Belgrade lightens up

Returning to the Serbian capital, Mary Novakovich finds that the weather is a hotter topic than poli

Summer in Belgrade, where temperatures can nudge 40°C, means bagging a spot on the beach - a real beach, not like the temporary one in Paris along the banks of the Seine. In the middle of the Sava, one of Belgrade's two rivers, is Ada Ciganlija, an island on which the authorities cleverly constructed a beach complete with bars, restaurants, sunloungers, water sports, pedal boats and safe bathing areas for children. It is also one of the places where Radovan Karadzic, the recently arrested Bosnian Serb ex-leader, gave talks on alternative medicine while he was hiding, in plain sight of the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Not, of course, that my mother, my aunt and I know this when we are cooling off under a parasol at Ada Ciganlija several weeks earlier. I have come to Belgrade to visit relatives and we are resting in between bouts of splashing about in the water, spotting the occasional school of minnows zooming past. Later we have lunch at the Safari restaurant, a cosy wooden construction that sits on its own lake and is surrounded by a tiny zoo. As we watch the swans and cygnets cruise by, we get stuck in to plates of grilled meats and cold beer on the terrace.

It's the first time my mother, who lives in Canada, and I have ever managed to be in Belgrade at the same time, and I insist on picking up the tab. Lunch for three is less than £20. My aunt has stopped looking miffed that she didn't have the chance to feed me once again, and my mother has agreed that time off from the constant round of visiting relatives has been a good idea. We'd already been to six sets of relations in a day and a half and had eaten astonishing amounts of delicious food (locally grown and seasonal - they don't do tasteless tomatoes in Serbia).

My mother hadn't been back to Belgrade since 1980, the year Tito died, and I was recalling a visit I made just two years after Nato bombed the city in 1999. The bomb damage is still there, but it has become less defiantly symbolic and more an indication that no one has quite enough money to tear down the enormous ravaged buildings and start again. Apart from that, this vibrant city is booming. When I was there in 2001, you could hardly find a cashpoint; now you can see branches of major European banks, along with the big retailers you find elsewhere in Europe.

Knez Mihailova, a wide pedestrianised street full of shops and cafes in the attractive Old Town, is thronging with people enjoying the late-afternoon sun. It's easy for them to do just that, as most Belgraders work from 8am to 4pm, leaving them at least another 12 hours in which to have a life. More cafes spill into nearby Republic Square, scene of the endless demonstrations against Slobodan Milosevic and still a major meeting place for Serbs to get their fix of fiendishly strong Turkish coffee. Along the Sava and Danube Rivers are floating bars and restaurants called splavovi, which used to be the hangouts of gangsters in the days when they could carry out murders and assassinations in broad daylight. But the undercurrent of criminality I felt in 2001 has dissipated; the country has been more successful in cracking down on organised crime than its neighbour Bulgaria, which recently had its European Union member funds suspended as a result.

The tourists are slow in coming back to Belgrade. You will find plenty of business people, though, as western investment comes flooding in. Over a leisurely evening meal in my cousin Tanja's courtyard garden, her brother Boris asks why other former communist capitals such as Budapest and Prague are overrun with visitors, who seem to be bypassing Belgrade. "We've got the friendliest people in the world here and no one knows," he said.

He is right about that, but what would happen if Belgrade were to become a stop on the cheap-flights route? (At the moment, return flights cost roughly between £160 and £180.) Hordes of British stag and hen parties would descend on the city and turn it into another Tallinn. They would rampage through the old bohemian quarter of Skadarlija and trip over the cobblestones before laying waste to its restaurants. They would tumble into the Danube or the Sava, or fall off the tower in Belgrade's fortress that dates from Roman times. They would trash the cafe tables in Republic Square. "We wouldn't mind," says Boris. Oh, I think they would.

One thing Belgraders wouldn't mind is easy transit the other way. EU citizens no longer have to apply for a visa to visit Serbia, but this has not been reciprocated. Leaving the Balkans involves a drawn-out and tedious process that deters most Serbian travellers. We have a heated discussion around the dinner table. "They make it so hard for us to leave the country," says Tanja. "We hoped that Tadic would be elected and things could start to change." But although President Boris Tadic has been able to deliver Karadzic to the UN war crimes court in The Hague - one of the conditions Serbia had to meet before the EU would discuss closer ties - he presides over an uneasy coalition between the pro-European Democratic Party and the Socialist Party of Serbia (former head, one Slobodan Milosevic).

We don't stay on the subject of politics for too long. There are more important things to be discussed, such as episodes of Only Fools and Horses (a huge hit in Serbia), the renaissance of the Spanish national football team and the fact that Serbian tennis players are putting their country into the right sort of spotlight for the first time in two decades. It is a novelty to come across Serbian names in the press and not see them followed by the words "awaiting trial for war crimes". Even the arrest of Karadzic didn't remain the main topic of conversation too long in Belgrade's cafes. I am told that, after the initial mix of euphoria (on the part of the sensible brigade) and disgust (on the part of those warped individuals who regard him as a hero), talk has reverted to the usual subjects: sports, holidays, the weather.

As EU members squabble over the Lisbon Treaty, Belgraders just want to live like other Europeans - whatever that might mean.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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