Belgrade. Saturday, 15 January 2000. 5.51pm. The indicted warlord Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic is sipping tea in the foyer of the Intercontinental Hotel. Evil, ebullient, flamboyant and fat, he sits back, flush on the receipts of his criminal earnings. Then, with the lobby in pleasurable commotion, the bullets begin to fly like hail in Raznatovic’s direction.
One in the eye, they say, a slug to the brain; a second in the chest. Enough lead, at point-blank range, for any man to bite the dust. In minutes Arkan, the podgy, baby-faced psychopathic mobster is dead. Killed, perhaps, by some of the very paramilitaries he had reared in a rogue state that he had come to personify.
This is big news. The monster king, the man wanted by The Hague Tribunal for crimes against humanity, is dead. As lifeless as the innumerable Muslims and Croats whose own demise he had so cruelly brought about.
But this momentous event does not circulate fast. The state-manipulated media does not want to run with it. The people who live closest to the hotel, in the great, grey high-rises of New Belgrade, do not learn of the kingpin’s killing until somewhere approaching 10pm. For hours, Serbia’s independent television stations turn fuzzy – thin white lines amassing across the screen – and the official outlets oddly mum.
“Zeljko Raznatovic was assassinated today in a central Belgrade hotel,” the newscaster eventually recites, somewhat blandly, on one state-run channel. “He was taking tea when the incident occurred. The police are conducting an in-depth inquiry.”
Now, the logic goes, if professional criminals of the ilk of Arkan – whose charmed existence was inextricably bound with the black-market mafia surrounding Slobodan Milosevic – cannot protect themselves, then who can? Where, exactly, is Serbia headed? Could it be that it is self-combusting on the way to change? “Yes,” enthuses Ivana Ilic, a feisty twentysomething who lives in one of those New Belgrade tower blocks. “This, yippee, yippee, yippee, is the beginning of the end. Any more of these killings and there’ll soon be no one left to murder.”
If Yugoslavia is a cross between Schindler’s List and any number of Almodovar movies, then Belgrade is the Balkans’ very own Dodge City – writ large.
In the past two years, the assassination of people, either in or out with the regime, has proliferated. None has ever been resolved. On the third night of my own stay in the capital last month, a one-time champion kickboxer – who had led Serbian forces in Bosnia – was gunned down on a busy boulevard getting out of his hyper-cool Mercedes Cabriolet.
“All the relationships are twisted in this society,” says Goran Paskaljevic, the Paris-based film-director whose black satire, Cabaret Balkan, recently became a cult hit in Serbia. “We have lost the notion of morality.”
Indeed. But, flying into Belgrade aboard a tired old Yugoslav Airlines jet, there is little to prepare you for this eventuality.
We had landed with “Sugar Baby Love” blasting through the cabin. A mood- sweetener? “Yes,” the stewardess had said, simpering with self-satisfaction as she rouged her lips. “In Serbia, we like to be happy. Please be happy.”
Taking in the dark skyline coming our way, the lit-up strip of runway (the only incandescent blot on a horizon of power-cuts), I gave her a weak smile. Even neighbouring Albania, I thought, in its own anarchic way, is more inviting than this – and there you land to the clatter of cattle being shooed off the runway.
While the people of Belgrade are delightful – making up for what their capital lacks in decrepitude and drabness – it is hard not to notice that their country is suffering, unravelling at its seams.
Kneza Milosa, the city’s once impressive gateway, is now flanked by the formidable carcasses of government buildings destroyed in Nato’s 78-day air assault last spring. “Heroic reconstruction” on the part of the regime has done little to hide the ruinous state of the economy. Everywhere the shattered shells of bombed-out facilities still stand as stark testimony to the lack of productivity.
After seven years of solid sanctions – an embargo that has enriched the mafia around Milosevic, exterminated the middle class and brought untold misery to the masses – more than half of the total population lives beneath the poverty level. Monthly salaries average $US40.
As the tiny country battles with a brutal Balkan winter, hunger and unemployment have become the twin monsters that most fear. The old have become scavengers, and children, gun-wielding thieves.
In towns like Pancevo, where the pensioned classes have long been some of the pariah president’s hardiest supporters, there is growing despair.
Take Milan Petrovic, an amiable screenwriter. “When I work, I’ll be sitting in front of my computer, shivering, because the authorities have turned off the heating and then there’ll be a black-out. I’ve calculated I spend more time saving my material than really writing it.”
It will get worse. Yugoslavia is now Europe’s newest economic black-spot. The richest of the former eastern bloc states slipped quietly behind Albania last year, to bear the unenviable title of the continent’s lowest per capita gross national product. Independent economists estimate that, without vast injections of cash, it could take 40 years to clamber back to the levels of 1968. For the moment, only the note-printing industry is truly working – alongside a flourishing black market controlled by state-approved individuals such as Arkan.
“Serbs have stopped smiling,” sighs General Vuk Obradovic, the former soldier who heads the opposition Socialist Democratic Party. “Two-thirds of the population wants political change. It is tired of seeing one defeat after another being turned into so-called victory. Yugoslavia no longer exists, it is lost.”
The Serbs do a tough talking act. Like the black humour that has become an essential part of their pact with survival – as cherished as smuggled gasoline, sugar and oil – the dissent has grown in leaps and bounds as they take in the reality of their truncated, rump state.
“We are living in a society that is so isolated it has become surreal,” says Borka Pavicevic, the irrepressible theatre director who heads the popular Centre for Cultural Decontamination. “You cannot compare what is shown on state TV: the heroic reconstruction of our country after the Kosovan war, the building of bridges, the men in Versace suits, the BMWs and fantastic looking ladies, with the squalor of life around us,” she sneers, dropping her shoulders in disgust. “It is pure kitsch. To laugh is the best way to survive.”
To my amazement laughter has, in some quarters, become quite contagious. Thousands of Belgraders are now seeking solace in theatres, lapping up plays lampooning their autocratic leader and Dr Mira Markovic, his headstrong wife. It adds to the amusement that the names Slobodan and Mira mean freedom and peace.
Get ordinary Serbs on to the subject of their president’s removal – and after a slivovitz or two – the chilling name of another dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, will often crop up. Not so long ago, Vesna Pesic, a once prominent opposition figure, even went so far as to pronounce that the only way out of the Milosevic cul-de-dac was via the “Ceausescu route”.
“We’ve tried talking, we’ve tried demonstrating, we’ve tried every democratic way of getting rid of him,” says one supporter for the main opposition grouping Alliance for Change. “The Romanian way is the only way left.”
But while the Serbs speak their minds, the battle to dislodge Milosevic stops there. Stony-faced peasants may trudge through sombre villages, Sajkaca hats pulled tightly around their eyes – as if in silent protest at their plight. Yet, even in the depths of misery – in the relentless dark, dank, dead villages that stretch beyond Belgrade – there is little talk of rebellion.
Public apathy has been tinged with fear of change, a sense of helpless resignation that has grown with renewed repression. Serbia may resemble a “giant prison” (a favourite phrase), but the Serbs’ almost innate penchant for Balkan fatalism has left few believing they can ever extricate themselves from the toxic cycle of hate and destruction so associated with Milosevic. Few feel the opposition (a clan of hopelessly feuding factions) would be better.
Instead, the Nato bombing campaign has allowed the leader to play skilfully on his nation’s time-honoured sense of victimhood – martyrdom that their epic poetry celebrates so well. But no one denies that this is somehow the beginning of the end: Arkan’s death has shown that Europe’s last real autocrat is in the midst of his greatest political fight.
A void has been left. Who will fill it may well determine whether Slobodan Milosevic, the butcher of the Balkans, goes quietly or even at all.
Helena Smith writes for the “Guardian”