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Belgrade - beyond the trenches

A war-scarred place ready for the quiet life.

You can learn a lot about a city by studying its graffiti. On walls, tunnels and pavements is the voice of its people, unmediated. The most popular slogan in downtown Belgrade is also the one favoured at present by the Jurassic wing of the Conservative Party: "We don't want the European Union."

The pursuit of EU membership has been an article of faith for the Serbian establishment since the fall of the Milosevic regime in 2000 but the people smell a rat. A poll published on the day I arrived showed support for membership of the Union had dropped below 50 per cent, compared to 65 per cent for most of the past decade. The next morning, the front page of Politika, the national paper of record, reported how Serbia had been denied EU candidate status (for now). While ministers spoke of the country's "European destiny", members of the Serbian Radical Party burned an EU flag. I had walked into a visceral duel between modernity and atavism.

The most remarkable thing about Belgrade, at first sight, at least, is how unremarkable it is. The requisite emblems of globalisation - McDonald's, KFC, H&M, Topshop - are all present and correct. Then I noticed another building, charred, burnt-out, half-collapsed. The wreck that I craned my neck to see as my bus traversed Prince Milos Street turned out to be the former military headquarters. A child would think that Godzilla was the culprit, but in the Balkans they know it was Nato. The alliance's 78-day bombardment of the city in 1999 is never far from the minds of Belgraders.

But then Serbia's history is one of continuous sieges, battles and conquests. Situated between east and west, the country has often been the plaything of imperial powers.

The ethereally beautiful Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan was conquered by the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians before returning to Serb hands in 1867. Located on the confluence of the Danube and the Sava, it now houses a zoo and the local planetarium. Peering round the door of Ružica Church, one of two Orthodox churches within the fortress walls, I was disconcerted by the sight of two chandeliers constructed entirely out of bullet casings, cannon parts and swords. It transpired that I had come across an example of trench art. The space that the church occupies was formerly used for storing gunpowder and it was the charred hands of Serb soldiers that made these chandeliers.

A short walk from the entrance of Kalemegdan lies the Tomb of National Heroes, which holds the remains of four partisan soldiers from the Second World War. The inscription above them reads: "Death to fascism. Freedom to the people" (one of the city's more agreeable slogans). Speaking to Belgraders, one is struck by the nostalgia for Yugoslavia and "market socialism". Tito's posthumous approval ratings are on the up. "We had free education, free health care and a higher standard of living," one resident tells me. They also had Kosovo. The country's disputed status is the main - the only - stumbling block to Serbia's EU accession and the cause of national angst. Kosovo provided the location for the 1389 battle with the Turks that entered the national mythology as a glorious defeat (think of it as Serbia's Alamo). With Serbia unwilling to recognise Kosovan independence but refusing to turn its back on Brussels, it remains unclear how the impasse will be broken.

On my final night in Belgrade, over a traditional meal of grilled meat, I discussed this question with the fine young film-maker Boris Malagurski, who combines the populist instincts of Michael Moore with the intellectual rigour of Noam Chomsky. He told me: "At this point, helping Serbia is surely not the EU's priority but the country does not realise this.

It is expecting too much of the EU. It is expecting too much of EU membership." He described Serbia as a land "deprived of ideology" but spoke, with optimism, of a "new generation" that sees the country as "neither communist nor nationalist". The next morning, I met Professor Darko Tanaskovic, a former ambassador to Turkey and the Vatican, who expressed his hope that the next decade would prove less eventful for his country. "We've had enough time on page one," he said. "We're happy to move to page five or six." For so long a hostage of history, Serbia is ready for the quiet life.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...