#32: Belgrade, Serbia: Broken Dreams & Phoenix Rising from Ashes
29 June 2002
Belgrade, the White City. Capital of Serbia and the soon-to-be-abolished Yugoslav Federation, at least to be in a form substantially different from the present one. Across the Danube, the city rises steeply onto a plateau. Here, fashionable Belgraders parade on its wide boulevards littered with numerous cafes and flashy emporiums of luxury goods. There is little sign of war, apart from the uncountable potholes and burnt-out frames of a few buildings in hidden corners.
The Serbs are a beautiful people, characterized with tall builds and sharp cheekbones. Stern, expressionless and reserved at first encounter, they melt into warm smiles and humble greetings when the stranger probes further. They are hardly the likes of Milosevic or Karadzic that the world has grown familiar with in the turbulent times of the 1990s.
The Serbs are a romantic people with a strong sense of history and sometimes, a skewed view of their national destiny. Throughout their troubled history, they often see themselves as a victimized nation, the defenders of European civilization and the ones destined to suffer for their love of their land and freedom. The mediaeval Serbian kingdom flourished under Tsar Stefan Dusan the Great, when its borders stretched from the Danube to the Aegean Sea. The enormous riches of the empire were manifested in the exuberant monasteries built in its then heartland in what is today the lost province of Kosovo, and the sacred monastic republic on Mt Athos, northern Greece.
The empire scattered after Dusan. After the disastrous Battle of Kosovo Fields, which wiped out the flower of the Serbian nobility, the Ottoman Turks conquered Serbian lands in the 14th century. Straddled between the Christian West and Islamic East, the Serbs saw themselves as the defenders of Western Civilisation. The Serbian nation rose again in the 19th century, and by the end of the WWI, have transformed itself into Yugoslavia, a combination of the nations of the Southern Slavic peoples, namely the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians and the Bosnian Muslims.
The WWII rocked the foundation of the new state but Josip Tito, the charismatic strongman of Croat-Slovene origins, welded the country together through the bullet and relatively fair distribution of jobs and wealth. The federation began to unravel after Tito’s death in 1980. Nationalistic Serbs under Milosevic, President of Serbia, pursued a policy against minorities and increasing centralization; while other republics pursued greater decentralization and independence.
War broke out when the Slovenes and Croats declared independence in 1991, followed by the Bosnians, actions of which prompted the uprising of Serbs residing in these lands, who hope to remain in the same state as Serbia. By 1995, the guns were silent in those lands, but the thousand-year-old communities of Serbs in Croatia were all but expelled from their ancestral lands. Milosevic’s relentless pursuit of centralization policies and oppression drove the Albanians to rebellion, which ended with the 1999 NATO intervention. Serbia was bombed, with its infrastructure in tatters – bridges, communication centers, oil refineries and more were all but ruins.
Kosovo was evacuated and by the end of 2000, Milosevic was overthrown and soon found himself in The Hague for war crimes charges. History has come in full circle. Not only has Serbia lost its battle for a more centralized Yugoslavia, the federation has fallen apart, Kosovo – a core autonomous province within Serbia – was lost, and even the core republic of Montenegro and the autonomous province of Vovojdina are campaigning for independence. A few months ago, under EU pressure, Montenegro and Serbia agreed to abolish Yugoslavia in its present form, and set up a loose confederation known as Serbia and Montenegro. Critics doubt even this new creature will survive for long. As a Serbian businessman I met said, every town with half a million people would soon set up their own state. Whatever the case, Serbia has lost, and really big time. It is now but a much reduced state with 8 million.
I arrived in Belgrade after an overnight bus journey from Skopje, capital of Macedonia. The bus passed through, under creepy darkness, the wild borderlands of Preshevo, where a new Albanian guerilla group is now campaigning for the incorporation of this smallish valley into Kosovo. Whereas the ideas of Greater Serbia used to rock the Balkans, it is now the devilish dreams of Greater Albania that prevented those in Albanian-inhabited parts of western Macedonia, southern Montenegro and southern Serbia from sleeping well. The bus also passed through Serbia’s second largest city, Nis, where the infamous Skull Tower – a hellish structure built of Serbian skulls, originally erected by the Ottoman Turks – reminded generations of Serbian children what could happen again if they lose another battle of Kosovo.
Belgrade is a beautiful city, at the junction of the Danube and Sava rivers. This was not only once the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottomans, but also the frontier of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A statue of a naked man stood on the sharp apex of the fortress, looking northwards, as though to mock the Great Powers with his large magical tool. An ancient monastery graced its northern slopes, where the national saint St Sava was honoured.
A few miles further south were the centers of power. Violent events have taken place in these gigantic temples of power. The Old Palace, now the City Hall, was where King Alexander Obrenovic and his queen were murdered in an army coup in 1903, their bodies mutilated and then thrown over the balconies onto the front garden, where you can now sit for a picnic lunch.
Across the street was the Federal Parliament, where in 1928 Radic, the Croatian nationalist leader, was assassinated, an event that the Croats remember today. In 2000, this was the scene of a revolution in which the masses ransacked its halls and proclaimed the end of the Milosevic regime. Across the park was the wreckage of Radio TV Serbia, bombed by NATO forces in 1999, with 16 deaths. A monument stood nearby, with the word “Why?” Was it worth it all?” Milosevic knew that the building was a target, but ordered the staff of RTVS to stay up late. The Federation needed its martyrs, and the 16 deaths were duly delivered by NATO planes.
Not far from here, a few streets further south, the twisted metal and hanging rocks of the Defense ministries greet the war tourists in a symphony of self-defiance. On the sidewalks of the main boulevard, kiosks sell postcards of the burnt-out buildings and denouncing NATO as barbarians. A rather humourous postcard depicts a Europe occupied by modern-day Romans – the United States, and the Serbs as Asterix and the gallant tribes of Gaul.
The Serbs are a friendly lot. During my short stay, through contacts and the internet, I was fortunate to be able to meet a number of interesting locals, ranging from news editors and emigrï¿½ businessmen, to human rights lawyers and artists. I have also encountered much friendliness, partially the result of my ethnicity – the Serbian people see Chinese as their ally, due to the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by the US. A taxi driver in Novi Sad even gave me a huge discount! It is amazing to see that these are hardly the monsters that the Western Media has portrayed all these years. The Serbs have been a misunderstood people. Ethnic cleansing and the destruction of cultural monuments (e.g. bombing of the ancient city of Dubrovnik) cannot be excused, but it is hard not to sympathise with the desire of the Serbian people to stay within the same country. Unfortunately their efforts to maintain a dead federation led to so much suffering, to their enemies as well as themselves. Most ironical of all, the whole region, including all the former Yugoslav states, may well be included in a united, borderless Europe within the next few decades.
I also took a bus to Novi Sad, capital of Vovojdina Autonomous Province, home to 27 ethnic groups, including Hungarians, Croatians, Slovaks, Czechs, Ukrainians and Germans. This province has emerged from the decade of conflict relatively free of trouble. This is a tolerant region, where the locals understood the potential destructiveness of agitation. This flat land is the breadbasket of Serbia. Wheat, sunflower, vegetable and rice flourish in the summer heat. I strolled on the leafy streets of Novi Sad, the gigantic ramparts of the Petrovaradin – Gibraltar of the Danube – rises above the skies, and above the NATO-blasted Danubian bridges. Even here, with a weakened Belgrade, local politicians are calling for a province with enhanced powers.
Back in Belgrade, however, I saw a people no longer interested in the politics of power and nationalism. The Serbia of today is tired after more than 10 years of political instability and warfare. In the Republic Square, the loud music of a local heavy metal rock threatened to burst my eardrums. In flashy new hotels, foreign businessmen explored the prospects of upgrading local infrastructure, long-decayed with a wasted decade. I see the shadow of a new phoenix rising from ashes. Serbia, I wish her well.