EXIT Chief of Communications Sagor Mešković on the Protest Origins of the Serbian Festival | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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EXIT Chief of Communications Sagor Mešković on the Protest Origins of the Serbian Festival

Activism Meets Hedonism

Jun 27, 2019 Sagor Mešković
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Amidst the maelstrom of the European festival circuit each summer, certain institutions stand out. Perhaps no annual gathering has quite the heritage that Serbia’s EXIT Festival does, though. Founded in 2000 at a time when the Balkan nations were still emerging from the most harrowing of periods, EXIT was created in proud opposition to the still-standing regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Now, nearly two decades later, EXIT remains one of the most politically active and outspoken beacons of its kind, supporting ecological and humanitarian projects, both domestic and international. Pair that with a towering reputation for its formidable late night dance stages and with a 2019 line-up that boasts The Cure, Skepta, and Greta Van Fleet and you have the ultimate blend of activism and hedonism. We spoke to EXIT chief of communications Sagor Mešković about the festival’s political origins, how its ethos has changed over the years and what to expect from this year’s edition.

Max Pilley: Talk me through the origins of the first EXIT festival in 2000? I understand it was set up by a student group who stood in opposition to the Milosevic regime?

Sagor Mešković: The first student protests against Milosevic and his oppressive regime started in November 1996 and carried into the March of the next year. They were a reaction to the fraudulent manipulation over the local elections and even at an early stage, there was a need to radicalize the protest so they would become massive in numbers. Dusan Kovacevic, who later became a founder of EXIT with few of his friends, led the 60-mile student march from Novi Sad all the way on foot to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, where they were greeted by thousands of protesters. After this and other pivotal moments, the protests peaked at 200,000 people, which is now interestingly the number of annual visitors at EXIT. Though Milosevic did eventually acknowledge the opposition victory at the local level, he remained in power at the federal level, which is why that same group of students carried on with many protest events in years to come. As a culmination of that whole era, in the summer of 2000, at the University campus in Novi Sad, the zero-edition of EXIT was born. It was a 100 days long protest made of parties, concerts, even theatre plays, and a grand finale alternative rock show for tens of thousands under the slogan, “He is done!” It took place just before the elections that had a large turnout of young people for what became a legitimate electoral victory for the opposition. Milosevic denied it again and hundreds of thousands of people rose into a massive peaceful revolution on October 5th which finally got him to resign.

How did you come to decide what the festival would stand for, and how successful were you at first?

In those early years, there was pretty much one goal, to overthrow the oppressive regime, but the lust for life was much bigger after a full decade of total isolation from the world. Our country was under a very strong international embargo. There was a collective memory of life where our education and healthcare were free of charge and available to everyone and people didn’t need to lock their houses, a memory of how we lived in a society with almost no crime and with what is today almost an unthinkable social justice. We wanted our lives back. Our whole generation just wanted to exit from the decade of madness.

Was there any other event that was led by the activism of a group of young people that you drew inspiration from?

In recent years we celebrated what we found to be our common inspiration, even if unknowingly at first. When we rolled back to our roots, through music we loved and the vibe we felt, it was the short hippie era from the late 1960s, that inspired pretty much everything that led up to this day and age. It was the first truly large peace movement in history, so when you grow up in the civil war in the ex-Yugoslavia, you can’t help but to draw parallels to anti-Vietnam war slogans combined with the rock ‘n’ roll-infused soundtrack of that age. And pretty much all of us from this generation at EXIT listened to Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, etc.

Why was EXIT the right name for the festival?

The name reflected our deepest urge to get out from the isolation. To break free from the oppression. To escape from this craziness we lived each day in the 1990s and tell the world we are still alive, we are not broken. I remember being without electricity for as long as 45 days while the war raged around me in my hometown in Bosnia. You could see hundreds of people in the middle of the Yugoslav capital Belgrade fighting in the city center over a piece of bread. The deaths, the beatings, the propaganda lies, those were things even the young were not spared from in the 1990s. We simply had to exit only to be able to open the doors from the outside and have the whole world enter. Together with a normal life again which we worked very hard on building, with some new glorious images sent to the world after a decade long run of sheer misery.

How has the ethos of the festival changed, or managed to remain intact?

It has evolved. We started with locally infused social activism, building something of a regional impact and today we are addressing the global issues. Since preserving life on this planet has become such a pressing matter above all else, we are exploring every option of making a big leap forward, much bigger than festivals can make by only changing themselves. Making some of our own stages work on solar power unfortunately cannot make enough impact and all of us who spend so much time and resources into adjusting our own operation found ourselves just serving to the false image that something is actually being done. When in reality, world countries, large industries, and the big businesses have all the keys in their hands. We just need to empower them with our own awareness efforts so that their communities can support the changes. Yes, we need to empower even the governments of the largest nations, to start working immediately on systematic solutions, both operational and legislative, to help preserve their own people by preserving all life on Earth. To help preserve the civilisation from its own destructive pace of so-called economic growth that will soon have us all in the apocalyptic age that no money can buy its way out from.

Do you aim to book musicians that you think will share your ethos?

We certainly try to. But we are also fine with those who are not very socially engaged as long as their music and views does not spread hate, or promote some truly destructive agenda. However, we are more inclined to bands like The Cure who are outspoken on matters of freedom, and who indeed have plenty of charitable work behind them. Only a few years ago we managed to raise €120,000 which was enough to build a hospital wing for children with cancer in the south of our country. Only after the booking, we discovered that Robert Smith and The Cure did something quite similar. I guess we tend to be fans of like-minded artists, which does affect our lineups in the end. But we also love a good party. We learned very early on that the power of a good time and positive energy can get some of the most serious goals across to young people who will always have the most claim on matters of this world’s future, right?

You use the festival to promote causes generally to do with young people-what are your main focuses now?

On the local level our main focus is our platform Young Heroes, which is an award that we give each year to those among our ranks whose achievement usually doesn’t get much media attention. We have so many young scientists, especially mathematicians, who come back to Serbia with gold medals from world championships and they do not get the same treatment as our basketball players who are superstars. As much as we love sports, and have a category for young athletes too, we are mostly proud to get those other heroes onto the pages of our most read newspapers and have them featured on national television. On the regional level, we intend to continue building bridges among the countries who were in war some 25 years ago, and on the global level, there can be only one goal for us all—preserving life on this planet.

Do you think the overall trend over the 19 years since EXIT began has been towards a more positive, tolerant world? Are you concerned by the current rise of populist parties across Europe?

Indeed! We have seen first-hand what populism can do to great countries, like Yugoslavia once was. It is so sad to see so many similarities to what we have been trough in the last 30 years. We are still dealing with populism in this region, since those who divide are doing so for their own agenda. Capable leaders unite with others. Those who lack the vision, leadership, and courage tend to go the easy route of isolation and fear mongering. Populism, nationalism, and isolation never did good in history, not once. And it’s always the loud minority that stands behind the populism, where the vast majority who seek to unite and work together, to help each other, are the ones that are quiet. Our main regional platform is called “The Quiet Balkan Majority” which we use deliberately to emphasize the fact that peaceful, honest people are the ones with numbers, not the other way around.

What are you particularly looking forward to about EXIT 2019?

Greta Van Fleet! I’m a huge Zep fanatic and I was very skeptical about them, but after I really gave them my time, listened to the whole album and especially their live footage, I was mind-blown! Of course, I love my personal baby project within EXIT, our internationally praised music platform and its infamous No Sleep stage, located close to our even more glorious and legendary Dance Arena. So yeah, a bit of good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of hippie vibes, but in its modern interpretation: raving into the morning with the best sunrise partying you can experience. I am still amazed by it.

Next year is EXIT’s 20th birthday, do you have something special in mind?

The first two decades could be summed as the first EXIT era. The next one begins with the end of this year’s edition and we intend to rethink and improve everything. To remodel how we see the festival and our own mission in the future decades. Make sure to join the EXIT Tribe, this informal movement of people who share the love and passion for making the right thing at the time that puts us all to the test. Time to get loud as we are 100% certain that those who seek peace on Earth and peace with the Earth are indeed the majority in this world.


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June 28th 2019

This may be true for Exit origins, but the festival is anything but politically outspoken now.
Political and cultural situation is same if not worse then during the Milosevic’s regime.
Dead journalists, declining living standard, poverty, right wing extremists ...

June 29th 2019

The festival is not successful because it still has to be subsidized by the Serbian government to the tune of 1.5 million Euros per year. So it is not self-supporting.
It is also damaging the fortress which is sinking more and more since the festival started. The huge crowds and loud music are slowly destroying it. It is time for EXIT to exit.

Jon Sanders
July 10th 2019

Very informative thanks a lot for sharing.