Belgrade: an old script, replayed

Dragan Klaic
28 February 2008

I returned to Belgrade a week ago with more than habitual anxiety because the self-declared independence of Kosovo on 17 February 2008 had triggered a new wave of loud and angry protests in Serbia. The largest demonstration was an official one, planned for Thursday 21 February in front of the Serbian parliament building in Belgrade; it had the support both of the nationalist prime minister Vojislav Koštunica and the ultra-nationalist leader of the Radical Party (and narrow runner-up in the presidential election on 3 February), Tomislav Nikolic. The decision of the election winner Boris Tadic to make a state visit to Romania rather than attend the meeting or denounce it made clear that his defensive, reactive position remained unaffected by his victory.

The rally was well prepared to ensure a high turnout: participants were offered free transport to Belgrade from the provinces, parking fees in the city were suspended, and schools in Serbia were closed for the day to give pupils and teachers the opportunity to express their patriotic fervour.
Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Serbia and the Kosovo issue:

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's Kosovo claim: much ado about..." (2 October 2007)

Juan Garrigues, "Kosovo's troubled victory" (7 December 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, "Kosovo's Serbs in suspension" (10 December 2007)

Mary Kaldor, "The Balkans-Caucasus tangle: states and citizens" (9 January 2008)

John O'Brennan, "Kosovo: the hour of Europe" (14 January 2008)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's presidential election: the best-laid plans..." (21 January 2008)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia chooses a future, just" (5 February 2008)

Timothy William Waters, "Kosovo: the day after" (18 February 2008)

Robert Elsie, "Kosova and Albania: history, people, identity" (21 February 2008)
That day, I had other plans: my seminar for the University of the Arts (where I was a professor until my departure from Belgrade in 1991) was scheduled to start. I decided to proceed as planned, and arrived from Budapest on Thursday noon via unusually light and fluid traffic on the bridge across the Sava river. The main pedestrian shopping street was equally quiet: Zara and several other stores were closed for the day, and a few more had "early closing" signs. Almost all had an official-looking poster prominently displayed: "Kosovo is Serbia" with the Serbian state, a protection from the expected vandals.

On the way down to the Danube side of the city I passed a stern police detachment guarding the closed-off street where Belgrade's only mosque stands, perhaps to prevent a repeat of the arson attack in 2004 which damaged the building (it has since been restored). As I entered the nearby Theatre Museum, I remembered a day in 1988 - or was it 1989? - when I was scheduled to give a lecture here on productions of Shakespeare across the centuries at the very time that Slobodan Milosevic had called another mass anti-Albanian protest in front of the parliament. I recalled my panic that morning when I could not buy milk for my baby daughter (all the shops were closed so that their employees could attend the rally), and the dissonance in the afternoon as some thirty people sought sanity and reality inside the museum against the echo of the huge, raucous gathering nearby.

Now, Belgrade was experiencing a rerun of the same hate-inducing dramaturgy, the same mise-en-scène of performed defiance, the same orchestration of nationalist fury, and the same outpouring of ranting rhetoric from politicians, Orthodox bishops, academics and artists (who included the inevitable Emir Kusturica).

This time, it was a seminar on festival politics and programming that took place against the backdrop of the proclamation of Kosovo as eternal Serbian land. Afterwards, I passed knots of of policemen guarding the Austrian, Swedish and French embassies on the way to a play in the half-empty Atelje 212 theatre. The most notable feature of the deserted streets was the full rubbish containers left neatly opened, as if waiting to be set on fire.

As the night darkened the skies indeed lit. On Republic Square I saw around 200 policemen in anti-riot gear returning to their vehicles after chasing a group of hooligans down a street towards the Kalemegdan fortress; then waded through the cartons and coat-hangers strewn on the pavement in front of the Lee Cooper, Bata and other stores after they had been plundered of their sneakers, leather jackets and jeans. In my hotel lobby, an exhausted TV crew told me that the United States embassy had been set on fire. They saw the police withdraw to the side streets, leaving the attackers unobstructed for a crucial half an hour until a convoy of special vehicles arrived to disperse them in a minute or two. The trashing had then moved to the downtown stores.

The television news could not conceal the link between the political harangues in front of the parliament and the mass prayer at the St Sava church and the ensuing scenes of destruction. Ninety shops had been broken into and eight embassies attacked and damaged. The president, Boris Tadic, could only appeal meekly from Bucharest for peace and order in Serbia. The political leaders who organised the protest were undeterred: a confident Vojislav Kostunica and his Radical Party allies were shown unveiling a strategy of disruption and provocation in southern Serbia and Kosovo, punctuating their anti-European diatribes with appeals to Russia for help. The well-worn script, dusted off and reused.

A circular dramaturgy

The next morning, a mild and sunny 22 February, Belgrade appeared - with some nervousness, anxiety and perhaps a touch of shame - was doing its best to return to normal. The rubbish was already cleared and workers were installing new windows in the shattered shops; cafes and restaurants were full. But the news carried reminders of a long night. YouTube was carrying a video of two girls' shopping-spree on a zero budget, renewing their spring wardrobe by pillaging one store after another. A demonstrator's carbonised corpse had been found in the American embassy, 150 people had sought medical assistance and over 200 had been arrested.

Dragan Klaic is a theatre scholar and cultural analyst, based in Amsterdam. He is currently a visiting professor at the Central European University in Budapest. His website is here After a day of teaching on the subject of festivals, I attended the opening of the thirty-sixth "Fest", Belgrade's international film festival. The suave minister of culture, a popular actor, talked reassuringly of Belgrade as a European city and of Serbian film as part of European cinema - in past and future alike. Volker Schlöndorff was warmly greeted as he opened the festival with some kind words and his film Ulzhan. Again, I was struck by the sparse crowd in the albeit huge Sava Centre hall. In the lobby, I saw hardly any old friends and colleagues.

Since the war of 1999, much of Serbian politics and public opinion has rarely been provoked out of its customary indifference towards Kosovo. The declarative, knee-jerk opposition to its independence cannot conceal this fact and does not change it. But the unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence has (as did Nato's bombing in 1999) handed a golden opportunity to obsessive nationalists to reinforce their profile as super-patriots, mobilise the disgruntled and impoverished losers of economic transition, and portray their pro-European opponents and political and economic reformers as traitors to the holy Serbian cause and land. Russia too has not wasted its chance to strengthen its influence in the region while accentuating the European Union's divisions.

It is easier to clear the rubbish from Belgrade's streets than to heal the frustration, redirect the anger, and calm the instability of Serbia's flawed polity and damaged society. This will become even more evident in the weeks to come, as government ministers and nationalist politicians release a new cascade of inflammatory rhetoric, and even dare to finesse the work of vandals as patriotic outrage. Serbia remains a captive of its wasteful circular dramaturgy, of the old political technologies of assured self-destruction.

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