Belgrade, a Lonely Planet

What are the chances of getting Belgrade on the EasyJet circuit any time soon? Serbian rock star and intellectual Vladimir Jeric of Darkwood Dub gives us a tour of the White City and all its shades of grey.

By Steve Korver, 14-12-2006, Amsterdam Weekly.


Belgrade is scenically located at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers where cliffs rise to form the fortress Kalemegdan, the perfect setting to enjoy some ‘liquid of the soul’, slivovic, while the sun sets. The city has been an East-meets-West crossroads for millennia, which made it one of the more cosmopolitan cities in its region. It is also home to the hottest peppers, the meatiest mixed grills and the wickedest Romani brass tunes. The cultural scene is vibrant and fuelled by a large student population. Hell, it’s even home to the Nikola Tesla museum!

‘That’s very romantic of you,’ Vladimir Jeric, AKA Vlidi, says over smokes and coffee; obviously the bespectacled Serbian rock musician and media pundit comes equipped with a good dose of jaded Belgrade humour. He’s in town for this week’s ‘Rough Guide to Belgrade’, hosting a media programme at De Balie and playing with his legendary underground band Darkwood Dub in the Melkweg. However, he’s not much help at providing a nice fluff piece that champions Belgrade as a new central European hotspot: ‘Belgrade is ugly; don’t go for the architecture. I only return for the people.’

Since the civil wars broke up the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Belgrade—the ‘White City’—continues to reflect a full spectrum of greys (but it’s still cooler than Prague).

A distinct marketing problem
Belgrade as a brand has been battling a marketing problem ever since Geert Wilders look-a-like Slobodan Milosevic used it as a base for his populist Serbian nationalist agenda. But, even while manipulating elections both directly and through the state-controlled media, he would never win an election in Belgrade itself. The ensuing wars, UN sanctions and NATO bombings created both monetary and cultural poverty. Later hot-housing of gangsters by Milosevic only cemented its status as pariah in Europe. The immediate fall-out was that hundreds of thousands of residents left—thousands came to Amsterdam alone.

Those who stayed—and who did not succumb to drug or alcohol addiction in those dreary times—were forced to be creative. Vlidi stayed. ‘I was just stubborn… What happened cannot be summed up in a few words. The basic info is out there. But who’s to blame? You can interpret much by looking at the groups of people who now own the region: follow the money and the distribution of power. But what happened has not been studied enough. A multi-ethnic nation fell apart—with definite warning signs. I’m still puzzled why the EU isn’t interested in researching these signs, so these things don’t repeat.

‘The increasing influence and power of media were fundamental. Political agendas were channelled through pop culture and media. On that level, it became a battle between “strategic media”, owned by the businesses and government, and “tactical” media, based on ground-up and self-organised networks of resistance. Media was key to the sustainability of the regime at the time, and the same media machine is still being used by the post-5 October [2000, the date Milosevic was ousted] government.’ The former Yugoslavia already had both types of media in place: a state apparatus which governed very much from above—but there was also personal freedom relative to its Eastern Bloc neighbours—that helped create its famed underground music scene and network.

Darkwood Dub formed in 1988 and Vlidi remembers the tail-end of those glory days. ‘Belgrade bands would hold their biggest shows in Zagreb. And vice versa.’ In the 1990s, that network was destroyed by war. The nationalists started exploiting popular music to romanticise both Serbian identity and the gangster lifestyle. It came to be called ‘turbofolk’, though the term was appropriated from Montenegrin musician Rambo Amadeus, who used it satirically. A merry dance indeed.

Belgrade as export product
There was a resistance movement, however. Student group OTPOR did the organising, Radio B92 provided the news and soundtrack and, thanks to modems, Real Audio and server space volunteered by Amsterdam’s own—and then still more hacktivist—XS4ALL, it could continue broadcasting even when Milosevic tried to ban it during the three-month-long student uprising in 1996-7, where between 100,000 and 200,000 people a day stormed the streets to protest and party. But Vlidi believes Wired magazine was premature in describing it as the first ‘Internet Revolution’. After all, in the end, Milosevic ended up consolidating his power, UN sanctions continued and NATO bombing began. It was only in October 2000 that dissident forces, along with a united front of democratic parties and businesses, protested Milosevic’s refusal to accept his election loss.

In the prelude to these elections, Darkwood Dub—if you like the name, you’ll like their music—played 26 Serbian cities to rally disillusioned youth into registering their votes. It worked. ‘October 2000 was great. It was charged with optimism and seen as the long-awaited award. But it was in fact just the beginning—all the structures and most of the people were still in place. Everyone was exhausted already and so disappointment was inevitable.’

But did the revolution succeed? Milosevic did end up at The Hague Tribunal. Student activists were sent off to spread their version of noisy, peaceful and internet- fuelled revolution to Georgia in 2003—where they even used much of the same branding, including OTPOR’s raised fist. This was the same year as pro- Europe and democracy Prime Minister Zoran Dindic was assassinated as a reprisal for his battle against organised crime. His death formed the impetus for mass arrests and finally, the jails were getting full.

‘The revolution was a failure,’ says Vlidi. ‘And one should not export failure. Anyway you cannot just directly cut-and-paste an approach on another situation. In Belgrade, the real gangsters are still in power. They just got rid of the competition. Big business won. Heineken. Tuborg. People are now distracted with loans and mortgages. You can actually say nothing has changed.

‘Belgrade is the largest city in the region. It would be natural if it became a major node for ideas and culture again. We could have caught up much more quickly if we studied other countries in transition. We could have cut and paste what worked there to save time. For instance, Slovenia’s government now runs forty-two per cent of its software on open source Linux operating systems. We could have been inspired by what is going on in Brazil. We needed a culture minister like Gilberto Gil!’

Belgrade today
Meanwhile, broadcaster B92 has gone mainstream: the radio plays the Billboard chart, the TV is launching Big Brother. ‘[It] equally aligns videos, silicon tits and deaths in Iraq—you can’t take it seriously,’ says Vlidi.

Meanwhile liberal-intellectual magazine Vreme, another beacon of light in those times, ‘now only speaks to the two hundred people who are mentioned in it’. On Wednesday in De Balie, Vlidi joins a panel that includes the director of B92 and a Vreme columnist. Sparks will fly.

There’s good news, too: underground music scenes from the old republics are reuniting and festivals like Exit attract 150,000 visitors, many from the other former republics. But the political reality remains: in Novi Sad, where Exit takes place, 80% of the population support the Serbian Radical Party, fronted by Vojislav Seselj who said: ‘We will scoop Croat eyeballs out with a rusty spoon’ and who is currently recovering from a hunger strike while awaiting trial in Den Haag.

So, go to Belgrade, but not as a disaster tourist. Otherwise you might as well stay home and read stories about Dutch-Bat’s medals for Srebrenica. But even then, keep a sense of proportion: ‘If you think Dutch politics are going through rough times at the moment, check out Serbia’s,’ says Vlidi. ‘Then take an aspirin.’


Illustration by Nenad Vukmirovic

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