'And how's Mirza?'
by Senad Pecanin
'Our editor has spent much of the past two months in Belgrade. His report ranges from the great national-political project of re-interpreting the role of the Ravna Gora Chetnik movement in World War II, and the possible repercussions of the conflict between Djindjic and Kostunica, to vivid images of life in Belgrade – its taxi drivers, its bars, its filo pastry with cheese, and its prostitution.' - DANI (Sarajevo)
There is no better way of feeling the pulse of the Serbian capital than to talk to its taxi drivers. It is true that almost all their Zastava 101s and Skodas are old enough to remember Tito, but taxi rides in Belgrade are almost embarrassingly cheap, and the drivers are the most communicative professionals in the world. Striking up a conversation with them is no problem at all, but during my first stay of any length in Belgrade last year I always used the same opening line about the low price of their services. Naturally, the first question I would be asked was where I was from. It was interesting to find that, on hearing my answer, most of them would share their opinions about the war in Bosnia without even considering that I might not share their views on what Sarajevo went through during the war. The following conversation took place last year, and on my return to Sarajevo I recounted it to Mirza Delibasic, who had been in hospital for weeks.
‘From Sarajevo, eh? Well, I knew exactly what was going to happen, and I told everybody. Those fools of ours were shelling buildings in full view of CNN! They surrounded the city, and instead of using snipers in the daytime and sending in special forces after dark, they shelled buildings! And CNN filmed it all! Well, it had to end as it did!’
Although I was under no illusions about Belgrade’s role in the war, I kept quiet, not knowing how to continue our conversation in any sensible way. The silence dragged on, and I suppose the absence of the expected reaction from me finally awakened a suspicion that I was not the type of person from Sarajevo that he had expected to meet in his car. I felt more ill at ease with every second that passed, and then the taxi driver broke the silence by asking an unbelievable question: ‘Say, and how’s Mirza?’
After hearing this, I felt that if I were a talented writer I could write a long essay on the nature of Serb nationalism and the fascism it had engendered, the fascism in which today’s Belgrade is bogged down - ‘in up to the balls’, as young Belgraders say. What is most shocking here is not that nationalism is all-pervasive, that its roots are deep in the system, and that it is as widespread as the influence of Pink TV. What is most shocking is that people in Belgrade are wholly, genuinely unaware of it. The unbelievable casualness with which they express their opinions on atrocities during the recent wars, and on entire nations, is enough to make a normal person’s hair stand on end. I might have tried to explain a thing or two to the taxi driver, had I not earlier been shocked by the degree of hatred and contempt with which an old friend of mine, whom I hadn’t seen for years, pronounced the word ‘Shiptars’ [derogative term for Albanians]. Had I tried to explain a few things to the taxi driver regarding his opinion on wartime Sarajevo, I am sure I know what would have happened, however cautious and courteous I tried to be. He would have found my ‘incomprehension’ of his views as inexplicably strange as I found appalling what he had said. Just as my friend could see nothing problematic about his views on Shiptars’, the taxi driver would have seen nothing contentious about his statement that ‘they’ should have been killed by snipers, rather than shelled in front of CNN cameras. On the contrary! ‘Didn’t I ask after Mirza?’ I sense that his puzzlement - authenticated by his interest in Mirza - is there only to prove the ‘normality’ of a person who would like to kill all ‘Turks’, but still harbours liking and respect for Mirza.
The horrors of impure blood
Belgrade hasn’t visibly changed since my visit last year, except that retail prices are far more like those in Sarajevo, even though average monthly income is three times lower. The main political issue is the open hostility between the prime minister of Serbia Zoran Djindjic (‘who’d like to turn parliament into a casino’) and the president of FRY Vojislav Kostunica (‘who’d like to turn parliament into a church’). It seems that their final battle will take place at the September election of a successor as president of Serbia to Milan Milutinovic, who is packing his bags for The Hague. It is almost certain that Kostunica will stand, although he has not yet made a formal announcement. Djindjic’s candidate is Miroljub Labus, currently the FRY deputy premier.
Although poll results until recently showed Kostunica still to be easily the most popular politician in Serbia (as he has been ever since the glorious 5 October 2000), the latest indicate that Labus has almost drawn level with him. A friend of mine who personally knows both Djindjic and Kostunica, and who knows the political situation in Serbia very well, tried to convince me that absolutely no one stands any chance against Kostunica. ‘The vast majority of relevant media in Serbia are under Djindjic’s control, and they are more or less deliberately creating an illusion.’ My friend pointed towards two possible outcomes of the elections: one is that Kostunica is blatantly robbed when the votes are counted, and so loses; the other is that he does become president of Serbia, but this is at once followed by a change to the constitution, which was tailored by Milosevic and is still in force. Djindjic has stripped all the deputies of Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia of their mandates and replaced them by his own, thus securing the necessary majority for changing the constitution. This will reduce the considerable political powers of the Serbian president to something like those of the Queen of England.
On the national-ideological plane, the most significant project under way in Serbia today is a wholesale reinterpretation of the historical role of the Ravna Gora Chetnik movement, its re-establishment and resuscitation. The essence of this project is to portray the Chetniks as the only World War II anti-fascist movement in former Yugoslavia. The Partisan movement is meanwhile de-legitimized as communist - and communism is a form of fascism, right?
On 7 July, the Day of the Serbian People’s Uprising, the news bulletin on state television started with the information that 7 July this year was an important Orthodox saint’s day, and that it was also the day considered by some people as the beginning in 1941 of a fratricidal war, while others saw it as the day of an uprising against occupation. The same television station has for weeks been showing, at peak times and with repeats, a programme called ‘Ravna Gora reading-book’, a series glorifying the Chetnik movement. With the exception of Sonja Biserko’s Helsinska povelja and Nebojsa Popov’s Republika, it is almost impossible to find media in Belgrade today that do not contribute in some measure to this major national project of the day, whose bards are drawn from the highest ranks of the Serbian Orthodox Church and from a group of renowned writers and academicians.
Thanks to my manifest ignorance, I was shocked by the extent to which a ‘pure’ Serb national origin is a necessary requirement for a political career. Goran Svilanovic, the FRY minister of foreign affairs, was publicly accused of being ‘the son of an Albanian woman’. In his prompt public reaction to this damaging accusation, the leader of a party that calls itself the Civic Alliance of Serbia did not point out the racism of the ‘charge’, but hastened to assure everyone that he was a pure-blooded Serb, on both his father’s and his mother’s side.
Gradimir Nalic, one of Kostunica’s most influential advisors, behaved in a similar way when Djindjic’s followers disclosed the fact that his father was a Muslim. Nalic could not deny his ill fate – which he could hardly have influenced - but he informed the media that he had always been raised ‘in the Orthodox spirit’. When I saw a graffito in Belgrade saying: ‘Kostunica’s mother is a Jew’, I knew that it came from the same source. It must be said, however, that during the pre-election campaign Djindjic too was the target of an equally lethal accusation, when his adversaries claimed that his uncle was a Muslim from Bosanski Samac. The sovereign ruler of the media reacted in a ‘Western’ manner: he bought a whole page in the daily newspapers and published a picture of his uncle and aunt, giving their full Serb names, and adding not just that the ‘accusation’ was untrue, but also that their son had built his life as a warrior into the foundations of Republika Srpska.
An unquestionably pure Serbian-Orthodox background is a necessary indication of suitability for political and other public functions - but it is less and less a sufficient one. A Chetnik background, for decades kept hidden but now trumpeted forth or even invented, is ‘in’ these days in Belgrade. Miroljub Labus realised this and launched his presidential campaign in Mionica, at a commemoration devoted to Vojvoda Misic, whose tradition was initiated by the Milosevic regime. The weekly Vreme described Labus’s visit to his mother’s birthplace, the village of Robaja near Mionica, in the following way: ‘The home of the Pavlovic family is in Robaje, where Tito met up with the Partisans for the first time, in 1941. There are two cars parked in front of the house. There are vine trees in the well-maintained yard round the house, and Labus sits in the shade with his family. There are no security guards, no red berets or blue berets, just as if the federal deputy premier were not there. Labus gets up, greets the newly arrived journalists, apologises to his host because of the crowd. Every one is served compulsory slivovitz. A lady, a daughter-in-law no doubt, produces snaps and the photocopied portrait of an officer. No, she’s not doing it to impress Velje [Velimir Ilic, mayor of Cacak, who is standing for President and is proud of his Chetnik roots], but in order to show just who Miroljub is. She shows a picture of Labus’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Vojislav Pavlovic, a colonel in the royal army and one of the founders of the Veterinary Faculty. Labus explains that his grandfather could not have had a higher rank because he was a vet, a cattle doctor. The lady has some more facts: grandfather was best man to [Chetnik leader] Draza Mihailovic’s vet, so they were all in a way related to Draza. To Labus’s left his uncle, who wears the sajkaca [traditional Serbian cap], leaves an empty space between himself and his nephew. The daughter-in-law explains that they are the sons of two sisters…’
Those not lucky enough to be related to Draza’s vet try to compensate in a variety of ways. One of the brilliant young basketball players who play for the FRY national team, and who comes from Novi Sad - I can’t remember his name, but I know that he plays for Denver now - had the image of Draza tattooed on his shoulder and proudly showed it off for the cameras. Obrad Badi Savic, one of the Belgrade opposition leaders during the Milosevic period, shocked his friends when, in an interview for Radio Free Europe, he reminded listeners that he had been raised in a royalist family, and that his father had been in prison for years because he used to belong to the Chetnik movement.
Although it may sound absurd, the fall of Milosevic actually removed the last barrier to the Chetnik movement’s triumphal entry into political and public life in Belgrade and Serbia. With the Socialist Party of Serbia split over who should be the party’s presidential candidate, Milosevic himself may announce from The Hague that the party will not have a presidential candidate of its own, but will support Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, which Marija Milosevic, Slobodan’s daughter, has recently joined.
Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), who made a vital contribution towards removing Milosevic, is also seeking to remake himself politically. Draskovic and his wife Dana were the only national leaders openly and bravely to condemn Chetnik atrocities during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but today the SPO is returning to the Ravna Gora tradition. The personal position of the Draskovic couple in political circles has not changed much with the change of regime in Serbia: although the identity of those who organized and carried out the dreadful assassination attempt on Vuk on the Ibar highway – which Vuk miraculously survived, but in which four other important people from his party including his wife’s brother died – are known, to this day no judicial procedure has been initiated. Meanwhile, even though Serbian State Security admits that there are still bugging devices at SPO headquarters and in the Draskovic family home, they are still refusing to remove them.
Extensive surveys commissioned by the FRY ministry for ethnic and national communities, headed by Rasim Ljajic, show a high level of xenophobia in Serbia. 58% of the population express ‘moderate reservations’ towards ethnic minorities. 28% express ‘definite reservations’, while 3,3% have ‘extreme reservations. These figures are all the more devastating in that younger people (between 20 and 29 years of age) express greater intolerance towards ethnic minorities than do older people (between 50 and 59). The surveys also show a high level of antipathy to foreigners, especially Jews and Arabs. In the current situation in Serbia, Minister Ljajic has won a very high rating both domestically and internationally: it is largely owing to his commitment that in the last Serbian census Bosniaks had the right to call themselves as such, while EU representatives are full of praise for his ministry’s efforts and in particular for a very advanced law on national minorities.
Dino Merlin and Ceca
The sizeable diplomatic corps and the international representatives in Belgrade have no reservations towards the political and public promoters of the Chetnik resurgence, who receive generous funding from them and attend the glamorous receptions and celebrations on which the media report. The West quite simply does not seem to find anything wrong with the idea of basing the new Serbian democracy upon the Chetnik tradition.. People whom the West recognised as the bravest fighters against Milosevic are today seen as destabilizing Belgrade’s Potemkin-like idyll of democracy. Just as after the recent constitutional changes in B-H Wolfgang Petritsch praised ‘the wise, statesmanly contribution’ of [SDS hardliner] Dragan Kalinic, so too do Western diplomats fund - and host parties in their villas for - politicians, journalists and artists who are either active promoters, or at least cogs in the wheel, of this strategic and currently most significant national-political project in Serbia.
On 11 July I carefully scanned the Belgrade newspapers. Not one of them printed a word about the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. But that does not mean that they do not write about war crimes. During that period I was able to read a big interview with Ephraim Zurof about the crimes of Pavelic’s Ustashe during World War Two. The most precious time of my stay in Belgrade was the time I spent with some of the people mentioned by Lula Mikijelj (see below): people like Petar Lukovic, Sonja Biserko and Olga Popovic-Obradovic. I cannot find words to express my admiration for their courage, honesty and persistence. Their eminently humane attempts to bring home to the public the suppressed truth about the recent wars are treated with contempt by international representatives, and with open ridicule and mockery by even such Serbian media as B92.
If I were a Westerner, unaware of the deeds of the Chetnik movement in the recent and not so recent history of this part of the world, perhaps I would not have noticed all that I have been describing, and without which it would be possible to write reams of stuff presenting Belgrade as a cultural centre of the whole area between Vienna and Istanbul. For example, the bookshops and the volume of publishing - the translated works, both modern and classical, both theoretical and literary - would amaze and thrill even visitors who do not come from unfortunate Sarajevo. It is not difficult to share foreigners’ fascination with old and even shabby pubs, apricot brandy, hot peppers, lamb and urnebes salad. The same goes for the posh restaurants, often on rafts, whose opulent kitsch takes your breath away. Or the style of the waiter in one restaurant, who gave me back the mobile I’d left there and remembered ages later – and even refused to take the tip I offered him.
Foreigners may love 'burek pie with cheese, meat or spinach' in the 'Sarajevo' pie-shop in central Belgrade, where huge posters of Ratko Mladic hang on the walls. T-shirts with images of Che Guevara and Radovan Karadzic are dirt cheap and available on every street-corner. There are three exceptional young ministers in Djindjic's government, the economists Djelic, Pitic and Vlahovic, all educated at leading world universities, who are unrivalled in any country in transition east of the River Kupa. It is impossible to miss the prostitution either, in which Belgrade is slowly but surely catching up with Thailand and Cuba when it comes to the volume, quality and cheapness of what is on offer.
And yet, and yet, one comes back to the taxi drivers. On the last day of my stay in Belgrade I took a ride in a Zastava 101 - so old and rickety that when I sat down I nearly fell on my back - and inside Dino Merlin was playing at full blast. When I asked whether it was a cassette or the radio, the driver said it was the former. I told him I was from Sarajevo, and that I found it interesting to see that Merlin was popular in Belgrade too. He retorted promptly that Ceca [Arkan's turbo-folk-singer widow] was popular in both Sarajevo and Zagreb. The conversation continued as follows:
'My mother's from Bosnia, but that doesn't matter. Listen, I'll tell you one thing. I don't know who or what you are, but I know that no one has such a rough deal as the Muslims do.'
I asked him to explain, thinking I must have stumbled upon some sympathizer of the 'Belgrade Circle' of independent intellectuals. This is what he answered:
'Just think, that guy of theirs climbs that tower sixteen times a day, and howls out from up there, while the ones down below bow down. That's some rough deal!'
I smiled politely, scratched my chin and told him it wasn't quite like that. When I paid him, he was still insisting: 'Oh yes it is, I should know! Sixteen times.'
This report is translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 2 August 2002