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27/02/2008

Riot reruns in Belgrade

Dragan Klaic gives an eye witness account of a city engulfed in a mis-en-scene of destruction and protest at Kosovo's declaration of independence.

I returned to Belgrade last week with more than habitual anxiety because Kosovo's self-declared independence had sparked off a new wave of loud protests and even outbreaks of violence in Serbia. Moreover, the ultra-nationalist Radical party and the nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had called for a protest meeting in front of the parliament on Thursday, 21 February, the very day I was supposed to start my seminar for the University of Arts, where I had been a professor before leaving Belgrade in 1991. Free transportation to Belgrade was offered to all participants in the rally, parking in the city centre was also free and the Minister of Education had ordered schools in Serbia to close for the day so that pupils and teachers could swell crowd numbers. I decided nevertheless to travel from Budapest to Belgrade, not wishing to disappoint an international group of graduate students, and entered the city at noon on Thursday on a virtually empty road and in unusually fluid traffic on the bridge across the Sava. In the main pedestrian shopping street I noticed that Zara and a number of other shops were closed for the day, some of them had put up signs announcing early closing at 1 or 4 pm and almost all had official-looking posters plastered across their windows proclaiming "Kosovo is Serbia" with the Serbian seal to protect against the expected onslaught of vandals.

Driving down the Danube side of the city to my lunch appointment I saw the only Belgrade mosque, damaged by fire in a nationalist attack in 2004 and since restored, sternly guarded by a police division that had closed the entire street at both ends with a full bus of police reinforcement in anti-riot gear on stand by. Entering the nearby Theatre Museum, I remembered how I had been scheduled to give a lecture there in 1988 or 1989, on a day when Milosevic called another mass anti-Albanian protest in front of the parliament building. In the morning, I'd panicked when I could not buy milk for my baby daughter – all the stores were closed in the morning and the employees forced to march to the rally - and in the afternoon I had lectured on the history of Shakespeare productions through the centuries to some 30 people who sought sanity and diversion in the museum, while the echo of a huge angry mob could be heard outside, only a kilometre or so away. Now Belgrade was experiencing a re-run of the same hate-inducing theatrics, the same mis-en-scene of protest and destruction, the same careful orchestration of nationalist anger and the same outpouring of rabble-raising rhetoric by politicians, Orthodox bishops, academics and artists alike, filmmaker Emir Kusturica inevitably among their ranks.

While they continued to proclaim Kosovo an eternal Serbian land, I was running my seminar on festival politics and programming, in the immediate vicinity of the Austrian, Swedish and French embassies, guarded by a small number of police. Around 7.30 pm I walked through a rather empty city centre to the Atelje 212 theatre, most of the traffic had been suspended and full garbage containers were standing neatly opened, as if waiting to be set on fire. My friend T. could not join me for the performance because she could not get down town, either by car or by bus. I saw a mediocre production in a half empty theatre and afterwards, at 9.45 pm T. was still unable to join me but warned me about skirmishes with vandals near my hotel. Passing one burning garbage container on the Republic Square I saw some 200 policemen in the anti-riot gear returning to their vehicles after chasing the hooligans down the main shopping street towards the Kalemegdan fortress. Next to my hotel, Lee Cooper, Bata and 3 other shops had been broken into and looted, cardboard boxes and coat hangers thrown out onto the pavement. In the hotel lobby I met an exhausted TV crew which told me that the US embassy has been set on fire. They watched as the police withdrew to the side streets leaving the attackers unencumbered for half an hour, only to disperse them within minutes when they reappeared with a convoy of special vehicles. The rampage then turned from the foreign embassies to city centre stores selling sports shoes, leather jackets and jeans. The old familiar scenario, dusted off and reused.

I dined in an empty hotel restaurant and later on the TV in my room I watched the scenes of destruction that followed and ran parallel to the political haranguing in front of the parliament building and the mass prayer meeting at the St. Sava church. The Serbian President, Boris Tadic, who failed to draw any momentum from his narrow election victory earlier this month and has remained on the defensive, refused to attend the meeting but did nothing to discourage it, preferring instead to go on a state visit to Romania. On television, he made a meek appeal from Bucharest for peace and order in Serbia while Kostunica and his Radical Party allies unraveled a whole strategy of provocations in the South of Serbia and in Kosovo, punctuating their anti-European ranting with appeals to Russia for assistance.

The next morning, a mild sunny Friday, the debris had been cleaned off the streets, workers were installing new glass in the smashed shop windows, life appeared normal, especially in my lunch break when I saw full cafes and restaurants, outside terraces crowded in the sun. While the media reported 90 shops broken into and 8 embassies attacked and damaged, YouTube carried an amateur video of 2 girls on zero budget shopping spree renewing their spring wardrobes by plundering one store after another. The charred corpse of one demonstrator was found in the US embassy, 150 people had sought medical assistance and over 200 were arrested. After a whole day of teaching about festivals, I attended the opening of the 36th FEST, Belgrade's International Film Festival. The very suave Minister of Culture, a popular actor, talked reassuringly of Belgrade as an European city and of Serbian film as part of European cinema, in the past and in the future, and Volker Schlöndorf was warmly greeted as he opened the festival with some kind words and his film Ulzhan. I was surprised to see that the huge hall of the Sava Center was half empty, highly unusual for the opening of the FEST. In the lobby I saw very few old friends and colleagues. Before taking me for dinner in a fancy and full Italian restaurant near the Danube, my friend wanted to show me the vast construction site of New Belgrade where I once lived, and while passing another huge hall we saw that the Jose Carreras concert was due to take place on the following evening as planned. Not without some nervousness, anxiety and even shame it seemed that most of Belgrade was doing its best to return to normality while government ministers and nationalist politicians rebutted the condemnations of the UN Security Council, the EU and foreign governments with a fresh cascade of inflammatory rhetoric, even going so far as to defend the hooligans as outraged patriots.

Since 1999 Kosovo has rarely provoked more than indifference in most Serbian politics and public opinion, the declarative, knee-jerk opposition to its independence notwithstanding. The unilateral declaration of Kosovo's independence, recognized by many governments without UN Security Council approval, disgusted some people in Belgrade and provided – like the 1999 NATO bombing – a golden opportunity for obsessive nationalists to reinforce their position as superpatriots, mobilize disgruntled, impoverished masses and force pro-European opponents and political and economic reformers into the defensive as traitors to the holy Serbian cause and country. And Russia did not miss a chance to strengthen its influence in the Balkans while dividing and weakening the EU. Debris disappeared quickly from the streets of Belgrade but anger, frustration and instability will remain, and the extent of the economic and political damage, as well as that inflicted on shops and embassy buildings will only emerge in the months to come. Serbia is still a caught up in the pointless cyclical theatrics of its old political techniques of self-destruction.

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Dr. Dragan Klaic, theatre academic and cultural analyst is currently a Visiting Professor at the Central European University in Budapest (www.draganklaic.eu).
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