A Letter from Belgrade

Belgrade (Beograd) means “White City” in old Slavic as well as modern Serbian. The city stands on the confluence of two major rivers, the Sava and the Danube, and presently has almost two million residents. With many of them away on vacation in the dog days of early August, the city is as close to sleeping as it ever gets.

A Bloody History

In ancient days, the city was called Singidunum by its Celtic inhabitants (279 B.C.) and the Roman legions that conquered them (35 B.C.). The name “Belgrade” is first mentioned in A.D. 878, in a letter from the Pope to a Bulgarian prince. Fought over by Byzantines, Bulgars, and Hungarians, with the occasional Crusade coming through, the city becomes part of the Serbian state for the first time in 1284. With the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, Belgrade turned into a border fort once more, as Turks battled Austrians and Hungarians. World War One started with the Austro-Hungarian shelling of Belgrade. It was the only European city to be bombed five times in the 20th century: twice during the Austro-Hungarian invasions (1914, 1915), by the Germans in 1941, by the Allies in 1944, and by NATO in 1999.

Much of the damage from that latest bombing has been repaired since. Only the Army General Staff and the Police HQ buildings are still charred ruins.

According to the World Encyclopedia of Cities, Belgrade has had more than 30 different names in its history; 115 battles have been fought on its ramparts, with a death toll of nearly six million.

A Confused Present

Modern Belgrade and Serbia are a veritable study in contradictions. According to one poll, over 90% of Serbians are in favor of joining the EU, the absolute lowest rate of Euro-skepticism anywhere. Yet the leading countries of the EU were part of the NATO assault just five years ago, which just about the same percent of the Serbian public agrees was criminal and wrong. There are, however, no firm statistics on the subject, which is almost never discussed.

While other Balkans nations cannot stop talking about their supposedly horrendous suffering at the hands of the Serbs (whether true or not), Serbia is largely silent about its own ordeal. To Western observers steeped in politics of victimhood, this indicates an acceptance of guilt, in which the NATO bombing was a deserved punishment. But in actuality, Serbia seems simply bitterly resigned to the fact that in the world where the NATO attack can take place with impunity, complaining about it seems the very definition of futility.

Newspapers are filled with dire predictions of Serbia’s suffering unless the Hague Inquisition is appeased immediately and in full. Politicians, both governing and opposition, behave like feuding barons. The media are full of official statements issued by one minister or other, but there is really no coherent position of the government as a whole. Keeping in mind that the Serbian cabinet is made up of a shaky coalition, the presidency is held by another party altogether, and the federal institutions are shared by appointment with the Montenegrin separatist regime, the result is a cacophony of opinion and lack of any discernible direction – something the Empire is always quick to exploit.

Anthem Antagonisms

The “state union of Serbia and Montenegro,” as the current joint state is called here, still lacks the proper national anthem, flag and coat-of-arms. Serbia is supposed to adopt its own by late August, while the separatist regime in Montenegro already decided on a set of deliberately anti-Serb symbols last month. One of these is the anthem, “Oj svijetla majska zoro” (“The Bright Dawn of May”), specifically the version adapted by WW2 separatist and Nazi collaborator Sekula Drljevic. It was supposed to be incorporated into the new union anthem, alternating verses with those from the Serbian anthem “Boze pravde” (“God of Justice”). But the motion to expedite its adoption was killed Aug. 12, after a public appeal against the Drljevic anthem by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch. A frustrated delegate from Serbia then asked the obvious question: why did the Church not react when the Drljevic anthem was adopted in Montenegro, a month ago? Surely, it was just as objectionable back then?

Either way, Serbian and Montenegrin athletes competing in the Athens Olympics will receive any medals they might win to the strands of the Communist-era “Hej Sloveni,” which has become deeply unpopular.

The Vital Undercurrent

However much politics dominates lives, the forces of commerce and culture are resisting its destructive efforts with an encouraging tenacity. For example, faces of candidates from the June presidential poll still look out from walls, fences and billboards, joined by fresh posters promoting candidates for the upcoming mayoral election. But clever advertisers are already spoofing the political signage; one poster advertises “Mr. Kawabake for Mayor,” with a slogan “Only sushi saves Serbia,” but a closer look (which the smiling face of Kawabake-san invites) reveals it to be an ad for a Japanese restaurant.

Signs in English are commonplace, as are sometimes horrendous misspellings. Foreign TV programs are subtitled, though often badly; still, many prefer this to the German method of dubbing everything. It’s one of the reasons people in the Balkans generally learn foreign languages faster and easier. Cyrillic, the native Serbian alphabet, is holding on by a thread. Even some official forms are in Latin script. There have been some efforts to regulate the status of Cyrillic by law, but fortunately they were fruitless. Defense of the Cyrillic has become a private and cultural endeavor, the only way it can ultimately be successful.

High technology is very much at home in Belgrade. Cell phones are ubiquitous. Once can even hail a cab by sending a text-message. There are even advertisements for broadband Internet service and cable packages, which are still in their infancy and cost around $40 to set up. Some people work for only $20 a month, though, and the average salary is $200. In the U.S., people take laptops to cafes and work over lattes. In Serbia, people don’t have laptops, and doing work while sipping coffee is the last thing on their minds. Centuries of state depredations have engendered in Serbians a desire to have a good time, and they excel at it.

The Clash

Belgrade is the center of the pro-Imperial intellectual forces (the “Missionaries”) that hold the common folk in deepest contempt, but it also houses a large number of those common folk who return that contempt in full measure. This conflict is currently shaping the political battle in Serbia. The Missionaries will lose; it is inevitable. The only question is how much damage they will cause in the meantime.

One big problem is that the people, indoctrinated with competing dogmas of omnipotent government, are still skeptical of business and seek answers in politics. The intellectual struggle with the Missionaries cannot create a better Serbia unless it results in a defeat of the statist mentality that holds hostage both people’s minds and their pocketbooks. But with Serbians weary of false prophets and empty promises, convincing them to open their eyes to this reality will be a major challenge.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.