The joke’s on us

If ever there was a time when the whole of Serbia and it’s people looked like one big cartoon, this is it. I’ll just quote the Cartoon Network’s ‘Two stupid dogs’ show: “Now ain’t that cute… but it’s wrong!”

If somebody had told me at the beginning of March that Serbia had no opposition, I’d just think that person had watched one Socialist Party broadcast too many last month, when Slobodan Milosevic said just that.

After all, just a few days earlier, all the opposition party leaders had generally agreed there should be an anti government rally somewhere around March 9, exactly nine years after the first ever street protest against Milosevic. They had also said there’ll be a unified election list in case only local one-round winner-takes-all elections were held. And, most importantly, there wasn’t a hint of animosity between them when they held a joint press conference to announce all that to the media and the public.

But now, two weeks, no rallies, but plenty of confusing opposition’s statements later, things don’t look so good. The opposition leaders simply look too uninterested to do anything substantial against the government, and God knows they had plenty of opportunity for action. For every independent TV station that gets closed and every independent newspaper that gets fined, another freedom-of-speech and change-the-media-law statement rolls out of the opposition machinery. But statements don’t bring governments down, and they certainly won’t get you elections, not to mention get you elected. And when will the rally be held? “March is a long month”, said one of the leaders, “there’s plenty of time”. No comment.

But, unfortunately, that’s not all because the opposition doesn’t look so unified anymore. You won’t hear that in the official press releases and news conferences, but there is still some distrust, hatred even, between the two major opposition leaders, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic. Not as much as a year, or even six months ago, but enough for the two of them not to have a joint list, and enough to ruin the opposition’s chances of winning local elections. At least for another four years.

It’s easy to get a ‘Friend of the Serbs’ status. You have to be a foreigner, publish a few crappy books no one will ever read (preferably poetry and philosophy), promote some of them in Serbia itself, and then hold a press conference about how the world treats Serbia like dirt. Knowing Milosevic’s son Marko is desirable, but not necessary. You won’t exactly get a “Friend Of” membership card and a complimentary bumper sticker, but everybody here will love you, you’ll be invited as a guest for numerous chat shows and you’ll get free food and drink in almost every restaurant. Women will want to marry you (even if you do look like the ugly twin brother of Quasimodo), men will envy you for having a harem of celebrity mistresses, and all of them will want to name their children after you (unless, of course, your name is Tony or Bill).

Ok, some of those people genuinely support Serbia, and some of them do have some good books behind them. But boy did they choose the wrong bunch of people to hang out with. And the only thing they actually do, besides holding the above mentioned press conference where they explain to Serbs how maltreated they, is to provide the you-know-what with enough ammo when somebody says that Serbia has no real allies in the west.

By ‘Friends’ I don’t mean only people. There are plenty of countries and organizations willing to help us. But could somebody please tell me what to do with ten kilos of near-rotten oranges from Greece, now that there’s no longer a flu epidemic? Or five kilos of Polish spaghetti made ten years ago? And they didn’t give us all that during the bombing or after the flood. They waited for spring. It’s 20 degrees outside and prices of oranges are five times lower than what they’ve been during the flu season. Well, thanks anyway, at least we know you care.

The media here suck. Not just RTS, not just the government controlled newspapers, but the whole lot – Draskovic’s Studio B, Djindjic’s small regional TV stations, and many other magazines and TV studios which technically are independent but have a rather obvious ideological inclining. The first lesson an RTS journalist has to learn is how to stuff as many phrases like ‘the extended hand of NATO alliance’ or ‘foreign spies and domestic traitors’ into a report on the actions of the opposition. The first lesson an ‘independent’ one must master is how to criticize the government for Belgrade being the coldest city in Europe that day.

But I guess the opposition media does have a tougher time in here right now, especially with an ultra nationalist Vojislav Seselj in charge of the media and information laws. The two most read anti-government newspapers were ordered a few days ago by the state officials, who quoted a non existent paragraph of the media law, to lower their prices, and in turn operate with massive losses, which would eventually lead to their closure.

What did they do to fight back? Well, nothing. Okay, they did print this small notice on the front page saying how they’ll be out of business if they don’t go against the government’s decision and raise the price, causing sympathy of readers everywhere, but that won’t get them back from the dead now, will it? And the people who’d feel sympathy for them are the very same people who felt sorry for Arkan’s wife, Ceca, when she lost her husband and gained millions (both of which are not that bad) so their sympathy wouldn’t do much to bust the moral. Oh well, another one bites the dust.

But I want to end this on a positive note, and what better way to do it than using the very same thing Serbia is right now – a joke. “When will this country get better? When the time comes for Ceca the widow to explain to Marko the orphan who killed Vuk during Seselj’s funeral.” One down, four to go.

Should I move to Ghana or Iraq?

There are a few words and phrases that every RTS reporter must mention in a broadcast and every government politician must mention in a speech. “Preserving sovereignty and national integrity” and “the extended hand of NATO alliance” (i.e. the opposition parties) are the most memorable ones, but there are some, often overlooked, that are equally, well… stupid.

For example, every time our dear president’s wife, Mira Markovic, went to the Republic of xyz promoting her books, she wouldn’t fail to mention (and all the RTS reporters wouldn’t fail to report it), that a traditional friendship exist between Serbia and the people of xyz. Be it Bulgaria, China, or Iraq, Serbia is, says she, friends with all of them.

Well, with friends like that… right? Even worse, the minister of foreign affairs said a week ago while touring Africa that a traditional friendship exists between Yugoslavia and the Republic of Ghana. The fact that more than 80 per cent of people in Serbia, myself included, don’t know exactly where in Africa Ghana is aside, could a friendship between two countries whose combined age is less than 50 really be called “traditional”?

But do I really need to tell you all of this? A British version of RTS, albeit milder and fairer (which is good) and more subtle (which is bad… very bad), is only a click away from you. And, of course, it has a different easily recognisable set of three letters – two Bs and a C. I don’t watch it all that much, only “Panorama” actually, but what I see is… I guess “scary” is the right word. Ok, sometimes they do get it right, but most of the times – it’s just crap. Quote: “She is willing to tell us what “the Serbs” did to the men of the village” or “The Albanian snipers attacked the French peacekeepers because “the Serbs” made them feel vulnerable”.

Whoever makes that programme should write, “Labeling people and / or nations is very very very very bad” on the board a 1,000 times. Now all of this reminded me of a Benetton commercial I read about in a magazine – A man is walking trough some woods when he sees ten people, nine of them black and one white, drowning in the river, but realizes that because of the strong current he can help only one of them. So he decides which one he’ll save, and just as he grabs the white one to pull him out a thought flashes trough his head: “But what if he’s a Serb?”

Something in all of that troubles me. I know for a fact that most people who work in RTS, a friend of mine’s mother is a news editor there, hate their work, have miserable salaries and would gladly see their bosses thrown out both from office and from the country. But people who work at the BBC, CNN or any other 3 letter acronym out there don’t really care about what or who they hurt with their reports, as long as it looks good on TV and the ratings stay high. When all of this is over, most of the people who work for RTS will change, become objective, be better reporters, but your people will stay the same. It won’t be Serbia, perhaps China, India, even Austria will be in the spotlight, but they’ll still keep labeling people, separating them into heroes, victims and villains, and you still won’t know what’s actually happening out there.

But for now, it’s us who are in deep you-know-what. Right now, and by that I mean at the very moment I’m writing this, there is a Socialist party congress going on in Belgrade. It brings to my mind inevitable comparisons to the conservatives’ congress I saw the coverage of last year. The conservatives, I remember, brought some ordinary people to theirs to show they are in-tune to the nation. The socialists closed all stores in a two-mile radius so the people would stay out. The conservatives invited some people even though they knew those people weren’t exactly all that happy about the running of the party. The socialists banned disgruntled members from reaching Belgrade, let alone the congress hall. The conservatives got at least one person to join them during the congress.

The socialists got at least ten dozen to cancel their membership. So, the party that looks bad when compared to the conservatives is running the country I live in . The question is: should I move to Ghana or Iraq? Neither of them look so bad right now.

Déjà vu

Most of the time I love being right. I said a week ago that the reports of Arkan’s shooters being captured are probably false – it turned out they were. Of course, nobody here admits it, and the police are still saying they’ve got the killers, but there is, as always, a gaping hole in the police’s story.

The fact that they have yet to come up with a reasonable motive aside, two of the five arrested were police officers, one suspended and one on a vacation, and the one that was suspended got himself wounded during the assassination. Now, if the shooters were such professionals as the police portray them to be, would they be so stupid as to send their wounded associate to a public hospital for treatment instead of simply getting rid of him, a potential witness? Of course, this was just a rhetorical question – everybody here knows or suspects, and I do mean everybody – from simple farmers to rich businessmen, that this is yet another in a series of government-ordered killings.

There are, however, times when I hate when something I predicted actually happens. In November last year, I wrote that the then sudden surge in electricity and gas supplies was a part of the government’s plan to stay in power for another year or so by keeping the people happy and delaying the elections. I also said that their plan would fail, simply because the Russians and the Czechs aren’t willing to send free gas and electricity forever. And to tell you the truth, I kind of hopped I would be proved wrong.

But their plan did fail. Spectacularly. A sudden dive of temperatures, which now range between –20 and –5, had everyone crank their heaters up to the max. And the fact that the heaters require either gas or electricity to produce heat in turn caused a shortage of both. So right now, more than half of Serbia is without gas, and the whole of it has power cuts – ranging from 6 to 16 hours a day in some areas.

Writing this I realized that 6 hours a day without electricity, or in my case 9, doesn’t look so bad on paper. But I only had to remember how I spent three hours of the previous night – by the flickering light of a petroleum lamp, listening to the constant yapping of my mother about how it’s all Sloba’s fault – to realize that Dante had Serbia without electricity in mind when he created his “Hell”. Of course, Dante couldn’t have known what electricity is, but even so, “Hell” isn’t a strong enough word to describe the year 2000 in Serbia.

But that’s an exaggeration. What can I say? I’m a spoilt brat who can’t imagine his life without a computer, a TV or even such luxuries as electric light and running water. I know there are children in Ethiopia starving to death, people in Sierra Leone killing each other and many more who weren’t so fortunate not to be born in the so-called Third world, but
I don’t have to go to Africa to see people whose lives are ruined. I can just visit my mother at her workplace.

You see, she used to work in a hotel. “Used to” doesn’t mean she quit or got fired, and she didn’t even change her office, but what used to be a hotel, technically still is one, became a refugee centre a few months ago. However, these Kosovo refugees didn’t have the luck of those from Croatia to have their houses built and bills paid for them by the government. In fact, the government refuses to even call them refugees – to them, they are just “people who left Kosovo”, “the internally displaced”. And although they have free bed ’n’ breakfast, dinner even, the personal possessions they brought with them just about equal those of people from Ethiopia – a few pieces of clothing and not much more.

And they are exactly the people who are now targeted by the opposition, which can now be called “new and improved”, to vote against the ruling coalition in the upcoming elections. The problem is, nobody really knows what he or she will vote for in those elections. While two parts of the government are deciding on whether they will be both local and federal or just local, the opposition is demanding elections on all levels – local, regional, and federal. But whatever these elections turn out to be about, it’s certain that the government faces defeat, if only because they can’t manipulate the votes from Kosovo any more. And there was a whole lot of manipulating going on in the past – according to the ’91 election results, 104 per cent of people in Kosovo voted for Slobodan Milosevic to be the new president of Serbia. No comment.

Somehow, the winter of 2000 in Serbia seems to be a carbon copy of the summer of ’94. Power cuts, refugees on your doorsteps, and just a hint of a chance for change in the air. A few days ago, a power cut interrupted an episode of “Pinky and the Brain”. The last thing Brain said: “To use the words of the immortal Yogi Beara, it’s deja vu all over again.”

Arkan – my neighbour

If somebody had counted the number of times the events in Serbia had appeared in foreign news headlines in the past 10 or so problematic years, he or she would have realised that for a country of less than 10 million, Serbia certainly had a lot of publicity. The minute somebody important gets shot, some mad general threatens a neighbouring country and/or province or some alliance starts dropping bombs on the unsuspecting populace, a herd of correspondents, reporters and anchors wanting high ratings for their x o’clock news starts rushing into Belgrade, blocking the border crossings and, before the air sanctions were put into action, the airports.

And because at least one of those three things happens almost every week here, some members of the herd could probably apply for a Yugoslav passport, citing the number of years spent here. It’s surprising then that all those correspondents, reporters and anchors didn’t bother to learn a few small but important things about the country they can’t stop talking about. It is little more than five months ago now that I first realised just how little they know about what’s going on in here, when a well known UK news channel announced as breaking news that “Serbia’s most notorious paramilitary leader and the most wanted gangster, Arkan, is reported to be in Kosovo with his group, committing

Well, he was neither the most notorious, nor a gangster, not to mention the fact that he wasn’t in Kosovo during the NATO bombing campaign, therefore being unable to commit any atrocities. The channel found that out soon enough, when Arkan himself phoned them from Belgrade just minutes after the announcement and had a small friendly chat, on-air, with their military analyst whom he knew from the Bosnian war.

But they didn’t learn their lesson. When Željko Ražnjatoviæ got shot last Saturday evening in the lobby of the Intercontinental hotel, the foreign media went on and on about his paramilitary group, the Tigers, his war crimes indictment, and about his status as “the most notorious, wanted, and who-knows-what-else person in Serbia”.

It is true that his paramilitary organization, whose full name is “The Serbian Voluntary Guard”, had it’s fair share of atrocities during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, along with looting and plundering non–Serb homes in those countries. Then again, all parties involved did exactly the same things to one another, and there is no evidence whatsoever that Arkan was something of a leader in the top 10 plunderers’ list. And “the most wanted” he wasn’t. Back in the late seventies, early eighties, he did break into several European banks, becoming a wanted man in Belgium, Holland, Italy, Sweden and a few more countries. But that doesn’t make him a gangster, just a bank robber. Some people in Serbia are far more wanted now than he ever was. And he actually stopped most of his criminal activities after the Bosnian war, when he married a local pop star and became the proud owner of “Obiliæ” football club, which after just a year under his management won the Yugoslav Cup (after which came a rumor, or should I say ‘a pure lie’, that they won most of the matches by threatening their opponents).

The fact that during the past few years he spent most of his time promoting his wife’s music carrier, his football club and his casino which was based in the Intercontinental hotel, makes the theory of a mob killing somewhat unlikely. The most probable suspect is the government, simply because Arkan just knew too much about what the VJ (the Yugoslav Army) and the MUP (the Ministry of Internal Affairs) did in the past wars. He always said that he would willingly go to Hague if somebody from NATO was also indicted, and with the chances of that becoming higher by the day (but still very low), someone from the government, very likely the president himself, maybe panicked, forgot it will probably never happen, and ordered the assassination.

The strangest thing about his death, however, is how much the media of the world are interested in it. While on RTS the news of his death came somewhere in between an announcement to the elderly that the pensions will be late again, and a report of yet another bridge being built, some foreign stations kept it at the top of the headlines for the whole weekend. And it’s mostly thanks to Arkan himself. Knowing very well the power of the media, he used his knowledge of 6 different languages and his disabling charm (all of those who spoke to him said that he didn’t look or act one bit like the thug he was portrayed to be) to promote his right-wing patriotic messages around the world during the bombing campaign. And when the journalists weren’t interested in talking to him, he would politely make them interview him. That’s how he blew the image the rest of the world had of him and his influence in Serbia out of proportion. You could say that he was the David Beckham of Serbia’s underworld – rich and married to a pop star, but living on old fame and publicity, making more trouble than he’s worth.

So the impact his death will have is very limited. It won’t affect the everyday or political life in Serbia as a whole, and the changes in Serbia’s organized crime will be very small, as was his part in it. The only thing it will affect is a single town of a little more than 50.000, Jagodina, and it’s a strange coincidence that that is the very same town I live in. Here lie the headquarters of his TV station, his “kick boxing club” – “The Tigers” – and his political party has a fairly large share in the local government, all off which gave Jagodina it’s illustrious nickname – “Arkansas”. And now the town that kept growing mostly because of Arkan’s sponsorship is soon to be out of funds, with most of its sponsor’s money divided amongst his offspring.

But don’t think that, just because I live in a town so heavily influenced by him, my view is in any way distorted. I would have liked to see him in the Hague Tribunal, but I don’t agree with the statements of some that him getting shot is the next best thing. No man deserves such a fate, no matter how bad he is. Although most people had only fear, and not respect for him, they are nevertheless shocked and somewhat saddened by the news. My mother, a passionate anti–Slobist, wept while she watched his funeral on TV. Don’t forget that whoever killed him, and some government controlled newspapers say that one of five of his shooters has been found in a hospital recovering from a gunshot wound (probably not true, but then again, who knows?), left nine children, two of them still infants, without a father, a young wife without a husband, and a dying mother without her son.