Steven Carlson on Mon, 5 Aug 2002 04:34:45 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The European Union of Yugoslavia

I'm sure a few old friends from Nettime remember me.

Hope you're all having a relaxing summer.
Here's how I've been spending my free time.


Steve Carlson

The European Union of Yugoslavia

Only yesterday I learned it was Friday. In three weeks on holiday
in former Yugoslavia, I managed to entirely lose track of time.
Slavica was watching the clock, but I didn't want to know. It's a
rare luxury to be able to throw away the calendar and clock and
surrender myself completely to Balkan Time.

We started out from Budapest on July 18: Christian driving, me in
the back and Vlada as navigator. Christian works for a company
selling T-shirts, souvenirs and trinkets to the international
military in former Yugoslavia, and his SFOR pass was the next
best thing to diplomatic immunity.

Our destination was my girlfriend's house on a beach resort in
Montenegro. Our girlfriends and wives were waiting for us in
Utjeha, just 30 km north of the Albanian border. On the way,
Christian had business, so we were planning on lunch in Zagreb
and an overnight stop in Sarajevo. In Montenegro, we would part
ways, and Slavica and I would continue on to her parents home in
Novi Sad, Yugoslavia.

Zagreb, Croatia

Vlada was a Serb crossing into Croatia for the first time since
the War. Even ten years after the breakup of Yugoslavia, these
kind of visits are rare. Early in 2002, the Croatians were
talking about relaxing visa requirements during the Summer for
citizens of Serbia and Montenegro. People from all over
Yugoslavia used to vacation on the Croatian coast, and some still
have second homes here. In the end, however, the Croatians
decided against relaxing the rules, fearing that conflicts
between resentful locals and visiting Serbs might scare away the
hard currency tourists.

My friend in Zagreb, Ivo Spigel agreed to go to his local notary
office with a letter of invitation for Vlada. This meant some
last minute hassle, however Vlada's reception at the Croatian
border was polite and cursory. Christian's SFOR pass also might
have played a role. When we rolled up to the toll road a few
kilometers down the road from the border, Christian flashed his
pass and I watched the fare sign change from 10 Kuna to
'bezplatino' (free).

Christian's SFOR pass gains him admittance to NATO military bases
throughout the Balkans, as well as eliminating border delays and
road tolls. Even though the pass also provides Christian with
diplomatic immunity, we were careful to stick to the speed limit.
In actual fact, enforcement seems to vary with the fluctuations
in relations between the local governments and NATO, and while we
didn't run into any problems on the road, it never makes sense to
court trouble in a recent war zone.

It's hard to think of Zagreb as a war zone. Ten years ago the
city was subject to a war time blackout, and a few rockets
actually landed in the city. These days, however, Zagreb is a
success story waiting to happen. As Ivo pointed out over lunch,
Zagreb (along with Ljubljana in Slovenia) was always considered a
business center in former Yugoslavia.

Ivo runs a successful IT company, Perpetuum Mobile, and has
received investment from the Small Enterprise Assistance Fund
(SEAF), an entity set up by the International Finance Corporation
(IFC) to aid economic development in the Balkans. Croatia is
widely considered the leading market in the region, but the
Croatian government's lackadaisical attitude toward legal reform
and privatization, coupled with lingering associations with the
Balkan conflict, has slowed investor interest in the country. The
perennial question in Zagreb is when will all this change. No
answer yet.

I watched as Ivo, a Croat, and Vlada, a Serb, found common ground
over a lunch of Balkan mixed grill (rostilj). The fact of the
matter is that Serbs and Croats do have a lot in common, which is
what made the conflict all the more bitter and destructive. The
Croatians have spent the last ten years reforming their language
away from the Titoist amalgamation, Serbo-Croatian, but Ivo and
Vlada still speak languages only a bit more separated than
British and American English. And, as it turns out, Vlada has
youthful memories of holidays on the Croatian coast, including on
Ivo's home island of Hvar. It's a typical story.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sarajevo is a different story altogether. As we drove into town
on the main road from the airport, Christian pointed out various
points of destruction. The first word that comes to mind is
'spiteful'. The Serbian militias chose particular targets simply
for their symbolic value.

One tall building that formerly housed Bosnia's key newspapers
was collapsed to its foundations. I was briefly nauseated while
walking in front of the former seat of government, which was
riddled with pockmarks and cavernous holes: That building was
used for target practice. The streets and central market are
still scarred with the star-shaped bursts of shells. The
'skyline' of Sarajevo is a ring of hills that push up to the city
center; around any corner you can glimpse the looming hilltops
and spot bare patches and depressions where Serbian militia found
the ideal positions to target city residents.

The good news is that on a Friday morning at 11 am the street
cafes in the old town were packed with carefree, idle people, a
sure sign that life in Sarajevo is back to its usual rhythm. We
stopped by a sweet shop to load up on the local specialities,
lokum (Turkish delight) and Halva. Hungry for breakfast, we asked
the counter girl for recommendations; she directed us to a nearby
cafe selling burek, a pie made of layered filo dough stuffed with
various fillings. In the rest of the Balkans you get burek with
meat or cheese and only sometimes spinach; this cafe offered six
kinds of burek, and so we each ordered a mixed plate.

At this point, an attractive young woman stepped up to our table
with a microphone. "Is this your first time in Sarajevo?" she
asked. She and a young man holding a camera were out interviewing
tourists for Bosnian television. "What do you like the best," she
wanted to know, "burek or cebapcici?" We told her the local burek
was excellent, but we didn't have time to stick around and sample
the cebapcici, a combination of lamb, pork and beef, rolled into
a sausage shape and grilled. Christian had business that
afternoon at the local NATO base.

For five years, the main road out of town was a rubble strewn
obstacle course of burnt out cars and spent shells known as
Snipers Alley. Much of the damage has been repaired, but you
still see evidence of what was. Towards the airport, the border
between the Muslim and Serb parts of town becomes obvious. The
mosques are one clue (most of the aid money from the rich Arab
states has gone toward rebuilding mosques) the wholesale neglect
on the Serbian side is another sign. And then you reach the
Republika Srpska.

A sign over a water tap at the border to Republika Srpska reads
'Serbian water'. The road signs are all in Cyrillic, as if to say
"we don't want outsiders here." While the rest of Sarajevo is
busy rebuilding, the self-styled Serbian Republic is still a
rubble heap. Apparently the rest of the world is only too happy
to let these Neanderthals rot.

At least that was my impression. A friend, journalist Paul
Hockenos, later filled me in by email: "Republika Srpska received
every bit as much aid as the rest of Bosnia once they got with
the program. The problems there are corruption, the lack of
economic policy and an attitude of isolation that Srpska
politicians insist on taking. And everybody cares: Republika
Srpska is the key to making the whole mess work."

A short distance after the border to Republika Srpska you
reach Camp Butmir.

It's all very well to bring together an international coalition
of troops, but what do you do with the Bulgarian contingent? You
want them around as brother Slavs, but are they well trained? Do
they have a work ethic? Do they even speak English? The
Bulgarians we met didn't speak any known languages, which was why
we were surprised to find them on guard duty at the main gate.
But, hey, maybe that was the safest place to put them. (And maybe
I'm being unnecessarily cruel.) Whatever the case, Christian's
magic SFOR pass did the trick and we were in.

Imagine Soldier of Fortune opened a store at your neighborhood
mall. If you're one of the 5000 or so soldiers on duty at Camp
Butmir, you can send the wee ones at home a T-shirt that says
"Somebody in Bosnia loves me." Or how about a baseball cap, key
chain, coffee mug, or even a teddy bear? As you might expect,
many of the themes are much more aggressive. The Bosnia Now line
(a take off on Apocalypse Now) seems to be selling well. Another
hit is a calendar featuring half-naked Hungarian girls toting
machine guns and pistols. Now I know what Christian has been up
to on these long Balkan road trips of his.

On the road in Montenegro

A word of advice to the would-be traveller: don't take pictures
at dodgy border crossings. Vlada and I thought this was an
obvious 'no no' but at the Bosnian border with Montenegro, a tiny
outpost on a winding mountain road, Christian was inspired to
photograph the sunset. It was a gorgeous sunset, really it was,
but the local officials were not impressed. SFOR pass or not: Out
of the car!

At this point, I was glad that Vlada was there to intercede with
the Montenegrin officials, because now we were back in his
country. Or where we? Vlada wasn't sure. Montenegro and Serbia
are joined at the hip in an uncomfortable union and it's anyone's
guess how long this will last. Montenegro has already abandoned
the Yugoslav Dinar in favor of the Euro. It's only a matter of
time now.

As a (former) Yugoslav citizen, Vlada understood one significant
point that Christian didn't seem to comprehend. Even if you think
you're right, don't bother arguing with the border guards. Hang
your head and eat humble pie. That's what these bastards wanted.
They were poorly paid bumkins standing on the side of a road in
the middle of nowhere, in shabby uniforms, and they had the power
of God over us.

Vlada talked us safely across the border and we parked the car
one kilometer down the road, out of sight, to stretch our legs,
enjoy the view and photograph of that gorgeous sunset.

I grew up in California, where we have real mountains, and I've
never seen a road like this one. All the way from the Bosnian
border, through Montenegro to the sea, it was sheer cliffs,
spectacular views and endless tunnels (could have been 40
tunnels, easily). Back in California we have an over-funded
bureaucracy called Caltrans to build the roads. Some of these
Montenegrin tunnels looked the handiwork of Snow White's seven
dwarves, but they did the job. I had heard this road was
dangerous, but despite the fact that it was only two lanes, most
of that road was in excellent condition. And as the signs on the
road repeatedly informed us, this road has been recently
refurbished with EU money.

The European Union. We got to thinking on that long, winding
drive: it's only a matter of time, maybe years, maybe decades,
but in our lifetime we will see the former Yugoslavia became part
of the European Union. Montenegro and Kosovo have already adopted
the Euro. Despite the fact that Bosnia has something called the
Convertible Mark, everyone there accepts Euro. In Zagreb, we paid
for our lunch in Euro. One day, eventually, all of these places
will be part of Euroland, and then what will the division of
Yugoslavia matter? Once again, these unruly Balkan states will be
part of a larger political and economic entity. You might call it
the European Union of Yugoslavia. (Assuming, of course, we can
get somebody to pick up the tab.)

We ate dinner at the side of a lovely mountain lake with the
unlikely name of Pivske Jezero. Lake Beer. We still had several
hours to drive on those narrow, twisting, unlighted mountain
roads and I credit Christian, those Seven Dwarves and the
European Union for getting us there safely.

Utjeha, Montenegro

Utjeha means 'comfort', or more precisely 'consolation'. Anyway,
the name seemed apt as we pulled up to our destination on the
Montenegrin seacoast at one in the morning. The ladies were
waiting up for us with a dinner of grilled fish, but we had made
pigs of ourselves at dinner and I struggled to put down one fish
out of courtesy. The rakija went down much easier.

When the nation of Montenegro switched over to the Euro, from the
German Mark, the good merchants of Montenegro didn't bother
converting the numbers; they just switched the currency symbols.
Since one Euro is worth roughly two German Marks, this
effectively doubled all the prices.

At least that's one story I heard. Judging from the prices we
found at Utjeha it could very well be true. A more likely
explanation is the locals simply jacked up prices for the tourist
season. Whatever the case, this season a pork cutlet in
Montenegro costs the same as a steak dinner in the United States.

At such prices, Montenegro can't expect to attract much new
tourism, but the fact is they currently have a captive market.
With small budgets and tight visa requirements, their Serbian
neighbors have few holiday option aside from this narrow strip of
Montenegrin coastline. And judging from the crowds at Utjeha, most
of Serbia was there for the months of July and August.

Fortunately, you can get away from the masses at the Rocky Beach
Cafe. A new addition this season, the Rocky Beach features broad
terraces with lounge chairs, beach umbrellas, excellent music and
friendly service. This might not sound impressive, but I should
remind you the amenities here are minimal just 30K north of the
Albanian border. Power cuts are common and fresh water arrives in
a truck. But that's the price you pay to enjoy one of Europe's
most undeveloped, pristine and ruggedly beautiful stretches of
coastline. We're coming back next year, too, but only during the

Novi Sad, Yugoslavia

Sometimes I think Novi Sad has an edge on Budapest. Hungary has
received over one half of all the direct foreign investment in
Central Europe (billions and billions) and most of that cash
landed in the capital, Budapest. Yet try and order a pizza after
11 pm. Here in Novi Sad, you can get great food delivered around
the clock, and the local form of barbecue (rostilj) is to die
for. (But maybe that's not the most appropriate turn of phrase in
a Yugoslav context.)

There are Serbs and then there are Serbs. The good citizens of
Novi Sad, while ethnically Serbs, have never considered
themselves part of Serbia proper. The Vojvodina region (of which
Novi Sad is the capital) was governed independently by the
Austrian Habsburgs for hundreds of years. The economy here is
visibly more developed. Support for former dictator Slobodan
Milosevic was weakest in Vojvodina, and many people here would
like considerably more autonomy from Belgrade. But try telling
that to NATO.

When the bombs started falling in Summer 1998, Novi Sad residents
were shocked to find their city a primary target. The Yugoslav
capital, Belgrade, was a given, but didn't don't those lunatics
at NATO realize we're not the bad guys?  So went the thinking.

To the NATO generals, however, Novi Sad was the second-largest
city in former Yugoslavia and a 'target-rich environment'. From
this balcony, where I'm writing, I can occasionally hear bursts
of automatic weapons fire from a military target range less than
one kilometer down the road. In the first weeks of the bombing, a
shell hit not 300k from this apartment. It wasn't nice. Not in
the least.

Today, the only remaining sign of the bombing is a collapsed
suspension bridge, but even that is being repaired. Novi Sad
doesn't seem to take all this too personally. I haven't received
criticism as an American; one irony is the Yugoslavs have always
been one of the most pro-American nations in Europe. True, many
of the locals view George W Bush as a simplistic, inarticulate
warmonger, but that view isn't unique in Europe.

It's 10 am, and Slavica's father greets me with a glass of
rakija. It's Gavra's birthday, today, and as the only other male
in the household it's my duty to drink rajika with him in
celebration. And why not? I'm still on Balkan Time.

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