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The Bright Side of the Balkans

Ratko Mladic; drawing by Pancho

I had no idea what to make of this, since Serbia, like most of its Balkan and East European neighbors, is in terrible economic shape, with close to a million unemployed and another million and a half living on small pensions in a country of only six and a half million. Obviously there’s considerable wealth in Serbia, because the country has rich agricultural lands, some industry, and foreign investment. William, the archbishop of Tyre, who traveled to Constantinople in 1179, described the Serbs as being rich in herds and flocks and unusually well supplied with milk, cheese, butter, and meat. This is still true. Nevertheless, I was told that for the first time in modern history there are soup kitchens for the hungry.

The Serbian Orthodox Church also seems to have loads of money to build new churches with contributions it is said to get from local and Russian oligarchs. These are often huge and poorly attended, since Serbs, despite what they may say if challenged, are not very religious. They go to baptisms, weddings, and funerals, but generally stay away on Sundays. As in Bosnia, where money from Saudi Arabia is erecting mosques and even a luxury hotel in Sarajevo where no liquor is served, this effort to encourage greater religiosity among the populace without paying heed to local customs is most likely bound to fail.

About politics, my friends had the same air of exasperation and disgust that our fellow Americans have when talking about our politicians in Washington. The foreign policy of the coalition government of President Boris Tadić has been by and large moderate. Even in the case of Kosovo, he has tried not to inflame the situation further, knowing that had he done so, he would have had the support of the majority of Serbs. Domestically, he has not reformed the corrupt political system and there is danger, as there is in many other places in Europe, that with the worsening economic situation, the voters will start listening to some nationalist demagogue who will do what nationalist demagogues usually do: find a scapegoat for their country’s troubles.

Had I been in Belgrade at the time General Mladić was arrested, I would have witnessed some of the ugly side of Serbia. As was easy to predict, except for the extreme nationalist parties, the ones in power had pretty much decided to hand him over to the court in The Hague. What was unexpected was the amount of support he received from ordinary people, who disgraced themselves by calling him a national hero, and the despicable cowardice of television networks and most newspapers: they not only failed to spell out his crimes but gave time and space to his defenders, who minimized or even denied that he and his forces tortured and massacred their enemies in Bosnia. War criminals are to be found living happily in lots of places in the world, but Serbs take a special pride in mindlessly defending their own, simply because they are Serbs, going so far as to glorify the crimes committed in their name, and in the process making themselves look like a nation of heartless thugs.

This is a familiar defense mechanism of every tribal society that comes into play when a member of the tribe or family is accused of a crime. “He was a good boy,” a mother tells reporters every time a murderer is caught in Brooklyn or Palermo. When that archaic instinct combines with virulent nationalism, you get a type of human being who admires the swagger of the pitiless and despises the powerless and the weak. A chief characteristic of that sort of mind is the inability to see yourself through the eyes of the people you have tormented. Nationalists everywhere are unmoved by the suffering of people they hurt. You’d think Serbs might recall how often in their history they have been victims, and some of them do, of course. Serbia has always had a small, brave, and articulate opposition, and probably countless others who know in their hearts that Serbs are no angels.

Belgrade is probably the most multicultural city in the Balkans. Watching men and women on the street, one sees every ethnic type from the former Yugoslavia. These eternally warring tribes are handsome people. The young men and women are dressed like their counterparts in Sarajevo and New York. They are articulate, tough, and funny, as big-city youths tend to be. Still, two out of three of them, according to a poll I saw in the papers when I was there, want to leave because there will be nothing for them to do when they finish school. They no longer need visas to travel to other parts of Europe, but since neither they nor their parents have enough money, fleeing the country, as thousands of others had done in the past, is no longer a realistic option.

Belgrade is a culinary paradise. Serbian cuisine com- bines Greek, Turkish, Austro- Hungarian, and Mediterranean influences, and a restaurant menu can be far more exciting and satisfying than reading about local politics in newspapers. Like any former native deprived for years of his favorite dishes, I replenished my gastronomic memories while also reminiscing with friends about other meals and people long dead. I have always known that, if not for Hitler and Stalin, my parents would never have left the city where they were born. What they didn’t know, of course, is that they were the early wave of what was to become a huge political and economic migration of Serbs over the next fifty years. Walking in a few of the neighborhoods I know, and seeing a building where my mother once took me to visit someone as a child, I kept recalling names of families and their children who have vanished from Belgrade, giving the city in my eyes the look of a ghost town.

Passing by the house where I was born, I remembered the boxes of toys that our only well-to-do relative stored in the attic of our building after the Communists kicked him out of his villa in 1945. Bought in the best stores in London, Berlin, and Vienna before the war, they stayed in the attic for years to the huge annoyance of my mother and her sister, who kept hoping that the selfish man and his wife would finally come to their senses and distribute the toys among their poorer relatives. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the toys were still there? I thought to myself. Perhaps there is an old man or woman still living in our building who knows their hiding place and pays them a visit from time to time, so they can hold one of the moldy rag dolls in their hands, or a British soldier in khaki uniform and shorts made of clay, and turn the wind-up key in the back of a smiling monkey with large, intelligent eyes. On my way to my hotel, it made me happy to think so.

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