Every July, the Petrovaradin Fortress in the sleepy northern Serbian city of Novi Sad transforms into a sprawling ecosystem of stages, sound equipment and beer tents as it plays host to Exit — one of Europe’s biggest music festivals and a defining symbol of the country’s rehabilitation after the horrors of the Yugoslav wars.

Over the past 18 years, Exit has grown into the nation’s most recognisable brand and a commercial behemoth contributing some $17-34 million to the local economy annually. Few foreigners, however, now appreciate that Exit’s origins are rooted in the student protests that raged against Slobodan Milošević throughout the 90s.

The seeds that would eventually blossom into Exit were planted in May 1998, when the government passed the Universities Act. Serbia’s universities had always been hotbeds of anti-regime and anti-war sentiment. This cynical piece of legislation abolished their autonomy in an attempt to snuff out dissent. All administrative decisions and appointments would now be made by the state. By that point the war was nearly a decade old and a degree of fatigue had begun to set in, with many students planning to boycott the next election.

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    The Main Stage at Exit Festival in 2017. Image: Exit Festival / Facebook

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    Morning at the Dance Arena at Exit Festival in 2015. Image: Aleksandar Kamasi, Exit photo team under a CC licence

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    Fireworks over the Petrovaradin Fortress at Exit Festival in 2015. Image: Aleksandar Kamasi, Exit photo team under a CC licence

In an attempt to re-energise youthful resistance, then-president of the University of Novi Sad student union, Bojan Bošković, and a number of other leading figures in the student body shifted the focus away from rallies and marches to more entertaining tactics that would boost enthusiasm and morale. Concerts became a regular fixture of the struggle and they organised screenings of the 1998 World Cup in France after Serbs were barred from travelling to the tournament.

The most notable of these actions, a protest concert titled “Šakom u glavu” (“Fist to the head”) took place in 1999, not long after the three month-long NATO bombing campaign drew to a close. During an interval in the middle of the gig, projectors began playing a show reel of the atrocities committed by the Milošević regime: how he embezzled money through pyramid banking schemes; all the young people he sent to die; all the journalists murdered under his watch; the siege of Sarajevo and countless other bombings. Recalling the event, Bojan tells me that “people were first silent and then furious — and I remember thinking: we could be onto something here.” This set the blueprint for the first Exit a year later.

The festival’s name and slogan — “Exit out of 10 years of madness” — was a thinly-veiled nod to its revolutionary intentions

Exit “zero”, as it’s affectionately called by festival insiders, consisted of two stages: a “live music” stage that also hosted speeches, film screenings, debates and plays, and an electronic music stage on the nearby river bank. This remains a central feature of the current festival set-up, with today’s Dance Arena the biggest open-air dance music venue in Europe. Starting on June 29, the festival was scheduled to run for 86 days, ending just two days before that year’s general election on September 24. Its purpose was to rally the youth vote and get them to the polls so they could break Milošević’s grip on power. The festival’s name and slogan – “Exit out of 10 years of madness” – was a thinly-veiled nod to its revolutionary intentions.

Year zero was a slow burn: to avoid attracting unwanted police attention, the festival’s organisers tried to keep proceedings as depoliticised as possible. Music and entertainment were placed at the forefront while more overt political displays came later as election day approached. This was a shrewd move because it saved Exit from a premature conclusion and allowed for an accumulation of critical mass, thus maximising the number of attendees that could then be ushered to the ballot box. But the musical element wasn’t simply a strategic consideration: it was an attempt at normalisation. Like Poland’s Jardocin festival back in the ‘80s, it offered a brief respite from the grind of the day-to-day.

  • Footage from the inaugural Exit Festival in the summer of 2000

Although Yugoslavia was ruled by a communist regime, it wasn’t sealed behind the Iron Curtain. In the 70s and 80s, life was relatively prosperous: Yugoslav citizens were free to travel and cities like Belgrade had a thriving cultural life. But in 1990, just as the rest of the Eastern Bloc was rising from its slumber, embargos, sanctions and civil war brought normality to a screeching halt across Yugoslavia. Exit represented an attempt to reclaim that for a generation too young to remember the glory days.

There’s a long history of music and protest going hand-in-hand. Woodstock was a defining moment of the hippy counterculture; punk rock has politicised teens over decades; in 1992, Otpor!, the main anti-Milošević resistance movement, loaded some local bands and musical equipment onto the back of a truck and drove through the streets of Belgrade, blasting songs like “peace, brother, peace”, “there’s no brain under that helmet” and “he who shoots doesn’t fuck”. Music is a powerful vessel for dissent and gigs are a bond-building collective experience.

The festival deserves to be remembered for being there as the tides of history began to turn

48 hours after the inaugural Exit concluded, Milošević was defeated at the polls but refused to step aside for his opponent, Vojislav Kostunica. This prompted masses from across the country to descend upon Belgrade and drag him out of power on October 5. Although this can hardly be attributed to Exit, the festival deserves to be remembered for being there as the tides of history began to turn. Its symbolic value can’t be overstated even if its contribution is difficult to quantify precisely.

Exit returned in 2001 to celebrate this euphoric new dawn. Input from one of the national radio broadcasters helped both professionalise and commercialise it while still maintaining some of its socially-minded roots: Exit Festival is regarded as a singular component in a much wider movement called “State of Exit”, which seeks to transform life in Serbia and the wider region. Each year it attaches itself to a pet cause, ranging from human trafficking to LGBTQ rights.

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    Protesters from the Otpor! movement march on Belgrade in October 2000 demanding the removal of Slobodan Milošević.

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    Mass demonstrations in Belgrade on 5 October 2000 shortly after the first iteration of Exit.

Its biggest coup came in 2006, when organisers invited the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, to the festival to debate the crippling visa regimes that had prevented an entire generation of Serbs from travelling freely and broadening their horizons. After being presented with an honorary State of Exit “citizenship”, Rehn was shocked to discover the list of documents every Serb had to present when applying for a Schengen visa. The stunt clearly won him over: several years later he could be seen waving the aforementioned list around on television when it was announced that Serbs would finally be granted visa-free travel across the Schengen zone.

Exit has become an increasingly slick operation with every passing year, but this growth has also arguably stripped away some of its magic. My friends and I used to be regular attendees, but our interest started to wane around 2010 as the acts became excessively mainstream and started attracting a very different sort of crowd.

Exit today can be seen as a symbol of the mass disillusionment of the post-Milošević years: nothing has quite gone the way that so many had hoped

Many lament that the festival has sold out its countercultural roots, but that might be an overly harsh assessment: Exit was a product of a specific set of circumstances at a particular point in history. It’s only natural that the festival change with time. There’s a whole universe of dysfunction to rage against in modern day Serbia, but it’s far easier to rally against a single monolithic foe like Milošević than the collective failure of civil society. In a way, Exit today can be seen as a symbol of the mass disillusionment of the post-Milošević years: nothing has quite gone the way that so many had hoped. Bojan Bošković, who split from the Exit team in 2013 over ideological differences, shares this sentiment.

“I am quite proud to have worked as a general manager of Exit for 14 years, however, yes, I am ashamed of Exit today,” Bojan tells me. “And this has nothing to do with having corporations at the festival `— quite the opposite. I think it’s great to take money from sponsors to promote cool music. But I think it's really shameful that not only has the Exit project lost its social edge, it has also jumped into bed with the right wing Serbian government and been totally absorbed by the regime. The political situation in Serbia is extremely difficult. The situation in the media is worse than during the dictatorship. We’re stuck with the exact same people who used to run the country back in the 90s, only now they’re deemed acceptable by the EU. What we need is a new Exit.”

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