Daily Archives: 13 February 2008

Serbia, 1997: What Nationalism Achieved

From History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, by Timothy Garton Ash (Vintage, 1999), pp. 234-235:

Consider what Milošević has done for them. Ten years ago [= 1987] there was a country called Yugoslavia, “and I thought it was in Europe,” says my friend Ognjen Pribičević, one of Belgrade’s brightest political analysts. Economically, they were quite well off compared to the Czechs or Poles. Belgrade looked smarter than Warsaw. Schools and courts functioned more or less normally. They could travel freely. Yugoslavia had a good name in the world.

Now they live in a country known as Serbia, and it is—everyone agrees—not in Europe but in the Balkans. (Before I came out I looked in five popular tourist guidebooks to Europe. Serbia featured in none of them.) Serbia is an international pariah. To be a Serb abroad is like being a German after 1945. Provided, that is, you can even get abroad. You need a visa for almost everywhere. Distinguished professors stand in line for five hours in the cold and are then refused.

Physically, the whole place is battered and run-down. Belgrade reminds me of Warsaw in the late 1970s. If you look at the cars, the clothes, the shop windows, you feel that Poland and Yugoslavia have changed places. According to the (unreliable) statistics, average per-capita income has shrunk from around $3,000 to less than $1,000. The official unemployment figure is close to 50 percent. I visit Kragujevac, a town once made prosperous by the large Zastava car, truck, and arms factory. The war decimated the production of cars (since parts came from all over the former Yugoslavia) but was good for the arms factory. Now the peace has cut the production of arms. Most of the Zastava factory workers are paid some $20 to $25 a month for doing nothing. They line the streets selling blackmarket goods: trinkets, Nescafé, chocolate bars, cigarettes smuggled in via Montenegro.

Back in Belgrade, I am taken to a vast black-market bazaar, full of new Western consumer goods, all imported without paying taxes. There is a great double line of people hawking Western cigarettes, but watch out for the “Marlboros”: They are made in Montenegro. Fake Calvin Klein, Versace, and Nike clothes adorn the stalls—mainly produced, I am told, in the Sandjak of Novi Pazar.

Crime, corruption, and lawlessness are endemic. A notice in the hotel foyer asks you to hand over your personal firearms to the hotel security department. A security man hovers watchfully with a metal detector: Does my tweed jacket suggest a local criminal or a Western businessman? I have never seen so many obvious gangsters, not even in Russia. I note that the phrase used about the election fraud is “when Milošević stole the elections.” Elections are just one of so many things being stolen here.

People don’t trust the banks, so they keep their money in cash. Here, as throughout former Yugoslavia, the deutsche mark is the real currency. “I don’t take dollars,” says one small businessman—”they are too easily forged.” When your money is stolen, you have no redress. Insurance? You’re joking. And the courts? A friend is meant, according to the law, to inherit a flat. But to get it he needs to pay DM 10,000—as a bribe to the judge.

Politics and corruption are deeply intertwined, as in all the post-communist demokraturas. The ruling parties run much of the state as a private business; private businesses protect themselyes by supporting the ruling parties. But one would not like to inquire too closely into the finances of opposition parties, either. The moral environment is as degraded as the physical one.

And what of the Serbs for whom the nationalist standard was supposedly raised: the Serbs in Kosovo, the Serbs “across the Drina” in Bosnia, the Serbs in Croatia? The Serbs in the Krajina, in Croatia, have been completely expelled. The remaining Serbs in Bosnia, impoverished and brutalized, wander around the remnants of their tinpot para-state. There are at least five hundred thousand Serb refugees in Serbia, most of them still without citizenship, let alone economic assistance from the state.

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Filed under economics, Europe, nationalism, Yugoslavia