Belgrade Residents Cope with Life in a City Out of Whack

The Washington Post
April 4, 1993

BELGRADE – On the first day of this month, the newspaper Politika published an April Fool’s edition, or so it seemed in the capital of a country supposedly cut off from the world by U.N. sanctions.

Along with stories about a minister being jailed, a finance official being investigated for kickbacks and pensions being raised by 120 percent, ads offered trips to Thailand and the Caribbean, Canon fax machines and Hewlett-Packard computers, and the entertainment page reported that the movie “Malcolm X” was now available in video stores.

But Politika was not joking. It was just reporting another day in the life of Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia.

The economy is so out of whack that it is giving hyperinflation a bad name. The best guesses are that inflation is above 1 million percent a year, although a newspaper warned the other day that it was soaring toward 80 million percent. The management of the Hyatt Hotel, generally considered the city’s best, politely notified its customers Thursday that the nightly rate had just increased to 4.29 million dinars ($130), “exclusive of local government taxes.”

The soaring inflation and massive unemployment have impoverished all but the wheeler-dealers who earn small fortunes by changing money and beating the sanctions through the illicit importation of fuel, arms and other valuable commodities. While they zoom around Belgrade’s sparsely used streets in new Mercedeses and BMWs, average people struggle along, most of them earning subsistence wages and cramming into the occasional public buses that still ply the streets.

“My younger colleagues get $20 in monthly salaries,” said Bozidar Jaksic, director of Belgrade’s Institute of Philosophy and Social Theory. “I get $50 because I am the director.”

Jaksic said he can no longer afford to buy his favorite newspaper, Borba, which costs 15 cents and is critical of the government. Instead, he buys Politika, which costs only 10 cents but is somewhat more respectful of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

One of the strange truths in this outlaw country, accused of sponsoring the brutal yearlong war in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, is that Jaksic is not afraid to publicly compare Serbia to Nazi Germany. There is so little opposition to Milosevic that the Serb strongman apparently does not mind letting a few publications stir up a handful of middle-class intellectuals.

To outsiders, the absence of large-scale dissent is puzzling. Crime is soaring, the future looks bleaker than a Balkan battlefield, and many of the workers who still have jobs have not been paid in months.

State television — the main source of information, particularly for the undereducated rural population — has bombarded everyone with gruesome pictures of dead Serbs, mutilated Serbs and homeless Serbs, explaining that fundamentalist Muslim hordes in Bosnia, supported by the United Nations, are waging a merciless holy war.

In the wake of the U.N. Security Council decision to authorize the shooting down of Serb warplanes that violate the “no-fly zone” over Bosnia, television has added a bit of variety to its nightly fare by showing archive film of American B-52s dropping bombs over Vietnam.

All of this helps distract people from dwelling on how their hard-currency savings were expropriated by state-owned banks in 1991 so the government could pay for the war against Croatia. It also distracts them from the fact that the private banks they put money into last year are now going belly-up.

There are other state-backed distractions. Hard-core pinups are displayed prominently at newsstands, and X-rated films that cannot be shown in movie theaters in some countries are broadcast at night on television for all to see. In Belgrade, anything goes.

Sadly, that includes violence. The country is awash in weapons and off-duty soldiers who bring their guns and grudges back to the cities on furlough. Robberies and beatings are commonplace. The crime-inclined fighters, teaming up with corrupt officials, are called the Mafia. What’s different about this Mafia is that it’s not outside the law, as in most countries. Several militia leaders have been elected to parliament, and one of them, Vojislav Seselj, heads Serbia’s second-largest party.

For Belgrade’s small Muslim community, these are times of fear. A well-known Muslim actor was hauled from his chair in a crowded restaurant a month ago by a gang of nationalist thugs and beaten up outside. He has left the country, following the path of many other Yugoslav Muslims, whom Serb nationalists have labeled the enemy within.

“You do not have any human or moral right to continue living with Serbs whose children you have been killing and butchering,” said a death threat sent to Belgrade’s main mosque earlier this month by an anonymous group of Serbs. “You know very well how we act when we get mad. If you do not leave, we will come for your heads.”

Amid this Serbian stew of anger, despair and fright, the popular mood among Belgrade residents alternates between defiance of the West and ambivalence about the destructive course of their lives under Milosevic’s rule. Some trade unions called for a general strike last week to protest the fact that many workers had not been paid in months, but the strike was generally ignored. People went to work, as usual, and weren’t paid, as usual.

“Social pathologists have a very interesting laboratory here,” Jaksic said, squeezing a rare laugh out of a situation that continually depresses him.

The pathology of life can be viewed on Belgrade’s main pedestrian street, Knez Mihailova, at any time of day. Shops are open, but they are short of shoppers and short of goods to sell. Unshaven money-changers lurk in the shadows, whispering the Serbian word for hard currency.

Pedestrians can purchase a bag of cold popcorn for a few thousand dinars, equal to a few cents. They can stop off at a souvenir stand and buy patriotic decals that say “Freedom or Death.” Or they can just close their eyes and listen to the ballads that play in the background, glorifying the Serb fighters in Bosnia.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.