Josh Black finds that Serbia’s capital always has something unexpected round the next corner.

The Cathedral of St Sava. Photo by the author.

The Cathedral of St Sava. Photo by the author.

It is while trying to catch a train to Belgrade that I realise a ticket is a luxury not a necessity. However, if you do have to circumvent the normal procedure, keep plenty of hard currency on you. The markets may be bolting, but from the Czech Republic, where off-licenses offer currency exchanges, to Montenegro, a non-Eurozone user of the Euro, the euro is still good money.

Like everywhere, Belgrade operates according to certain rules. It just happens that those rules are less apparent here than elsewhere. Belgrade is a city of McDonalds’ and modern commercial blocks, but also buildings in an advanced state of collapse. Are they left as a reproach to Western visitors, reminding them that NATO bombed this City heavily?

Discount supermarkets sit next to Burberry. Is the latter sustained by a rich segment of this formerly communist nation, or by a mafia? The largest Orthodox Cathedral in the world is still being constructed nearly eighty years after works commenced at one end of the main boulevard, just before one reaches Tito’s monument. Will it be used, or is it merely a way of reflecting Serbia’s historical sense of its own importance?

Serbia, so like Russia in many ways, used to see itself at the head of a pan-Slavic movement. When Yugoslavia collapsed after the declarations of independence by Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (roughly in that order), the messianic zeal and lust for power of Slobodan Milosevic and his vicious associates sought to monopolise the use of force not only to hold that historic state from disintegration, but to ethnically cleanse diverse populations.

How Serbia reached the conclusion that this was its historic mission, little about Belgrade can tell you. The city is a curious mix of grandiose and typically European architecture, particularly in its government buildings, and the flirtatiousness of youth. People flock from all over the continent for EXIT or gypsy-music festivals and clubbing, while racket-sporting prankster Novak Djokovic is not untypical of the openness and friendliness one can easily find here. Unusually for this part of Europe, Belgrade had a Museum of Roma Culture, although it unfortunately played up to stereotype and moved from its advertised location.

For a few years, Serbia has appeared to be on a steady track leading away from the tragedy that was the 1990s and towards EU Candidate Status. The election of Tomislav Nikolić led to a hardening of positions over Kosovo, putting this process in peril, but now things seem to be back on track, if a little precariously. Although it is also clear that the EU is not currently the draw it once was due to events in Greece and Hungary, why should Serbia not settle for a lower profile amongst a Europe of integrated states? The same question has been asked constantly of Britain and of Ukraine but we are still far from an answer.


2 thoughts on “Belgrade

  1. Thanks for this article, it makes me want to go back to this weird, but fascinating city. Although I have only lived there for five months, it was enough to make me realise that almost everything in Belgrade (and Serbia as a whole) is different than you would expect at first glance. Nothing can illustrate this better than that enormous St. Sava cathedral you mentioned: for me, as a typical (allegedly) down-to-earth Dutch citizen, the whole thing about this church seemed a bit, well, extreme. I considered it a sign of Serbia’s conservative tensions to hold onto its ‘glorious’ past. Little did I know, till a local friend explained, that many see the completion of St. Sava as hopeful evidence of a brighter future. Since they started building St. Sava more than 100 years ago, construction works were put on hold every time Serbia experienced war or conflict. Seeing the cathedral finalised, albeit only the exterior, means a lot to Serbs. Not only to the slightly conservative, right-wing, very religious Serbs, but to their progressive, peace-minded counterparts as well: it proves that Serbia has enjoyed peace for a considerable period of time.

    I admit, it is difficult to have eye for these kind of meanings in a country were many throw stones at gays, deny the most recent wars’ atrocities and state to be willing to fight a next war – and yes, I knew many of then. But you are fully right when saying that Belgrade has something unexpecting around every corner. I’d say: go and discover the cheap rakija, pleskavice and amazing (in all possible meanings of the word) people!

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