WORLD

A city on the edge

Letter from Belgrade

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 7 1993
WORLD

A city on the edge

Letter from Belgrade

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 7 1993

A city on the edge

Letter from Belgrade

Civil war, sky-high inflation and economic sanctions: hardly a climate for showbiz success. But on the streets of Belgrade these days, even death and destruction find a ready market.

Take, for instance, “Handsome Mike” from Sarajevo, a carefully coiffed young crooner in army fatigues whose latest cassette is selling briskly with such catchy tunes as Oh Serbian Mother and The Bloody Wedding. Or Borislav from Croatia, another Serbian heartthrob whose songs carry an even more pointed message. America,

Don’t Touch Serbia, he sings, along with Everything for Serbia and This People Will Live.

Defiance and fantasy, all wrapped up in a nationalist package—the cassettes hawked along stylish Kneza Mihaila Street capture Belgrade’s peculiar mind-set. After almost two years of war and a full year of sanctions, the Serbian capital is a strangely isolated place where conspiracy theories abound and paranoia runs deep. Out-

siders may portray the Serbs as the bullies of the Balkans, but they see themselves as victims. The exhibition at the Museum of Applied Art, known locally as the Genocide Museum, vividly attests to that. In the basement is a stomachchurning display of blackand-white photos documenting the mass slaughter of Serbs during the Second World War by Croats from the pro-Nazi Ustashe movement. Upstairs, the exhibit continues in full color with even more graphic shots of Serbs butchered during the civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia. The message could not be clearer: Serbs there are

merely resisting a renewal of genocide against them. High-school classes are paraded through the museum, implanting the victim mentality in a new generation.

Much of the blame for the Serbs’ odd world view lies with state-run television, the country’s most important source of information. Opposition newspapers circulate freely, but few people outside the capital buy them. State TV, however, reaches into nearly every home with a steady diet of propaganda and a cast of regular guests who spread some of the most bizarre notions in a region known for eccentric political ideas. A composer named Enrico Josif appears frequently to outline his theory that both Serbs and Jews are “celestial people”.who are condemned to be persecuted by the rest of the world. A painter who calls himself Milic of Macva adds his own twist: only the Serbian language, he maintains solemnly, can be understood in outer space. Almost any theory, it seems, will get a respectful hearing—as long as it feeds the almost universal view that Serbia is being unjustly punished.

Sophisticated members of Belgrade’s middle class, who once prided themselves on being freer, richer and more worldly than their

counterparts elsewhere in Eastern Europe, despair as they see their country spinning off into the politiqal equivalent of Fantasy Island. But most feel powerless to resist. Hyperinflation and sanctions have devastated them economically. Fronj aft-average income of $925 a

month in 1990, their incomes have lf tion rages at a mind-bogg'Iing 20,000 the world. The dinar, which was re~ dollar, traded on Belgrade's blàc 400,000 to the dollar. Prices jump 8 t~ salaries practically worthless and late in German marks and U.S. do The result is the emergence of smugglers and criminals who havi gling has always been a Balkan spite a year of trade embargoes almost; ettej tp barely $63 as infla cent a year-the highest in last June at 200 to the U.S. ket last wefk at around r.ce~it a dat, making dinar rtearly ev*yone to specji t~irvive. class of War profiteers, ed vast fortunes. Smug it is n~ surprise that de r~éan be obtained in

l~fade-for a price.. J?h~ difference now is ij~a~ the risks, and thus rewards, are greater. rbia's parliament indes leaders of terror angs notorious for eth nic c'eansing in Bosnia, including Zeljko Raznaj tovi~, better known by his wartime nickname Arkan, who is also want ed for robbery in three countries. They have no problems obtaining all the fuel they need for their Mercedes sedans. Ordinary people, mean while, queue for hours for jam-packed buses. Their only comfort is that the sparse traffic means Belgrade's air is less polluted, and the closure of many factories has left the Sava River,

which flows through the city, cleaner than most people can remember.

For many, the only solution is getting out. Tens of thousands of Serbia’s best and brightest (some estimates put the number as high as 300,000) have left the country to escape war and economic crisis. By far the favorite destination is Canada, one of the few rich countries still open to immigration. Officials at Canada’s embassy in Belgrade field as many as 200 requests for emigration information each day, seven or eight times the number a year ago, and expect to issue 6,000 visas this year— double the 1992 total. “My little phone book is full of numbers in Toronto,” says Misha, a young Belgrade writer who asked that his full name not be used because he, too, has applied to emigrate to Canada. “It seems everyone I know is going to Canada—or is thinking very hard about it. There’s no future here.” In the long run, that brain drain is the last thing that a badly confused country like Serbia can afford.

ANDREW PHILLIPS