating 70 works of world literature.

In addition, it supports 55 projects by domestic or foreign theatres as well as tours by national musical ensembles.

Filmmakers this year obtained the lion’s share of the money – 3.6 million euro, while only 830,000 euro went on protection of cultural heritage – not enough, critics say, to tackle numerous sites and monuments in poor condition.

Concert of the Macedonian Philcharmonic in Skopje | Photo by:

A mere 146,000 euro was assigned to art galleries, while young artists competed for only 32,000 euro.

While the Culture Ministry describes the budget as fair and transparent, and as open to all to apply for funds, critics say it only perpetuates a status quo in culture.

Culture manager Robert Alagjozovski says the latest culture budget and the programme it supports are no better or worse than last year’s; either way, the objectives remain poorly defined.

“This programme is a set of different projects that don’t have much in common,” he said, adding that the programme is led by the philosophy of “a piece of the pie for everyone.

“There are some good projects in there but mediocre and even absurd projects dominate; most reflect an anachronistic understanding of what’s art and artistic,” Alagjozovski added.

He described the new Strategy as disappointing, with inadequately defined objectives and no instruments offered to accomplish them.

“Strategic planning is a combination of knowledge and craft and few people in Macedonia know how to do it, but these experts weren’t involved in preparing the Strategy and a result is poor basic concept,” he said.

“The draft contains more than a hundred specific goals and each department of the Ministry has added its own activities, ideas, wishes and plans,” he added.

“In the finalisation of the draft, over 150 institutions, organisations and experts, selected by the Ministry, added proposals, providing democratic legitimacy for the document – but that doesn’t mean its improvement – on the contrary, the result is a chaotic document with hundreds of goals and objectives, activities, measures and commitments,” he concluded.

The president of the Centre for Cultural Heritage, Donka Bardzieva Trajkovska, also calls the draft unrealistic, arguing that it is not based on a true study of the situation and real needs.

“For such a strategic document to be adopted, prior analysis of the current state of culture is required, particularly in those activities that are to be fully financed by the Ministry,” she said.

“The absence of such analyses, which should list weaknesses and outline where spending needs to increase or decrease over the next five years, makes this document invalid,” Bardzieva added.

Art historian and National Gallery curator Zlatko Teodosievski criticizes lack of transparency in the Ministry’s work.

“I would like to know who the people who signed this Strategy are, so we can know with whom to debate,” he said.

Iskra Geshovska, president of the Association of the Independent Cultural Scene, Jadro, says for the Strategy to succeed, Macedonia needs a separate budgetary line for development of contemporary and independent cultural projects that have a broader, interdisciplinary and hybrid content.

Archeological museum in Bitola | Photo by:

“The Strategy needs to outline the existence of an independent cultural sector, which must be recognized when making decisions,” Geshovska said.

Only by creating separate funds for the independent sector will the Ministry demonstrate genuine commitment to the decentralization of power, she added.

No mention of Skopje 2014:

The council for culture in the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, meanwhile notes that the Strategy does not mention the expensive project to refurbish the capital, although the Culture Ministry is actively involved in it.

This party bitterly opposes the Skopje 2014 project, which the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has made a priority as part its pledge to give the neglected, grey-looking capital a more monumental appearance.

Drawing inspiration from Classical Antiquity, the project envisages the construction of some 20 buildings.

These include museums, theatres, concert halls, hotels and administrative offices as well as numerous large bronze and marble statues adorning the surroundings.

Critics question the project’s aesthetic values and complain of a lack of transparency in the contracts. Some believe a relatively poor country should spend its meager resources more prudently.

“There is not a single word in this document mentioning this megalomaniacal project, or about how the institutions and quasi-institutions that were formed as a result of it will be developed, or how they will improve culture,” the culture council of the Social Democrats said in October.

The input of the Culture Ministry in Skopje 2014 has been considerable. To date, it has allocated more than 60 million euro to it. This is equivalent to four annual national programs for culture.

Contracts show that the Ministry spent 34 million euro on the new National Theatre alone, which is still under construction.

It spent 14.5 million euro on the nearby new Museum of Macedonian Struggle and Victims of Communism, which opened recently.

The final cost for these two buildings may as well be higher, as the basic agreements for construction, signed in 2007 and 2008, were never revealed.

The Ministry is also financing a new home for the Philharmonic, an on-going, slow-moving project that has cost 7.5 million euro.

The price of the new marble triumphal arch, called “Macedonia”, amount to 4.5 million euro.

One of the most controversial outlays of the Ministry was spending 250,000 euro on placing three willow trees in the river Vardar.

The revamp of the capital is also financed through the government’s procurements bureau and the Municipality of Skopje and the Municipality of Centar, on whose territory most of the work is taking place.

Although the government initially that claimed the entire project would not cost more than 80 million euro, few believe that this figure is realistic.

In the absence of official figures, the opposition has estimated that the price tag may already have exceeded 500 million euro.

A characteristic of all the contracts related to the project is that each has had several additional annexes, which have led to significant increases in the amounts spent.

Alagjozovski says the Skopje project has created a form of parallelism in cultural policy, undermining everything else contained in the draft Strategy.

Ironically, he notes that of the many projects envisaged in the new Strategy, the one that is not even mentioned, Skopje 2014, has the best chance of being fully completed.

Opening of the triumphal arch in Skopje | Photo by:

“I am certain that every other strategy, regardless of whether it is good or bad, will remain only on paper,” Alagjozovski said.

Heritage neglected:

Experts say that in the past 20 years of independence, Macedonia has failed to protect its rich cultural heritage.

This year, like last year, the ministry approved 800,000 euro for cultural heritage protection. The amount equals the average cost of only one new monument erected as part of Skopje 2014.

Ever since the capital project started in 2009, Social Democrats have complained that while the government spends millions on marble and bronze statues and on faux Classical buildings, centuries-old frescoes in monasteries across the country are decaying.

Pasko Kuzman, soon to be retired head of the Cultural Heritage Protection Office, denies the charge, insisting that the office constantly monitored heritage sites and artefacts.

“Macedonia has as much cultural heritage as five other countries put together but we have closely monitored the situation and proposed a strategy for creating a special fund for emergency interventions in this field, which will help our work in future,” Kuzman said.

Donka Bardzieva-Trajkovska from the Centre for Cultural Heritage complains that institutions for protectection of cultural heritage have been starved of cash.

“The Culture Ministry has for years acted without criteria in this area, providing funds only for the elementary functioning of these institutions,” she said.

She would like to see the adoption of a new law, tightening the rules and ensuring more money for conservation.

She says the Strategy lacks crucial deadlines for the planned re-evaluation of the condition of thousands of heritage sites and artefacts.

She also believes such deadlines are crucial for determining priorities and plans for the preservation of monuments before they are beyond repair.

According to the National Conservation Centre, over 70 per cent of the Macedonian cultural monuments are in a critical condition.

Some sources from the Centre who wished to stay unnamed said they feared the true percentage is even higher.

Despite Kuzman’s claims, they say they do not have a clear picture of the current state of many monuments as they lack the money to carry out regular inspections.

Some monuments are practically decomposing, they add, noting that this year no money was allocated to the 13th-century church of the Virgin Mary in Dabnishte, near Kavadarci, or to St Nicholas’ church in Manastir, near Prilep, which dates from the same period and has suffered major damage.

No funds were allocated, either, for the church of St George in the village of Kurbinovo, which draws many tourists to its well-known fresco, “The Angel of Kurbinovo”.

At the 14-century monastery of St Gabriel Lesnovski, in Lesnovo village, where the need for conservation work is urgent, this year money was provided only for inspection.

The program director of the National Conservation Centre, Zoran Georgiev, recently told Balkan Insight that the modest size of their budget is the main reason why repairs have to be postponed, and why they now have to be done in phases.

At some sites, conservation work may have come too late, he fears. “The Ministry never approves the entire amount we request for the repair of an object, which is why repairs to churches or mosques take years,” Georgiev explained.

Archeological museum in Prilep | Photo by:

Lack of expertise is another problem. The Centre for Cultural Heritage recently complained that repairs to the frescoes in the 13th-century church of the Mother of God Perivleptos, in Ohrid, had done more harm than good.

The US embassy awarded 650,000 euro for the work but experts from the Centre say the results resulted in further damage.

“Repairs were done to the wrong roof, [which] already did serious damage to the paintings,” Bardzieva-Trajkovska said, adding: “It is unacceptable that these experts findings are kept from the public”.

Experts say a new list of the most damaged monuments is needed, as the old one, drawn up 15 years ago, is out of date.

Kuzman said an updated list was on the way. The Cultural Heritage Protection Office that he led until recently is obliged to supply it.

The Strategy meanwhile envisages the creation of a specialized Centre for Research of Cultural Heritage within the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, MANU, which will be tasked with regularly inspecting, protecting and preventing damage to cultural heritage.

“It was important that this be put on paper, to start from somewhere. But, it must be clear that this Strategy should not remain on paper, it must be implemented,” Kuzman said.

Theft of valuable artefacts is another problem. Over past years, numerous artefacts were taken out of the country, churches were robbed, and icons sold on European markets.

The country still hasn’t found way to tackle this problem, and a divide between the Cultural Heritage Protection Office and the Macedonian Orthodox Church, MPC, which owns the sites from which many artefacts were stolen, has not helped.

The Strategy proposes creating conditions for proper storage of icons in museums, where they would be safer, but some still insist that the place for icons is in churches.

Faced with frequent burglaries of churches on the southwest border with Albania, the head of the museum in the town of Struga, Saso Cvetkovski, urges storing costly icons in the museum.

But he says that local villagers where churches are located, often backed by local clergy, tend to resist the idea.

“Only a couple of icons from abandoned villages have been deposited with us, while other churches are left to the protection of the local villagers,” Cvetkovski said.

Fresh wind in theatre:

Many experts agree that Macedonian theatres in the past few years underwent changes for the better.

The government is financing the construction and reconstruction of several, including a new National Theatre in Skopje. Wages for most actors and theatre staff recently increased.

But experts point out that the bulk of the money allocated to theatres this year, a million euro, will go on wages and utility bills, not on boosting the quality of productions.

“Theatre programmes have to become the main criteria for the future financing of these institutions, ” Jelena Luzina, a dramatics lecturer at Skopje University, noted.

Money must boost the quality of production, experts say | Photo by: MNT

The new Strategy focuses on defining the place and role of theatre in society. Affirmation of Macedonian theatre abroad, support for independent productions and cross border cooperation are noted as goals.

Luzina says that in a globalized world, theatres cannot function only as factories for the quantitative production of plays but should “awaken to their public, social function” and “become aware that there are numerous things that theatres can and must do”.

Luzina praises the Strategy’s emphasis on domestic production and especially on coproduction. “It was high time to think about culture in a strategic manner,” she said, warning that it will be a challenge to accomplish, however.

“Successful co-production projects have a different model of theatrical organisation and a different way of theatrical thinking. Coproduction is not just a technique, nor just an art.

“Some of our theatres understand this well and are properly ‘pre-formatted] for such challenges, but, only some of them,” she added.

The head of Skopje’s Drama Theatre, Branko Gjorcev, believes the state of the theatre will improve if a clearer division is drawn between theatres at a national, public, city and municipal level.

“Every institution bears diverse characteristics and the urgent need for the theatres in the country is to be decentralized and depoliticized,” he said.

Gjorcev said theatres under municipal control must enjoy an equal chance to apply for Ministry funds, even if the authorities in question are run by opposing parties. “This will depoliticize culture,” he said.

He also urges toughening the criteria for state funds. “When we talk about projects financed by the Culture Ministry, we must pay find more rigorous ways of ensuring both qualitative and quantitative evaluation,” he said.

Gjorcev also points to a need to employ fresh actors and other staff, saying that the Ministries of Culture and of Finance must work together on making this happen.

The ministries recently launched a bid for the temporary employment of new actors for up to five years in a bid to refresh theatres. “But this still hasn’t worked in our theatres because of the slow reaction of the institutions” Gjorcev said.

Both ministries have to approve each new employment, and theatre people complain that the process moves forward slowly.

Boosting the film revival:

This year the Culture Ministry, through its Film Fund, approved 3.6 million euro for movie production, a substantial amount compared to other fields.

Culture Minister Elizabeta Kanceska-Milevska | Photo by:

The Strategy in this area envisages encouraging co-production with foreign producers, attracting foreign investments in film as well as digitalizing Macedonian movies.

The head of the Film Fund, Darko Baseski, says that they have formed a work group to study the draft and offer proposals.

“Our proposals on film activities focus on development of Macedonia cinematography by increasing film production, developing international cooperation and coproduction with other countries and digitalizing the cinema network, which should result in simplified and more qualitative cinema distribution,” Baseski said.

He feels there is no specific sector of cinematography that should be developed; the focus should be on all segments, starting from pre-production to film production, distribution, international promotion and festivals.

Basevski said that even with the modest funds available for this expensive industry, Macedonian cinematography has revived.

From 2008 to 2012, 60 movies – 18 motion pictures, 18 shorts, 19 documentaries and five short animated films were made.

“This is a remarkable result compared to the period from 1991 to 2008, after the fall of communism and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, when only 50 projects were completed,” Baseski noted.

If the priority lately has been on increasing film production, Baseski says that in future they will emphasise the quality of films.

Film producer Robert Naskov also insists on quality over quantity, which he says can be achieved only by better education.

“All kinds of projects were financed in the past only to achieve a greater quantity. But for quality to be reached we need experience and professionalism,” he said. “For that we need educated and trained staff.”

When it comes to logistics and infrastructure for the whole process of film production, Naskov argues that the state should invest, but only to an extent.

“Professional producers purchase their own equipment and invest in their own business, so becoming competitive. The state cannot buy everything, professionals must also invest,” he said.

Debate also continues among Macedonian filmmakers over the need for tax incentives to attract foreign producers.

Renowned artists recieving certificates for national pensions | Photo by:

Naskov said such provision is necessary, as all other neighbouring countries are already doing the same. “That’s first thing that foreign producers ask when they come here,” he explained.

But what is most important for Naskov is a law for audiovisual work, regulating all the important aspects related to filmmaking.

“This is the only way to regulate who can make movies, what the ways of financing are and what the obligations are,” he said.

Naskov said cooperation between institutions like the Film Fund, the Association of Filmmakers and the Faculty for Drama and Art must also be on a high level, and they need to complement each other in terms of obligations. He adds that these guidelines mu
st be prepared as soon as possible.

“Nothing can wait, if our common goal, called ‘Macedonian movies’, is to function flawlessly,” he said.

Grants for books:

This year’s national program for supporting book publishing, worth 1.4 million euro, remains troubled by familiar problems.

Publishers and authors complain that unknown publishing and printing houses and little known writers are being supported while well-known publishers are left out.

They also complain about the small amount of translated work, mostly of literature with questionable values.

Experts say the absence of a recognizable cultural policy and relevant quality tests for the books being chosen has driven some recognized publishers to ignore the open calls for backing.

“Numerous publishers are not part of this year’s program, which means we’re in danger of discarding the best in the business,” Robert Alagjozovski said.

Nenad Stevovic, from the Skopje-based publishing house Ili Ili, says the Ministry needs to “crystallize” its criteria.

Many also question the Ministry’s effort to promote Macedonian literature abroad.

This year, the Ministry did not finance the presentation of Macedonian books at the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the world’s leading fairs. The same happened at Bologna.

Macedonian books were also absent from region’s biggest fairs in Belgrade, Zagreb, Sofia and Tirana, which are important events for regional cooperation between producers.

Instead, the ministry focused on presenting books in Moscow, Istanbul and Leipzig, insisting that it is not necessary each year to be present at the same events.

But many publishers and experts think differently, arguing that discontinuity and absence from top book fairs, especially those in the neighbourhood, damage Macedonian literature.

They hope that the Strategy will sort out the chaos, establishing stricter rules for the funding of domestic production and boosting presentation abroad.

The Strategy does envisages more money for book publishing and translations as well as for participation at almost all major fairs in Europe, such as Frankfurt, Moscow, Leipzig, Paris, Bologna, as well as in neighbouring Sofia, Tirana and Belgrade.

Gorjan Lazarevski, head of the Association of Publishers and Bookstores of Macedonia, says the Strategy is moving in the right direction.

“The Strategy could definitely improve the situation in this sector. Most importantly, it seems feasible and has a realistic time framework,” he said, warning that it will require resources and effort.

Many question minisrty’s effort to promote literature | Photo by:

He suggests that an agency for the translation of Macedonian authors into foreign languages should be established.

Pointing out that many translations have lacked proper proof-reading by native speakers, he says that “quality translations are a basic precondition for the breakthrough of Macedonian literature on the world market”.

The Skopje-based publishing house, Matica, also welcomes the draft, but warns that it is still not clear what will be defined as representing the national interest in terms of books.

“Establishing such a framework will simplify the allocation of the finances from the annual program in publishing. The only way is for the state to give a road map and guidelines for development of the publishing segment, and everything else to be left to the free market,” Dejan Pavlovski, from Matica, said.

He urges building on programs that support the development of companies in this field that are active throughout the year, and not, as now, ones that serve to feed “instant companies” that would have nothing to do if it were not for the Ministry’s open call.

Ramadan Ramadani, a veteran publisher and former president of the publishers association, argues that the Strategy lacks many concrete explanations that determine the criteria and responsibilities of the institutions and expert committees it proposes.

“Professional associations should be involved in the decision-making process, especially in commissions and in the Culture Council,” he said.

Fine arts feel left out:

Judged by the thin funds allocated from the budget each year, the fine arts are poorly regarded by the state.

This year’s support for art and gallery work, worth 146,000 euro, was lowest compared to sums spent on other cultural fields.

Prominent painter Sergej Andreevski says that even this small amount is not spent transparently, as the Culture Ministry has no practice of publishing all its budget items on its website.

“What is unclear from the program is the amount allocated for separate projects, so we cannot judge it. If we knew these facts we would have a bigger say,” Andreevski said.

Artists say they mostly get only symbolic support from the Ministry. This rarely covers exhibition costs, which means artists have to finance their work from their own pockets.

Some on the art scene do not believe that the draft Strategy is going to bring drastic changes.

National Gallery in Skopje | Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

National Gallery curator Zlatko Teodosievski says the section of the Strategy on fine arts, “smells like the past – old and inconvenient”.

He argues that the document does not solve some of the most long-standing problems facing artists, such as the lack of stimulation for artists through buys of artworks, or support for art colonies and exhibitions.

Instead of addressing strategic goals, Teodosievski says the draft only lists “general annual priorities”.

“Where is the help for professional development of artists, or investment in new professional institutions? How about creative programs for young people or scientific research work? A new Strategy without such substantial changes is worthless,” he said.

The President of the Association of Artists, Tanja Balach, is more positive, however. Having a national strategy is important for the development of culture in any society, she says.

“Cultural policy must not be led spontaneously, by inertia and without a plan, but must be based on serious strategic documents, which I hope this strategy will become, since it’s very ambitious,” Balach said.

“The Strategy promises to increase support for artists, from the production all the way to the realisation and presentation in front of the public, both at home and internationally,” she added.

At the same time, Balach does not deny that in terms of allocating resources, money for fine arts is scarce while authors’ fees “are almost non-existent”.

Balach recommends boosting funds to support existing events, such as the international festival called the “Winter Salon”, staged by the Association of Artists.

“What is missing is greater financial support for the promotion of this project as the leading art brand in Macedonia,” she concluded.

Artists and managers also suggest regulation of copyright and property of art works in order to curb their unauthorized use, as well as clearer indications about which events the Ministry will support in years to come.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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