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 A building remodeled by NATO forces in 1999

We sail into the city of Belgrade, capital of Serbia.  After our usual breakfast aboard the boat, we gather in the lounge to hear a local historian.  The presentation is fully attended as we are all eager to hear ‘the Serbian side of the story,’ having just visited war-torn Croatia yesterday.  But the clever speaker offers a highly nuanced view of turbulence in the Balkans.

He begins by saying that to understand the post-Yugoslavian Balkan conflicts, we must begin with a study of WWI, which started in Belgrade in 1914, within walking distance of today’s river location.  He mentions that in all wars, the first casualty is truth.  He predicts that the world will not know the truth about the Balkan wars for at least another decade from now, or maybe longer.  Atrocities occurred on all sides of the conflicts, often in the name of avenging atrocities from decades past.  To be sure, a handful of ruthless and self-promoting politicians were identifiable instigators, though he implies that there are other causes as well.

The lecturer was born in Serbia in 1951 and grew up in Yugoslavia.  He speaks fondly of the days when Serbia was the seat of government for the now-defunct Yugoslavia, and he clearly has warm and fuzzy feelings for life under the benevolent leadership of Tito.  He finishes his lecture and I ask him where I should focus my attention if interested in following events of this region.   He answers simply “follow the money.”

This historian’s talk convinces us to relinquish our quest to identify ‘good guys and bad guys.’   We leave the boat and board the tour bus for a view of Belgrade.  While the business of war is often ambiguous, there is no ambiguity about its destructive forces.  We see buildings bombed by NATO in 1999 and learn that the city of Belgrade has been destroyed at least 40 times in its history.  We stand on an ancient fortress hill overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Stava rivers, or as one might label it, a point of contention.

The current population of the Belgrade metropolitan area is around 2 million; in Serbia it’s about 8 million.   Citizens are predominately Orthodox and their language uses the Cyrillic alphabet.  Of course most people here also speak English and as in most small countries, several other languages as well.  The economy is similar to that of neighboring countries and to the PIGS:  high unemployment, low or negative growth.  However there are global companies moving in and we see hotels under construction, some new retail stores and new banks.  The cafes are full, presumably with unemployed masses.  There are street artists, mostly playing classical music.   The city looks somewhat worn out, though is brought to life by the fact that the streets are crowded, mostly with young people, many of whom are smoking.

We stroll the long pedestrian streets, finally stopping to rest, enjoy a coffee and watch the sea of humanity.  There is no strudel in the cafes so my culinary research comes to an end.  Travelers must be flexible however, so I wash down the coffee with a fruit torte.

The big cloud hanging over Serbia at the moment is whether or not they will enter the EU.  Until resolving the Kosovo issue however, that membership will remain out of reach.  Still there are business organizations that organize and promote commerce between the former republics of Yugoslavia, thus continuing some of the more positive aspects of the Tito years and countering some elements of contention.

 No strudel in Belgrade, so I am forced to eat torte.

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