Category Archives: Events

A Belgrade Tradition: 70 Year Anniversary of the First Democratic Protests

On Friday afternoon I was in downtown Belgrade for a couple of business meetings. Aside from the unusually lovely weather in late November, it was a day like any other. I finished both meetings, packed my stuff and got on my cell to call a cab, with juste enought time to get home before my son got back from school. I got the same response from all three cab companies that I called: “We’re sorry but, as a gesture of support to the protests today, we won’t be working for the next hour.” Great. Thankfully, one of my business associates was there with his motorcycle and, knowing his faithful Yamaha steed would get us through almost any crowd or traffic jam, offered to give me a ride home.

Notice I didn’t even bother to ask exactly who was protesting or why. Prostests are so common in Belgrade that most of us tend to just try to ignore them unless they have something to do with the issues affecting our individual lives. Nevertheless, the information junkie that I am, I got home and ended up finding out that the students of the University of Belgrade were protesting new terms for fullfillment of requierments for certain financial aid for tuitions and so on. I wish them all the best in their efforts but I was a student a decade ago and my son is still in elementary school so I’m not really all that interested. Sorry. It did however remind me of a blog post I wrote and tucked away on my hard disk for future use. I thought I’d release it on the exact day that will mark 70 years since the first massive student protest in Belgrade but, with the current students planning on continuing their protest come Monday, this weekend seems like more appropriate timing. We’re taking that step back again now. The one I call retrograde. In fact, take a few steps back ’cause this picture isn’t just big. It’s huge. And you’re going to want to see it.

The year 1939 had been a tough one on all of Europe. In Serbia it was better known as the Bloody Year of 1939. It remained known as such even after World War II, which was just around the corner. What some don’t know and many fail to recall is that, before World War II came about, a vast portion of the Serbian high society, polititians and bourgeoise in Serbia and much of the region, actually liked the ideologies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Yes, you read that right. Don’t forget that Hitler was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938. This vehement little creature with the funny moustache had an ideology that very much appealed to the higher classes and a killer rhetoric. Bluecollar workers and students saw it differently, of course. The Bloody Year of 1939 saw more than 800 protests throughout the Kingdom of  Yugoslavia.

Allow me to introduce you to a few of the characters in this particular story – the story of the first massive organized student and proleterian protests in Serbia. Miloš Matijević, better known as ‘Slim’ (Mrša) was a tall and lanky bluecollar type that had been born and raised on a small, impoverished farm. A hard worker, after years of unsuccessful farming, physical odd jobs and such, he ended up landing a decent gig in the textile industry in Belgrade. In the late 1920’s he became a member of the Communist Party and set his sights on creating better conditions for the working class. True, most of us still cringe at the word ‘communist’ now that we all know what happened post WW II. But all that ‘Slim’ Matijević and those similar to him knew was that it was time for a change and this ‘communism’ thing, equal shares and opportunity for all, seemd like a great idea.

Our next character became a member of the Communist Party in the mid 1930’s and was a Montenegrin born Serb, Radoje Dakić. He was an electro-mechanic working in one of the larger factories of the time in Belgrade and was often arrested for his revolutionary activities and served a sentence or two in prison. A third working class character in the story, but far from the average woman of her time, was Vukica Mitrović. Born in Budva Montenegro, she had attended elementary and secondary schools there before her family’s finacial troubles and move to Belgrade. She was unable to continue her education but soon found an administrative job in  the Belgrade textile industry and joined the Communist Party in 1933. Vukica was arrested in a huge police raid of the offices of the Communist Party in April of 1935 and tortured by the authorities in prison so she would give up certain information and colleagues. Vukica kept quiet and, although a trial was held, she was finally released due to lack of evidence. Her friends called her ‘Sneak’ (Šunja) for her ability to carry out underground revolutionary tasks quietly and efficiently.

Rifat Burdžević

Rifat Burdžević was a baby faced and strong voiced young man. He was born in a small town in Serbia where, after having been orphaned at the age of two, he was raised by family members and enrolled at the Law School of the University of Belgrade in 1933. Last, but certainly not least, there was Aleksandar ‘Leka’ Ranković. ‘Leka’ Ranković was born in Obrenovac and raised mostly by his mother as he had lost his father at a young age. Ranković is a story all on his own so suffice it to say he would later become one of the most significant characters in the Communist Party of the former SFR of Yugoslavia.

These are the five main characters that, though they would have been nothing without the thousands they had following them at the time, organized and carried out an unlikely but successful mass protest. It was early December of 1939 and the workers, the students, the people – were fed up with low wage hard work, lack of bread, milk, other essentials and the lack of interest from the government in all these matters. A protest was organized, mostly by the five young people you have just been introduced to in the above paragraphs. The protest was scheduled for December 5th, 1939 and a permit for such a gathering was requested from the authorities. The permit was denied and warnings issued to the organizers, students and several trade unions. The next day, the organizers rescheduled the protest for December 10th and applied for a permit again. The second permit was also denied and warnings once again issued. The organizers, students and workers had no other choice but to use guerilla tactics. The protest went undergound for the next couple of days. The organizers made sure that the word got out to the authorities that the protest was planned for December 15th, each time giving them a different location. The students and workers had leaders among them that knew that the protest would in fact take place on the evening of December 14th and their task was to gather as many protesters as possible in the sidestreets around the one designated area – Slavija Square.

I imagine it was a cold and gray afternoon. It must have already been dark as the protest leaders and group leaders went from house to house gathering their fellow protesters. Police and guard had heard a rumor that the protest would happen a day early, but units were now hopelessly scattered around several locations in the city and any other information was scarce. The day had been pretty much like any other but as 7 pm approached, it was an empty and eerie sight. Those who were present say that the usually busy Slavija Square was deadly quiet and without a soul in sight except for a few policemen.  Slavija was. The streets around Slavija weren’t. They were absolutely packed with protesters.

Slavija Square, Belgrade, early 20th century.

At 7 pm, Leka, Vukica, Rifat, Radoje and Miloš came out to the center of Slavija Square. Rifat, the young and fiery law student was usually their spokesman and a great one at that. As he yelled out “Down with bloody war! Down with high prices! Down with terror!…” the protesters began to flood the Square. By God, it must have been an awesome sight. Police began regrouping, beating and arresting protesters. Many were injured and many killed. But it was too late. This began days of the most massive protests this region had ever seen. Protests began in other cities of the region and they changed the future and marked history. Mission accomplished.  When will the world learn that the fate of a nation lies on the shoulders of its children, its workers and its intellectuals?

The above is another amazing part of history that has simply been forgotten by most. So much so that as soon as the new democratic government came to power, a few years ago, the street where it all began was renamed from 14th December street to Cara Nikolaja II street. Not that anyone really noticed because most didn’t know why it carried the previous name in the first place. I wonder if the current government remembers how they themselves came to power in October of 2000. I wonder if they realize that, communist or democratic, they had a common goal. I wonder if they realize that they did the exact same thing 60 years later. December 14th marks the 70 year anniversary of the first massive democratic protests in Belgrade. I’ll be having myself a glass of wine around 7 pm and toasting anyone and everyone who took part in it. I hope you’ll join me.


Operation Halyard: Using History to Build Bridges Between Nations

Many things have been said of the Serbs as a nation throughout history. Of all these things, at least three most certainly stand to be true: we are stubborn, we don’t respond well to authority and we are always quick on our feet. If there’s a loophole, we’ll find it. And if there isn’t, we’ll make one. The greatest example of these characteristics is also the least known. Let me take you back to the summer of 1944, a pivotal year in the history of the world and one that saw over 500 airmen of the Allied forces kept alive and safe by the illiterate peasants of a mountain village in Serbia…

Somewhere around Gornji Milanovac and Pranjani during WWII

It’s late August of 1944 in Nazi occupied Serbia and the peasants have already sacrificed much of their already meager crop, setting time aside to build a hidden, improvised airstrip near the village of Pranjani on a mountain with an elevation of almost 500 meters. It was a heavy, humid summer with temperatures ranging from the low twenties to the mid thirties (Celsius) and the regular onset of thunderstorms didn’t help in their efforts. In other parts of the world, the Allies were preparing the biggest rescue mission ever. Yes, ever. Why haven’t you heard of it? Because it was planned and executed that well.

Over the years of the Nazi occupation throughout Europe, many airmen were downed during bombing, Intelligence and even rescue missions. Over 500 of them fell somewhere over central Serbia and survived. They practiced escape and evasion techniques until they reached either members of the courageous and friendly village populations or any of the resisting local troops. In cooperation with Allied forces, those same locals and troops organized an amazing feat: Operation Halyard. Operation Halyard was a massive Allied airlift operation behind enemy lines, the largest in history in fact. It was lead by General Draža Mihajlović and members of the American Office of Strategic Services and carried out by the General’s Chetnik guerillas and the Allied forces.

Statue of General Mihajlović in Illinois

Statue of General Mihajlović in Illinois

General Mihajlović kept his headquarters in the Gornji Milanovac and Pranjani region because, while he knew his men had good knowledge of and could conquer the rough mountain terrain, the Nazi troops couldn’t begin to fathom survival in this sort of foreign terrain. Both his troops and the downed airmen, mostly US Air Force, would be as safe as they could be here. This didn’t make Operation Halyard any easier however. The plan was to fly huge C-47 cargo planes and land them smack-dab in the middle of enemy territory during the most massive war the world had ever seen. They would then need time to load the airmen on board and fly out safely again, all from an improvised airstrip on the peak of a rugged mountain. The odds they too would be shot down were huge and the results – simply amazing. The cargo planes and those following came in and got out without any major glitches. The Operation was carried out between the months of August and December of 1944 and over 500 souls were home, safe and sound, for the new year that would bring so much change.

The real deal: Chetnik guerillas and Allied officers on the Pranjani airstrip, 1944.

The real deal: Chetnik guerillas and Allied officers on the Pranjani airstrip, 1944.

Today, testimonials of some of these survivors tell us of the warm hospitality they were afforded by those who didn’t even speak their language. A common goal against repression, occupation and worldwide mass murder made all barriers disappear – they were welcomed and cared for as one welcomes and cares for family.

In an Open Letter to US troops in the former Yugoslavia from over 500 MlAs saved by the Serbian people during World War II, Richard L. Felman, Major USAF (Ret) recalls: “While we were there, those of us who were wounded were given whatever medical supplies they had even at the deprivation of their own troops. If there was one piece of bread in the house, or one egg, it went to the American airmen while the Serb went hungry. If there was one bed or one blanket, it went to us while the Serb slept on the bare ground. No risk of sacrifice was too great to insure our safety and well being. One experience which is forever seared in my memory is the time a village with 200 women and children was burned to the ground by the Germans because the Serbs would not tell them where they were hiding us. To this day, I can smell the terrible stench of their burning flesh. One does not forget such things.”

Major Richard L. Felman on the Pranjani airstrip upon his return to Serbia in 1995

Major Richard L. Felman on the Pranjani airstrip upon his return to Serbia in 1995

Major Felman, who passed away in 1999, shortly after writing the above quoted letter, dedicated much of his life to tell the world of his lifesaving experience. Due to his great efforts, perhaps above and beyond the call of personal and moral duty, US President Harry S. Truman posthumously awarded General Draža Mihajlović with the US Legion of Merit award for his contribution to the Allied victory during World War II. This too was kept under wraps for political reasons, so as not to offend the then communist government of the former SFR of Yugoslavia, and General Mihajlović’s daughter, Gordana, finally accepted the award on her father’s behalf in 2005.

In 2007, Gregory A. Freeman wrote a very descriptive and compelling account of what is arguably still the greatest airlift rescue mission in history in his book  The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II. On August 15th of this year, Air Force Attache’ for the U.S. embassy in Serbia Lt. Col. John Cappello, soldiers of the U.S. military’s 1194th Engineer Company, and U.S. Marine Corps Security Guards from the U.S. Embassy attended the 65th anniversary of the Halyard Mission in Pranjani to pay tribute to the Serbs “who saved the lives of over 500 U.S. Airmen and Allies during World War II”. Daniel Sunter, the executive director of the Euro-Atlantic Initiative said, “We’re trying to build bridges between Serbia and the United States using history.” Yet, Operation Halyard was an event that bridged and forever intertwined several nations and hundreds of lives.

Review of The Forgotten 500 by Aleksandra Rebić

Review of "The Forgotten 500" by Aleksandra Rebić

My question is: Are we willing to wait another 65 years to learn of the great feats that are happening today? My answer is, plain and simple, loud and clear – NO. Please, remember to read the fineprint on the pages of History. It will make all the difference when you sign your contract with Time. To all those involved in the success of Operation Halyard – I personally salute you all for a mission well executed and a lesson learned. Thank you.

Autumn in Belgrade: So Much To Do, So Little Time

So much has been happening in this not-too-big, not-so-small city in South Eastern Europe that it’s been difficult to focus on just one thing. The days are getting shorter, the workdays longer and the news headlines more bleak. The summer of 2009 is over, done and gone. Here’s a short recap of its last days:

The Belgrade GLBT Pride Parade was cancelled at the last minute, Serbian athletes are back on track and achieving success, the EU is considering Serbian candidacy for entering the EU by the end of 2009 (not likely, believe you me), the Belgrade Zoo welcomed two more white Kruger lion cubs into the world (if that don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy all over, I don’t know what will), Serbia’s air carrier JAT’s mechanics had a long overdue hissy fit due to which flights were grounded untill yesterday, the Serbian government has decided to cut some 14 thousand jobs in the public sector to meet requirements for another IMF loan it has so eagerly been awaiting (They need the loan to create a better living standard and more jobs for Serbs… Huh? Wait. I’m confused…), and there’s no way I can wrap this up without mentioning Brice Taton, the 28 year old French Toulouse fan who was viciously beaten by football hooligans in Belgrade on September 17th and lost his life to those injuries just days later. The latter came as a huge shock to Belgrade as this is a city where one rarely hears of anyone getting mugged much less brutally beaten. Belgrade and France mourn Brice still but I’m afraid that, come this time next year, his name will be forgotten along with so many others.

Brice Taton

Brice Taton

Such is life in Belgrade. We learn to take the bad, find what good we can in it, and go about our daily business. The year has been pretty good to us so far, taking into consideration the state of the global economy, and the weather is still holding up. Another one of those mild Indian summers is just barely hanging on and I feel we’re just days away from a full fledged Belgrade Autumn. Although a typical Belgrade autumn can be tempermental and unpredictable, with rain, sunshine and even a bit of snow here and there, most Belgraders will tell you this is their favorite time of the year. Perhaps because this is when Belgrade shows its true colors, in all shades, light and dark.

October is the begining of the theatrical, concert and party seasons in Belgrade. Sure, we have the summer festivals and concerts all year round but, to be honest, we wait for all the tourists to leave to get the really good stuff out.  Within the next month and a half, Belgrade will play host to ZZ Top, Cesária Évora, Diana Krall, Tom Jones, Eros Ramazzoti, Simple Minds, Josipa Lisac, its very own Riblja Čorba, and that’s not counting those due to perform at the 24th Belgrade Jazz Festival beginning October 24th. That’s still not even the half of it. If your musical tastes are a tad more eclectic, don’t forget to check out what’s in store at the several venues of Belgrade’s SKC (Students’ Cultural Center). If you lean more toward the classical, then it’s the Kolarac Foundation Hall (home to the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra) you’ll be looking for.

Theatres in Belgrade are a whole story that deserve a post of their own and I promise to get around to that soon. Also, this is when many Belgrade nightclubs reopen after a long summer’s rest. My personal favorite is Bitef Art Cafe where I’ll, once again, be a regular on Tuesdays and the occassional Saturday. In the meantime, I’m hoping we can put some of the recent bad news and vibes behind us, while remembering the people and lessons involved. Welcome to an incomparable and unparalleled Belgrade Autumn. Enjoy!

Smoking in Serbia: “Protection Instead of Prohibition”

This past Tuesday evening I dropped by the “Protection Instead of Prohibition” initiative party at Cantina de Frida on the new Belgrade side of town. Although Germany seems to top the ‘highest number of smokers in Europe’ list, Serbia can’t be far behind. The Ottomans were notorious for their smoking habits and a large part of Serbia was under Ottoman rule for over 500 years so it all does make sense. Belgrade is also famous for its social and night life.However, in keeping pace with the rest of Europe, the Serbian government has been passing laws on banning smoking in recent years. The latest one, banning smoking in cafes, restaurants and other similar venues is currently being discussed, critisized and revised by many. The organized initiative “Protection Instead of Prohibition” is looking to find a compromise that will leave both smokers and non-smokers happy and able to enjoy each others company in public places.

Frida atmosfera

Several prominent figures in Serbia have again stepped up for a democratic and fair decision in the matter and have shown their support for the initiative. These include the Serbian Society of Literary Authors and several actors, musicians, an other public figures. Among those showing their support at the party, was one of Serbia’s favorite actors, Mima Karadžić, who was bright and sociable, cigar in hand, once again confirming his reputation of being a man’s man.

Mima Karadžić

Mima Karadžić

I also ran into another Serbian actor and one of my professors from the Academy of the Arts, Ivan Bekjarev, a non-smoker but ready and able to support any fair initiative or cause.

Ivan Bekjarev

Ivan Bekjarev

I’d like to point out that, although I am a smoker, I agree with banning smoking in certain places and/or events. Those would include hospital zones, school zones, and government institutions and similar buildings. The list would, however, exclude cafes, clubs, bars, restaurants and other venues for social interaction. It wouldn’t be fair to smoke out the non-smokers among us, yet it would be just as unfair to deem smokers personae non gratae at social events. Wise are the words of “Protection Instead of Prohibition” – areas designated for smokers or smoking and non-smoking sections would be the right middle ground to go for.

Bend 1

The matter of a smoking ban isn’t so much about one’s rights as it is, plain and simple, about the practical effect it has on the economy.When smoking was banned in cafes, bars and restaurants in New York City in 2003, these businesses saw huge losses immediately. The results weren’t too different in the Netherlands when the same ban was passed last year and, having little choice, many have resorted to opening smokeeasy cafes throughout the country, finding they are better off paying the occassional fine when caught than losing customers. Germany has passed several smoking bans over the last few years, but either provides for the possibility of obtaining permission for smoking sections or, in some regions, simply does not implement the bans. France has also passed an entire set of laws, yet entirely excluded cafes, restaurants and similar venues from these bans. Considering that both anti-smoking laws and smoking itself are nothing new, we should look to the prior experiences of other countries and the current statistics realted to smoking in Serbia for guidance. With both a global and a local economic crisis still in bloom, bans and restrictions, when we are prepared to dish out a few bucks for the pleasure of spending a night on the town with friends, are the last thing we need.

Belgrade LGBT Pride: Then They Came for Me

As a writer, one needs to find an almost perfect balance of objectivity while staying true to one’s experiences and opinions. Whether amateur, blogger or professional author, every writer knows this is never easy. For days I have kept quiet about the upcoming Belgrade Gay Pride Parade. I decided to make this blog about the history, culture and everyday life in Belgrade. I’ve known for weeks that the Parade was something that merited a post of its own as it has much to do with culture. It has been one of the main topics in local and international media lately. So why didn’t I? I’ve been avoiding the subject because, to me, this is a very personal issue. I am an active bisexual and have known of my sexual preference since I was 14.

EuroPride London, 2006

EuroPride London, 2006

This isn’t exactly my coming out of the closet. Most of my friends and family know this. I’m sure my colleagues at work suspected but I never made it clear and I believe most will be surprised if they read this. I’ve always left room for those who may want to pretend they don’t know. I don’t flaunt it and I don’t hide it. It is what it is. Let me make myself clear, I don’t really like any kind of parading or flaunting. I’m pretty conservative when it comes to public displays of affection, whether homosexual or heterosexual. And I deplore the chaos any kind of parading creates in downtown Belgrade. I’m also not a feminist and I don’t see the point of the institution of marriage at all in the 21st century, much less of a same sex marriage. Commitment is not about a signature on a piece of paper and equality is attained through work, time and sweat, not parading and asking for this and that.

However, the Belgrade LGBT Pride Parade scheduled to take place on Sunday, September 20th, brings up some local and international issues that need to be brought out in the open. This too is never easy. There have been several threats made by different conservative organizations (all speaking in the name of the “Serbian people and society”), individuals, warning by the Serbian Orthodox Church and a “guarantee” for the safety of those participating in the Parade from Serbian authorities. Several Serbian actors, musicians, artists and other prominent figures have shown public support for the Belgrade Pride Parade and the LGBT community in general lately. I salute them. In modern day Serbia, some are literally risking their careers by doing so.

I am a Serb, both by heritage and nationality. I am a law-abiding citizen of my country. I am a woman. I am a bisexual. First and foremost, I am a single mother and, although I don’t flaunt my sexuality, there is a certain fear that comes with living my life the way I do. I know that it’s a little different for bisexual women, but we are no more truly accepted in society in the Balkans than gay or bisexual men. Anywhere. Much less so in Serbia.

Just recently, my mother, who has been referring to my sexual preference as my “experimental stage” for the past 12 years, flat out told me that she is afraid my son “will be a faggot” because of my “deviant lifestyle”. Yes, she said faggot. Yes, she called me deviant. Yes, my own mother. She followed that will a consoling, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. You know we’d love you even if you were a murderer or a thief.” Wow. So that’s where I stand in society? With the murderers, thieves, and other scum of the earth? Good to know.

Let’s set aside the fact that this is my mother. This comes from a woman who grew up in Belgrade in the late 50’s and was involved in student protests here in the early 60’s. This comes from a feminist homemaker who insisted that her husband put her name on every account he ever opened or piece of property he ever bought since the day they were married in 1966. This comes from the woman who first showed her naked breasts on Yugoslavian film in 1961 (DR. by Soja Jovanović, first banned and released in 1963). This comes from an educated woman who has seen half the globe, speaks four languages and has lived in several countries. This comes from the daughter of a woman who had two university degrees before women had the right to vote and spent her life as a working mother of three. That’s what pisses me off. Not the fact that she’s my mother.

My father (78), on the other hand, doesn’t talk about it much. In fact, he’s not much of a talker at all. His family is his life. He doesn’t say it but he has spent a lifetime showing it. All he’s ever said on the subject of my sexuality is that he worries about my safety. But the occasional wink sent my way or comment about a good looking woman passing by that I get from him means the world to me. My father is living proof that commitment, love, and acceptance don’t come from words but from actions and with time.

The opposite pretty much describes Serbian society’s general view on LGBT rights at this point in time. It’s all on paper, but you don’t exactly feel the love around here. Male homosexuality was illegal in Serbia from 1977 until 1994, with Vojvodina revoking that ban as an autonomic region from 1978 until 1990. Female homosexuality was never legally addressed at all until 2006. I’m guessing the good ol’ boys didn’t mind seeing some girl-on-girl action every now and then.

Which brings me to a few more examples from my personal experiences as a bisexual woman in Serbia. Most men in this country, like most anywhere, are initially pretty open to it. Unless they’re in a serious relationship with you. Plural and possessive are two quite different things that people often confuse.  If it’s just a passing fling then we’re fine, but if I’m “their” life partner, woman, wife, mother of their kids – they expect a prim and proper example of a Serbian woman. My ex husband, while we were still dating, became extremely angry when he realized one evening that my sexual interest in women wasn’t a “phase”. We worked it out and our relationship went on. I later found out that he “accepted” to work it out beacuse he thought, once we were married, I would forget about my need to be with women. Last year, I ended up romantically involved with a longtime friend. Months into this new relationship, he told me he understood my need to be with women. He said he knew it was because I never got what I really needed from the men in my life. He saw it as a form of rebellion on my part. Oh, and of course he knew just what I needed and would “convert” me in no time. I ended the relationship as peacefully as possible some days later and haven’t spoken to him since. I told him to give me a call once he grows a pair of balls. He hasn’t. Called, I mean.

My mother, ex-husband, and above mentioned ex-boyfriend were all born in Belgrade. They have all attended university. They have all traveled and speak more than one language. They are prime examples of the urban, middle class population of Serbia. And they all believe homosexuality is an illness.

I’m sick of being seen as either fascinating or diseased because of my personal preferences and what I do on my own time. Live and let live.

As @Blogowski wrote in his recent blog post on the subject, even the controversial and conservative Martin Niemöller wrote:

“First they came for the communists,
and I did not speak out– because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists,
and I did not speak out– because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I did not speak out– because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews,
and I did not speak out– because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me– and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Note: Comments that are verbally abusive, threatening or promote violence of any kind will simply not be approved for publishing. Don’t bother.

Serbia and the E.U.: Who Needs Who More?

Sigh… When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would stay away from anything political because Belgrade and Serbia have been manipulated by everyone’s politics too much for too long. I am sad to say – can’t do it. Must be a genetic thing, a mild form of Tourrette’s perhaps, but I’m going to have to speak my mind.

I don’t have much in the sense of a formal education.  However, for an autodidact, I’ve got a good head on my shoulders and an above average understanding of the world around me. When I come across articles like the one I ran into today on The Sofia Echo, about Serbia possibly applying for E.U. membership by the end of this year and how great that would be for the Serbian people – it just pisses me off. First I’ll tell you why it pisses me off and then I’d be very grateful to anyone out there who could tell me I’m wrong and explain it to me.

Aside from the ton of reading and the mandatory interest in politics one must have to be able to survive in Serbia, I grew up in Portugal in the 80’s and 90’s. For those of you who don’t know, from the early 1930’s, Portugal was under the totalitarian regime of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. As dictators go, Salazar is probably the most underrated of them all. After an almost 40 year dictatorship, the man died in 1970. His regime fell in 1974. I think that about covers the extent of his power. Thus, the Portugal I was raised in went through a much longer and tougher transition than the Serbia I’ve been raising my child in since 2000. And someone in Serbia’s current government might want to give someone in Portugal a call, because they’re making the same time altering mistakes that some of their democratic “revolutionary” predecesors made. Or at least read a book on the subject. Just a suggestion.

Portugal joined the European Union in 1986 and a lot of things went downhill from there. Soon enough, those wonderful, sunkissed, organic tomatoes were replaced by the imported, greenhouse crap that tastes like soaked cardboard. Portuguese wineries had to modify entire winemaking processes to meet E.U. regulations. Other E.U. laws and requirement have had serious negative influence on both Portuguese agriculture and tourism, two major industries in this country’s economy. I really don’t see how Serbia’s fate in the E.U. would be any different.

Organic tomatoes grown in Melides (Alentejo, Portugal)

I’m just going to say it. I firmly believe that, especially now with the economic mess they’ve gone and gotten themselves (yes, themselves) into, the E.U. needs Serbia more than Serbia needs the E.U..  Stop gasping and gaping at the screen, for pitty sake, and think about it.

Serbia, as it is today, is that good looking, ingenious kid that was born on the wrong side of the tracks. Think “Good Will Hunting”.  Serbia has the know-how, the infrastructure, the experience, the raw materials… you name it. Need highly educated experts? Got it. Or is cheap production and workforce what you’re looking for? Got that too. Someone who understands your newest technology and can implement it? Yup, that too. In fact, we’ve dabbled in mass production and innovative technology a few times ourselves. We just don’t have the financial resources. You know – the cash, the bread, the greenback, the moolah? Yeah, the stuff the E.U. pretends it still has.

Oh, and you know what else? We’ve got this cute little thing going on with Russia, called tariff-free export. And maybe you’ve heard this too – Russia and a few other countries in the region (that we’ve got this rockin’ relationship and trade agreements with) happen to make up a market of 200+ million consumers in one of the fastest growing FMCG markets in the world. What was that? That same market has been declining in Western Europe and North America? Shuddup! Really? And production costs have been rising there too? Wow.  And our guys are expecting trade with Russia to increase up to 60% this year. Who would’ve thunk it?

Simpo furniture factory in Vranje, Serbia

Simpo furniture factory in Vranje, Serbia

Wait. I just got this great idea. There are already a few European companies outsourcing production here, but it would be so much more practical if Serbia was an E.U. member state. Then any European company could move their production and other elements of their business here, where it’s all cheaper, high quality and close to home. Getting rid of those pesky tariffs and customs regulations would help and it really would give the Serbian economy an initial boost so the good ol’ boys in the current government would look good. At least as long as they’re in office. Hey, but let’s not let everyone in on this. Let’s pretend Serbia hasn’t entered the E.U. untill now because of lack of full cooperation with the ICTY. Then let’s pretend that some E.U. countries will support its candidacy out of their genuine concern for the people of Serbia and the fact that Serbian citizens don’t have the average European salary and can’t always travel freely. If the citizens of Serbia realize the E.U. really needs them, God forbid, they might up the ante on this one.

This time, in the article I read this morning, that genuine concern comes from Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt. Sweden happens to be the current holder of the E.U. presidency. Funny coincidence too. The massive Ikea, a Swedish company, signed a strategic partnership with Serbian furniture manufacturer Simpo in May of this year. Ikea’s aim, as they stated then, is to outsource production here and enter the Russian market while covering demand in South Eastern Europe as well. And Tetra Pak, the food processing and packaging giant of Swedish origins, has been outsourcing production to the Tipoplastika factory in Gornji Milanovac (Central Serbia) for years now. Guess what. Just this January, Tetra Pak management declared this very production plant as the best among their 42 plants in the world. Hey, I just read this stuff. You do the math.