Europa Nosta will next year celebrate the 60th anniversary of our joint action for a common cause. Over the years, the voice of Europa Nostra has become very influential and very well respected. Most people and authorities seek to be praised and applauded by Europa Nostra rather than criticised over erroneous policies and actions that are detrimental to our cultural or natural heritage ~ Sneška Quaedvlieg- Mihailović
By decree of French President Emmanuel Macron, the medal of the National Order of the Legion of Honour in the rank of knight was recently pinned on the chest of Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailović. She thus received recognition for her many decades of commitment “in the service of European integration through culture”.
“With you, dear Sneška, the Seine has never been so close to the Sava and the Danube. Your life’s path is the path of a convinced European,” said French Ambassador Pierre Cochard when presenting this great accolade to her.
A native Belgrader, Mrs Quaedvlieg-Mihailović says that she grew up listening to lullabies that her mother Radmila (née Petronijević) would sing to her in French. The relationship between the Mihailovićs and France dates back to 1914, when the grandfather of CorD’s interlocutor was a teenager evacuated from the war-torn Serbia to France, only to return years later as a lawyer. Sneška Mihailović herself arrived in France many years later, where – after having completed her studies at the Faculty of Law in Belgrade – she enrolled in specialist studies in European law and politics in the city of Nancy. A fateful encounter with a Dutchman would take her to The Hague, where she would devote herself passionately not only to her family – her son and daughter – but also to her work at Europa Nostra, a pan-European Federation for Cultural Heritage. She says that this civil society organisation is a “wonderful European multi-cultural space without frontiers which – in a certain way – has taken the place of Yugoslavia in her soul”.
Sneška recalls that her first task at Europa Nostra was to write a resolution condemning the bombing of Dubrovnik. Four years ago, at the invitation of French President Macron, she participated in a working group tasked with defining the cultural dimension of the European project. Three years ago, on behalf of Europa Nostra, she raised her voice against the threats to the integrity and authenticity of the Belgrade Fortress, while last year this organisation placed the Kosovo’s Visoki Dečani Monastery in Kosovo on the list of Europe’s seven most endangered cultural monuments.
In late October you were presented with the medal of the Legion of Honor, a major French distinction, in recognition of your dedication to European values and the nurturing of culture as a fundamental value. What does this accolade mean to you?
Of course, it is a source of pride and a great honour, but also it gives me a huge sense of responsibility. I am particularly proud that I received the Legion d’Honneur from President Macron, a leader I appreciate greatly and have also had the honour and great pleasure of meeting in person several times. President Macron is a strong advocate of culture and cultural heritage, both in France and across Europe. His first major speech on Europe was given in September 2017 in Athens, when he spoke very inspirationally, with the Acropolis as the backdrop, about our common cultural heritage as something that represents the foundation of the entire European integration process. Five years on, the slogan of this year’s French Presidency of the EU was “relance, puissance, appartenance” (revival, power, belonging). The term “belonging” actually implies a significantly greater investment in culture, cultural heritage and education, as the most important levers for strengthening links between citizens across the wider European community.
I believe in the beauty and richness of multiple identities. I am a proud native of the city of Belgrade, one of Europe’s great, historic cities. I was brought up in a country that no longer exists – Yugoslavia, but the good memory of my Yugoslav youth will always be part of me
I perceive this Legion d’Honneur as a recognition of my life-long engagement for cultural heritage and for Europe, and this in the framework of a leading European civil society organisation, Europa Nostra, in close collaboration with French organisations, both public and private, that are active in the field of cultural heritage. It confirms that France, as a leading EU country, attaches great importance to these values. Given my love for the French language and culture, dating back to the earliest days of my youth, receiving such a high distinction from France means a lot to me.
You’ve spent more than 30 years dedicated to your work at the Europa Nostra organisation, which is said to be “the European voice of civil society committed to cultural heritage”, and have served as its secretary general for more than two decades. Do you generally believe in the power of the voice of citizens? How powerful is Europa Nostra?
I believe passionately in the power of citizens and civil society organisations to move mountains and successfully defend common causes and the public interest. We are always stronger and better together. That is why I have dedicated my whole life to building bridges between people, organisations, cultures, communities, countries. If we are fragmented, we are weak, but if we join forces, we become more impactful and influential. All over Europe, I have seen so many examples of successful campaigns led by visionary and generous personalities, supported by imaginative and effective civil society organisations: associations or foundations.
The greatest achievements with regard to the safeguarding of cultural heritage have been initiated by civil society organisations, and subsequently embraced and supported by public authorities at all levels of governance. The power of Europa Nostra lies precisely in the “power of example” of our members, partners and supporters. We will next year celebrate the 60th anniversary of our joint action for a common cause. Over the years, the voice of Europa Nostra has become very influential and very well respected. Most people and authorities seek to be praised and applauded by Europa Nostra rather than criticised over erroneous policies and actions that are detrimental to our cultural or natural heritage.
We live at a time that is often described as a period in which the interests of the individual have precedence over those of the collective, when people live for the present moment without attaching value to our past. In this context, from the perspective of Europa Nostra, how strong is the awareness of the importance of preserving Europe’s cultural heritage? In which countries is it imperilled and where is it most carefully preserved; and on whom does that depend decisively?
Over the last 60 years, public awareness of the importance of cultural heritage – not only for experts, but for citizens and their communities in particular – has increased immensely across Europe. And Europa Nostra has contributed to this vital process. During the last 30 years, together with other European networks that have joined forces to form a European Heritage Alliance, itself founded in 2011, we have been successful in placing cultural heritage higher on the political agenda of the European Union and other European and international organisations.
We are extremely proud that such world-renowned opera stars have accepted to place their fame and reputation at the service of promoting the mission and action of Europa Nostra. For us, both Plácido Domingo and Cecilia Bartoli are true personifications of the spirit of Europa Nostra
The European Year of Cultural Heritage in 2018 was a particularly important milestone that culminated with the adoption of a very ambitious European Framework for Action for Cultural Heritage, which promotes a holistic approach to cultural heritage; a future-oriented approach that recognises cultural heritage not as a burden or merely a cost, but rather as a vital resource for enhancing quality of life and living for citizens of Europe, while promoting truly sustainable forms of development of our society and economy. Of course, so much more needs to be done, especially today – when Europe and the world are facing so many threats and emergencies: from the sanitary barrier caused by the pandemic to the climate emergency. The threats to democracies and the rule of law are also posing a significant threat to the protection of cultural heritage. Last but not least, the brutal Russian aggression in Ukraine is also targeting cultural heritage sites; this has triggered a large solidarity movement from our members and the European Union.
A delegation of Europa Nostra went to Kosovo this summer, where you visited the Visoki Dečani Monastery complex, which features on Europa Nostra’s list – for 2021 – as one of the seven most endangered sites of Europe’s cultural heritage. Following this visit, your delegation concluded that all the reasons that led you to consider Dečani as being endangered are still valid. What contributed the most to such a conclusion being drawn?
Europa Nostra decided to include Visoki Dečani Monastery on our 2021 List of the seven most endangered monuments and sites in Europe. In addition to security issues and the legal problem regarding the failure to implement the Constitutional Court Decision on the return of 24 hectars of land to the monastery, the trigger for this inclusion was the increasing pressure on the monastery with regard to the planned construction of an International road that would inevitably increase (heavy) traffic that passes very close to its walls.
According to the usual procedure, following the inclusion of any site on our 7 ME list, experts of Europa Nostra and EIBI visited Dečani and are currently preparing a comprehensive report with findings and recommendations. During this visit, we held many talks with representatives of the international community, including the Commander of KFOR, representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Mayor of the Municipality of Dečani, the Kosovo Minister responsible for the Environment, Spatial Planning and Infrastructure and the Kosovo Minister for Culture, Youth and Sport. Following these talks, we confirmed that, the reasons for the inclusion of Visoki Dečani Monastery on our List remained valid.
From the moment your concerns over Visoki Dečani Monastery were first announced, your organisation has been the target of criticism from the government in Pristina. You also visited Pristina this summer, but it seems that there was no rapprochement of stances on the issue of relations towards this monastery complex of the Serbian Orthodox Church?
Indeed, the Kosovo authorities criticised our decision to include Visoki Dečani Monastery on our 7 Most Endangered List. We have listened to their arguments and shall refer to them in our report, but we could not accept their appeal to remove the monastery from our list without prior substantial improvement of the situation.
We shall continue to deal with this case as long as we believe that this site is endangered. We, of course, retain hope that open issues will be solved in the foreseeable future. If there is good political will, these issues can be resolved easily.
Did you manage, either as an organisation or personally, to establish cooperation with someone responsible for the protection of cultural heritage in Serbia, with the government, the Ministry of Culture, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts?
We have established a fruitful dialogue with the National Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments and its director and experts. We have heard their views and shall also refer to them in our report. We look forward to continuing this dialogue, and also to expanding it to other relevant bodies, from the government to the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
Given your familiarity with European institutions, where you worked at one time, do you think the EU can help when it comes to protecting Visoki Dečani Monastery?
All international and European players, including the European Union, are fully aware of the fact that, for many years already, Visoki Dečani Monastery has been held hostage by the ongoing political tensions and the unresolved status of Kosovo. They would all like to see a breakthrough in the current deadlock. Concerning the EU, we had good and open talks with the EU Ambassador in Pristina and also with Miroslav Lajčak in Brussels.
It is a source of pride and a great honour, but also it gives me a huge sense of responsibility. I am particularly proud that I received the Legion d’Honneur from President Macron, a leader I appreciate greatly and have also had the honour and great pleasure of meeting in person several times
They are keen to read our recommendations. We firmly believe that the EU could, and should, do more as a mediator and key international player in the region to broker some encouraging progress in the much-needed constructive dialogue between all parties concerned, including the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Kosovo authorities.
This is an opportunity to note that major names in European culture also participate in the work of Europa Nostra. The current president is Italian opera diva Cecilia Bartoli. Could you tell us something about your cooperation and friendship with famous tenor Plácido Domingo, who is today your honorary president?
We are extremely proud that such worldrenowned opera stars have accepted to place their fame and reputation at the service of promoting the mission and action of Europa Nostra. For us, both Plácido Domingo and Cecilia Bartoli are true personifications of the spirit of Europa Nostra. They sing our cultural heritage in extraordinary, historic, opera theatres, concert halls or heritage sites. I have had the great honour and joy of working with Maestro Plácido Domingo as President of Europa Nostra during a ten-year period. He is a great artist, a living legend, a force of nature, but he is also a wonderful and generous human being. His annual attendance at our European Heritage Awards Ceremonies across Europe has left a mark on us all.
As soon as he comes on stage, you feel very special vibes of a true giant and genius of European opera. I was very happy that, during these 10 years, I was able to hear my president singing in my native Belgrade twice, in 2014 and also last year. After two mandates as president, Plácido Domingo decided to pass the torch to a worthy younger successor. We could not have found a better person than the fabulous Cecilia Bartoli to become our new president. She was appointed last May and we organised a memorable inauguration event on 6th June in Salzburg, following a fantastic concert at which Bartoli invited Domingo to perform as her special guest. We now look forward to promoting the cause of Europa Nostra under her inspiring leadership.
Displayed beside your name and surnames on the website of Europa Nostra stand markings of two countries: Serbia and the Netherlands. You come from Serbia and your family lives in the Netherlands. How important is it for you that they both be known?
I believe in the beauty and richness of multiple identities. I am a proud native of the city of Belgrade, one of Europe’s great, historic cities. I was brought up in a country that no longer exists – Yugoslavia, but the good memories of my Yugoslav youth will always be part of me. I am a convinced and passionate European who has dedicated my life to the cause of Europa Nostra, a wonderful European multicultural space and family without boundaries. In my soul and in my spirit it is Europa Nostra that has taken the place of my country of origin, Yugoslavia.
Indeed, the Kosovo authorities criticised our decision to include Visoki Dečani Monastery on our 7 Most Endangered List for 2021. We have listened to their arguments and shall refer to them in our report, but we could not accept their appeal to remove the monastery from our list without prior substantial improvement of the situation
Today I hold two nationalities, Dutch and Serbian, and I am an equally proud citizen of these two European countries. I always insist on indicating these two allegiances in any public communication. How I wish I could be equally proud of the level of respect of fundamental values and the rule of law, as well as the quality of care for cultural and natural heritage both in the Netherlands and in Serbia today…
Visiting Kalemegdan this summer, you gave support to activists who are drawing attention to the fact that announced urban projects fail to respect the specificities and importance of preserving the Belgrade Fortress as a historic ensemble. And Europa Nostra has also spoken out, calling for the abandoning of the plan to instal a cable car connecting Kalemegdan and the Ušće confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube.
As you know, Europa Nostra published a thorough report back in July 2019 clearly stating that the proposed cable car project was incompatible with the law and also incompatible with the aspiration of the inscription of the Belgrade Fortress on the World Heritage List, as part of the large transnational nomination related to the Roman Limes. We have communicated this report to all relevant authorities, including the Prime Minister of Serbia. Since we have not received any response, we have included the Belgrade Fortress on our 2020 List of the 7 Most Endangered Sites. Time is passing and we have not yet received any clear sign from the authorities that this harmful and meaningless project has been abandoned. On the contrary, the new Mayor of Belgrade still does not rule out that the cable car will be constructed. Fortunately, very recently, the Anti-corruption Council published a very serious and detailed report demonstrating a series of irregularities related to this controversial project and clearly concluding that it has to be cancelled.
The report duly refers to the campaign against the cable car project led by Europa Nostra, through the decisive leadership of our country representation in Serbia. The current director of the National Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments also shares our view that giving the permission to build the cable car on the Belgrade Fortress would be a mistake. In light of all the aforementioned, I remain strongly convinced that the cable car project will not be constructed. However, our “battle” to defend the Belgrade Fortress cannot stop there. We are facing other serious threats to the integrity and authenticity of the unique built and natural heritage ensemble of the Belgrade Fortress, together with the Kalemegdan Park. As you know, while we were campaigning against the cable car project, behind our back the K-District was built in the protective zone of the Belgrade Fortress.
Call me an idealist and an optimist, but I am strongly convinced that if we join local, national and European voices and forces to save the integrity of Belgrade Fortress and revitalise it, we will soon also be able to together celebrate an important victory of citizens for citizens: the proud inscription of the Belgrade Fortress on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The construction of the K-District on that location is simply a crime. Permission should never have been given to construct such a large and invasive real-estate development in such a prominent location, between the fortress and the Danube. No one serious and honest can claim the contrary. The K-District will be remembered as a “monument” of the negative consequences of the so-called “investitorski urbanizam” and of the deplorable lack of respect for the rule of law in Serbia today.
We must therefore exert further efforts in advocating for the need for a holistic and integrated plan for the revitalisation of the Belgrade Fortress, to be implemented on the bases of high-quality principles, hopefully with the invaluable help of EU funds, with the aim of enhancing the priceless cultural heritage of Belgrade Fortress and safeguarding its historical memory, as well as its outstanding natural location.
All this is in the interest of present and future generations of all citizens and visitors of Belgrade, and also of all citizens of Serbia and Europe as a whole. No further sacrifice or compromise can be made on that front. Any further real-estate development, including sports terrains, should find another appropriate location. Our love for sport, and especially tennis, cannot prevail over such an important public interest and common good as the safeguard of the Belgrade Fortress.
Let us never forget and be inspired by the legendary words pronounced by Major Dragutin Gavrilović, 100 years ago, when he spoke to the defenders of Belgrade: “Obraz Beograda, naše prestonice, ima da bude svetao!” (The honour of Belgrade, our capital city must not be stained!) I hope to have the opportunity to meet the new Mayor of Belgrade in the near future, in order to convey this vital message to him. Call me an idealist and an optimist, but I am strongly convinced that if we join local, national and European voices and forces to save the integrity of Belgrade Fortress and revitalise it, we will soon also be able to together celebrate an important victory of citizens for citizens: the proud inscription of the Belgrade Fortress on the UNESCO World Heritage List.