Belgrade 2012: Reflections on the Colonization and Resiliency of the Serbian People
After two years I visited my hometown again. As a researcher I continue to observe social changes that have happened in between my visits. I am particularly curious about the neocolonization agenda and how it has advanced over the years. Here is what I observed a few months ago.
People’s Resources, Industry, Financial Sector, and Consumerism
Walking around Belgrade, especially in the downtown area, but also in many other neighborhoods, I counted numerous offices of foreign banks. In many instances, these banks are on every corner and often spread out with their doors only 100 meters apart. In addition, the number of exchange offices didn’t decrease that much from the time of the early 1990s when they were mushrooming literally everywhere. This is consistent with the takeover of the Serbian financial sector by the EU powers & so-called international financial institutions. The Serbian workers who work in these banks are sometimes quite grumpy and not necessarily meeting the standards of “professionalism” expected in other countries. This time, because of an incident when an ATM machine wouldn’t return my card and the bank was closed on Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday, I had to endure their bad customer service and arrogant attitudes. It is very possible that they are not happy about their working conditions imposed on them by these unscrupulous foreign banks and their disturbance and disappointment are then reflected in their work with customers.
The newly embraced capitalist ideology that glorifies consumerism is clearly visible on the streets, in shops, institutions, and in the media. Every year, there is a slightly larger number of fast food restaurants such as Mc Italia, or Greek and Chinese fast food. These unhealthy foods and drinks are coupled with what many Belgraders believe is already happening behind closed doors–imports of GMO seeds and foods, in spite of the government claims that they wouldn’t allow something like that to happen. The same is applicable to inhumanely produced meat that is full of hormones and infectious bacteria. As a result, we can see more overweight people on the streets of Belgrade. However, it seems that this is still a marginal problem since Belgraders walk a lot and many now jog, bike and go to yoga classes. The more alarming part seems to be the increase in numbers of people in their forties and fifties who suffer from high blood pressure, heart diseases, and stroke.
The foreign firms bought many formerly Serbian or Yugoslav companies. The privatization of Yugoslav water resources is one of the most striking examples. Rosa Water is a Coca-Cola Hellenic owned company, VODA VODA is owned by the Arteska International Co, BB Minaqua Co. is divided by Krones of Germany, Sidel of Italy and Thomson Machinery for its Cyprus production. Even though many of these firms claim that they have eco-friendly packaging, such as “Rosa plant-based bottle,” the plastic packaging and its waste are saturating the environment while leaching toxic chemicals into the bottled water that many Belgraders now buy and carry around with them.
Garment and cosmetic firms are now either foreign or domestic ones that have been bought by foreigners. For example, if we look at the children’s clothing, shoes, cosmetics, food, etc. we get a combination of these mostly foreign and well-known brands that now have all markets open to them: Avent, Disney, Chicco, Graco, Bertoni, Peg-Perego, Bambino, Pavlogal, Humana, Frutek, Hipp, Nestle, Juvitana, & Bebelac. Kosili and Dr. Pavlovic are among a few exceptions. While we had a few Italian baby firms present in Belgrade even before the wars of the 1990s, Nestle & Disney are definitely more present now. Even some domestic firms wanted English names such as BEBA KIDS, Just Click, etc.
Belgrade based Dahlia Cosmetics used to produce predominantly plant and mineral based cosmetic products. Now Dahliacosmetic is privatized and, as stated on its website, 100% owned by the Belgrade’s Beohemija. Beohemija in turn, was formed as a merger between Delta from Zrenjanin and Slovenian Sanpionka. In all of those mergers and privatizations thousands of workers lost their jobs and it is difficult to believe that now Dahlia wouldn’t replace the mineral based products with the use of synthetic ingredients. Just by looking at the labels of a few products I had seen, it was difficult to say.
Speaking of privatizations and loss of jobs, many businesses have closed and new ones opened in the past 2 years, since my last visit. There was a souvenir shop across the street from the Belgrade’s City Hall the last time I was there but now there was a different kind of store there and no one I asked knew what happened with it. Serbia doesn’t have the domestic garment industry anymore as Centrotekstil, Kluz, Beko, Tekstilna Industrija Zemun, all seized to exist. The same is true for the Elektronska Industrija Niš (Nis Electronic Industry) and Zemun’s INSA that produced clocks and watches. Both of these viable domestic industries completely disappeared. Zastava—the domestic car industry based in Kragujevac is also destroyed. Once solid shoe industry is now reduced to Boreli a firm whose production sites and stores were targeted by the Croatian Borovo for potential sell-offs. Borovo claimed to be the headquarters of the Sombor firm. Workers’ prolonged struggles at Boreli have not resolved the question of privatization. In Serbia, all industry together now amounts to 37% of what it was in 1986. In addition to corporations, even politicians such as Madeleine Albright have an eye on the Yugoslav industry, services, and resources. Albright Capital Management or ACM–the former Secretary of State Albright’s Company–is buying Kosovo’s Telecom, as reported by Tanjug & RTS on August 18. Madam Albright served under Bill Clinton and was instrumental in the delivery of the “humanitarian wars” against Yugoslavia and Serbia specifically.
However, it would be wrong to think that the Serbian people are just accepting everything silently. As Andrej Grubacic highlighted in his book Don't Mourn, Balkanize!workers are fighting for years and preventing privatizations and takeovers of their means of production in quite a few instances. Resistance is present as much as apathy and desperation. This year, I met more Serbs who are very critical of the Serbian government, the E.U. and U.S. global dictates than I could imagine in my previous visits.
Apple now has several offices in Belgrade and is selling its expensive equipment to the wealthy segment of Belgrade’s population. Yugoslavia always had good foreign language university departments and domestic institutes. This year, I saw a Berlitz Institute’s office at Belgrade’s hillside called Banovo Brdo, so I suspect that the new assumption is that domestic language institutes are not necessarily considered “world-class institutions.” It might sound strange to some, but is probably a logical consequence of the destroyed economy that relied on black markets during the war years, but it is still not that uncommon to buy a computer in regular stores, get an official declaration and warranty certificates that list official service providers, and then receive service for your computer through official channels by knowledgeable individuals who would work for those servicing firms unofficially.
Language, Culture, Services, and Public Displays
It is often considered that one of the best indicators of the level of colonization is the incorporation of the language of the oppressor into the native language of the oppressed people. At this time and era oppressors come as a multiplicity, not as one. The Serbian language is definitely invaded with so many foreign words, but they are predominately English words. In many instances, they sound almost ridiculous, as funny hybrids (such as surfuj, katering, etc.), directly put in Serbian Cyrillic and with Serbian spelling. It is difficult to listen, and sometimes refrain from laughing. We still have countless numbers of Turkish words and phrases that became so deeply ingrained into the Serbian language because of the centuries long Ottoman rule; regardless of the fact that we used to resist and protest their usage, now some of them might sound better than what is currently invading the Serbian language. Countless local businesses, music groups, tourist offers, etc. all have English names instead of Serbian. In addition, Belgrade has always hosted some of the most famous rock groups, other musicians and all kinds of celebrities. This summer, it also had Cirque de Soleil perform for Belgraders. The popular riverside boat restaurants (splavovi) are as active as ever. One of them is called “Bollywood.”
For the first time I saw Chinese-Serbian people walk around town relaxed and behaving like tourists. During previous years I could see them only working in Belgrade’s Chinatown. The estimates are that now we have less than 5,000 Chinese residents in Belgrade. Some do have children who go to regular Serbian schools.
Public transportation is still working well in Belgrade. Yet, they recently introduced an electronic ticketing machines to be used in buses leaving too many passengers confused and uninformed about how to use them, where to get tickets, etc. The transition has not happened smoothly.
Belgrade has too many humongous billboards that celebrate the new capitalist consumerism and contain commercials for foreign banks, corporations, and products. There are a few enormous sized billboards advertizing Viagra equivalents. Now, Serbian people have their own Viagra product called “Vulkan” (volcano). As all colonized people are, the people from the Balkans were also often over-sexualized by their oppressors over the centuries, especially men. Yet, in today’s world, many are being convinced that they need boosters and medical help.
Serbian People’s Realities, Resiliency, and Resistance
As my daughter already wrote in her paper, the urban culture of Belgrade is torn between the pressures of global markets, political powers coming from the E.U. & U.S. and its own original multicultural present and past. The people of Serbia and the Belgraders in particular, are resisting these powers in many different ways. They might find it beneficial to incorporate some of the elements of the dominant E.U. culture, but for the most part, they continue with many summer traditions such as summer open air theatres (this time I saw a roof-top theatre, summer scene) of which some are considered vanguard. They do have free street jazz concerts in downtown, countryside tourism on the edges of the city with traditional village culture that meets some of the technological advances, youth events and camps, yoga at Belgrade’s beach called Ada, in the grassy, shady area. It sometimes seems that Belgraders and other Serbian people are determined to make the best of all cultural blends and reverse the oppressors’ attempts to erase what is uniquely Serbian. Belgraders also have a small sized Occupy movement and groups such as the Freedom Movement that is active on multiple fronts, from accompanying workers in their struggles and protesting the NATO conference last year, to collaborating with many international groups who are working towards organic sustainable, independent agriculture and local food systems. The determined political actions of Belgraders have forced the American Embassy to remove all windows from its building facing the street side! They are now built-in walls where once they had large windows. Last year, when the media reported that the European largest nuclear waste facility would open in Vinca near Belgrade the people's outrage obviously produced some effect. The authorities are now silent about this issue.
The decades of economic crises, wars, embargoes, NATO bombing, the almost complete take-over of Serbian industries and financial systems, the forced loans and programs that imposed “educational reforms,” and the continuous decline in standards of living have taken a toll on the population of Serbia. The Serbian national debt is now bigger than the one that the former Yugoslavia had in 1990 when the U.S. said it was too big and impossible to pay, presenting that as a reason for supporting (actually causing) the dismantling of Yugoslavia. Last year, the median monthly income in Serbia was only 320 Euros. With this decline in living standards, I noticed especially this year, that woman’s fashions also changed. For the first time, Belgrade’s women don’t look as elegant as they once did. The young people are, of course, exceptions from any rules. They seem as cosmopolitan and rebellious as ever.
However, Serbia has another enormous problem: the aging of its population. It is now one of the top 10 countries with the oldest population. So many of us left our homeland during our prime working years and those who stayed do not have the means and motivation to raise children. Serbia is now experiencing the 7th year in a row with negative birth rates and the country is in a dramatic demographic crisis. During this extra hot summer, it was not always easy to see Belgrade’s aged population walking around. Many of them stayed indoors.
In spite of everything, I did not leave Belgrade without hope. Serbian and all Balkan peoples have demonstrated over the centuries that their resiliency, common wisdom, and stubborn, principled resistance to any oppressors do help them survive, adapt, and live the best possible life under most unfavorable circumstances.