A few weeks ago I was having dinner with my friend Bojan in the middle-class neighbourhood of Banovo Brdo in Belgrade. He was telling me that the house next door was up for sale, and, as one does in normal countries, we were discussing property prices.
At about 11pm, his mother poked her head out of her bedroom window and shouted down to us that Sljivancanin was being arrested: another sign of Serbian normality returning. Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin has been indicted by The Hague war crimes tribunal for his alleged involvement in executing more than 200 Croatian prisoners, when Serbian forces took Vukovar in 1991.
With the exception of Ratko Mladic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb army, Sljivancanin was the last major indictee believed to be (at least sometimes) in Serbia. So it seemed as though yet another piece of house-cleaning was being done, one of many which have been set in train since the murder in March of Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s energetic and reforming premier.
Since Sljivancanin lived a few streets away, Bojan and I went to take a look. His block of flats was surrounded by units of masked special police and a small group of thugs was attacking them. Hovering about were various gangster-politicians. The thugs had been mobilised to protect Sljivancanin. Some of them were only about 17, meaning that they were small children during the Croatian war. They abused the police and chanted the name of a well-known Belgrade crime boss.
After a lengthy siege, the police finally managed to winkle Sljivancanin out of his flat. For years he had said he would blow himself up rather be captured, and of course he had been on the run, but inexplicably he had come home for his birthday party. I didn’t actually see him hustled down the stairs because this was when I was attacked, but the next day the papers had mocking headlines like “Sljivancanin in pyjamas.”
I did not see what happened because just at that moment a hysterical old woman who had heard me speaking English began screeching at me, the thugs came to see what was happening, Bojan told me to run, one tripped me up and they closed in and started kicking. Bojan yanked one off and I had a split second to run for my life.
Having covered the Yugoslav wars since the beginning, it would have been incredibly stupid of me to have been killed or seriously injured during an footnote to the story. But the incident certainly sharpened my impressions.
One of the encouraging things is just how few thugs there were on the street: maybe 200. In fact, despite the undercurrent of violence which still runs through this place, the balance sheet has to be positive-if only just. (A few days after my experience, a water polo match ended in a punch-up, but this was ex-Yugoslav Serbia and ex-Yugoslav Montenegro playing ex-Yugoslav Croatia in ex-Yugoslav Slovenia. A few years ago this would have been inconceivable.)
Every day the newspapers here report small stories that would have been on the front pages a few years ago. For example, visas are no longer needed between Serbia and Croatia, flights between them are about to be restored, and a “business train” to link Belgrade and Ljubljana is being planned.
People complain that life is tough, that things are not better since Milosevic fell, but then some of the same people tell you that they are “not bloody well going on holiday in Montenegro any more because it is expensive and the service is rubbish and you get better value for money in Greece or Turkey.”
Many people scrape by on the poverty line and the fate of hundreds of thousands of Serb refugees is unresolved-but progress is being made towards the ambition of Vojislav Kostunica, the first (and last) post-Milosevic president of Yugoslavia, who wanted to make Serbia a “boring” country.
Today, of course, Yugoslavia is history. Belgrade is the capital of the loose “state-union” of Serbia and Montenegro, a trial and error country which both sides entered into in February on the understanding that they could leave it after three years. The unnatural coalition that brought down Milosevic has collapsed, but even this has a good side. A normal spread of right to left parties is emerging from the wreckage.
After Djindjic was killed, the police arrested around 10,000 people and a few hundred remain in custody. Forty-five have been charged with the conspiracy and what has emerged is the extent to which networks of organised crime, parts of the secret police and those connected with protecting war criminals overlapped. These have taken a severe beating since March, but it is an open question as to whether the power of these groups is completely broken.
Soon after being beaten up, I was sitting in a caf? with an old friend, now a minister. My friend was being rude about his colleagues and saying how shocked he had been by threatening letters from various western governments which said that aid would be cut off unless companies from their countries “won” various privatisation deals.
My friend has an impressive liberal record. But with power, iron has crept into his soul. We discussed a politician riding high in the polls. “Popularity?” he scoffed, “that means nothing. Power is the only thing that counts.” I guess all politicians say that eventually. Another sign of normality in Serbia? Let’s hope.