Belgrade 2014: A winter portrait

Pogled sa Terazija

I always disliked going back to Belgrade in winter: grayness of the weather usually only exacerbated the decrepit look of the facades around the city. Furthermore, the lack of summer terraces, would not only condemn us to trawling the streets to find anywhere decent to sit, but, a place, once found, would be enveloped in smoke and all conversation would have been drowned in the din. Thankfully, the smoke would not have been to big a difference from the smog and fog that would inevitably linger over the city center. Winters in Belgrade were never nice.

Sadly, this hasn’t changed much and yet another year of sluggish growth, high unemployment, general malaise and the coup in the city hall meant the city only stagnated (although the weather is unseasonably nice). Buildings, even the newly renovated ones are scrawled with graffiti, once again in vogue, especially amongst the annoyingly persistent football hooligans. Ceca, a convicted criminal and admittedly, the most popular Serbian cultural export, sang at the official New Years’ eve celebration, thereby showing us that no matter how much of a crook you are, the state will be happy to celebrate you.  Over the holidays, the respect of other people’s personal space (by say, not blowing off their legs with a firecracker) has become rare, especially amongst the god-fearing crowd that gathered to celebrate Christmas and launch pyrotechnics to shame a smaller army in front of the half-empty Sveti Sava church.Finally, and most tragically Trg Republike is now crowned with a very large and shockingly obvious strip club, while two major museums are still closed and nothing is done to change that despite the fact that someone is getting quite a bit of money from the scaffolding on the facade of the National Museum.

Of course, there have been some improvements (Crowne plaza opened and looks nice, and soon Radisson Blu will be finished), however, as always, not enough. There is a lot of hope about the new waterfront project, however given the amount of spin it generated; it is not inconceivable that it might come to nothing.

Have we seen worse? Of course we have. Do we deserve better? Stupid question – no such thing as “deserving” in politics, or in life, for that matter.  We need to do things(work? vote? Protest?) for it (as in: our individual lives – let’s park the national wellbeing, and other loftier ideas for the moment) to get better. That is done by some (shout out to cool kids in Savamala, or Przionica, or Square Nine, or Zaplet, or Beton Hala), but not enough by others: the intellectual “elite” that prefers giving quasi-intellectual statements (the crowd remained strangely silent about Ceca or the strip-club), most “investors” (e.g. the team behind Hotel Jugoslavia who left it to rot only to redevelop it as a shit hole) and, well, the good old political circles, which are more inbred and bizzare than ever. Serbia in general, and Belgrade, still lacks motors for growth on the top and no amount of posturing (or farce) will change that. What will change that is, sadly, not the change in the vox populi (that hardly ever changes on its own), but the rise of new, creative and shrewd thinkers  (politicians, artists, entrepreneurs) who would have money behind them. We simply need smart people (Serbian or otherwise) who will put their money on the line in Serbia. We have enough of brains without the brawn – “experts”, of varying skills, are at best used as bayleaf in our political concoctions and at worst become disgruntled “analysts”. Brawn without brains – we have far too much of that.

In terms of practical policies, what we need is a further improvement of the investment climate and breaking up of the lobbies (e.g. the import one) to attract capital. One good sign is that even those who made fortunes in looting the state silverware (or other generic crime) in the 90’s are now pro-investment (in agro for example), probably after having realised that there is not much more to steal. The other is that it seems that Serbia’s budding mittelstand is becoming more politically involved and independent (as evidenced by the proposed economic policies). Finally, the increased global connectivity makes it easier for those who are not yet ready to take a plunge and move (back) to Serbia to engage with the possibilities here. Alas, there is quite a way to go and many lobbies and vested interests to tackle. However, without making Serbia profitable for smart business (software! skilled services! tourism!) there is a slim chance that our policies will ever be smarter.

Despite being optimistic about Belgrade and Serbia because of the numbers of young people who decided to pursue their ambitions in innovative/available ways here (from working in call-centers to developing apps) it is always a let-down to see that big headways, the ones needed to free us from this stagnations, are not made. We are still at the stage where dramatics is considered politics.

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