across the Danube from old to New Belgrade
is not on most people's list of weekend getaways but maybe
it's time it should be.
After a decade of drowning in a post-war-post-sanctions depression,
the capital of former Yugoslavia is surfacing with a new look
and friendly vibe.
This charming city has a thriving live music scene sparked
by hosting the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest and Serbs have
just had the yoke of visa restrictions lifted from their European
But there's still a blot on Serbia's EU horizon. Alleged war
criminal Ratko Mladic is still at large and sovereignty of
Kosovo remains the key bargaining chip in negotiations for
This month marks the 11th anniversary of Nato's intervention
in the tiny province of Kosovo to stop former President Slobodan
Milosevic's Yugoslav Army ethnically cleansing Kosovar Albanians.
These anniversaries are unlikely to pass unnoticed by either
Serbia or Kosovo. The buildings destroyed by Nato bombs still
stand in downtown Belgrade and military peacekeepers still
guard the ethnic enclaves in Kosovo from attack.
But these reminders are not helpful to the Serbs coming to
terms with the atrocities committed in their name, especially
as they are bidding with Iceland, Albania, Montenegro and
recent former Balkan adversary Bosnia Herzegovina to join
the biggest country club in the world.
When I was working in Belgrade five years ago there was an
almost schizophrenic personality that existed across the country.
On the one hand, the people seemed entrenched in a depression
and I was asked, a little mournfully, why I bothered to come
to Serbia and why I liked Belgrade so much. Self-esteem was
at a low ebb.
At the other end of the scale was a contrasting confidence
and fierce pride in the fact that Yugoslavia was once a well-respected
and prosperous nation. As leaders in many scientific and medical
fields during the Yugoslavian heyday, they didn't need foreigners
telling them what to do. And the status of Kosovo, as a topic
of conversation, was definitely off-limits.
I returned late last year and things were markedly different.
I met people more willing to talk about their experiences
of the sanctions and the 1999 bombings. One doctor had been
training in London when her husband convinced her it was safe
to return to Novi Sad, a city north of Belgrade, because "things
couldn't possibly get any worse". Just a few days later
Nato air strikes destroyed roads, bridges and parts of the
Now we were sitting in a new family-run restaurant eating
Mediterranean fare and talking about the fall of the British
pound and Serbian dinar and shopping. Although their average
monthly income is just 400 euros (£370), Serbs have
discovered the mental benefits of retail therapy. And they
feel a close link with the British. Most people will talk
fondly about their Second World War ally in flawless English.
Kosovo is still a sensitive issue. The Serbs have the last
600 years of their history rooted there with the Kosovar-Albanians
as relative newcomers. And although the Milosevic regime instigated
the 1999 violence and massacre, the Kosovo Liberation Army
made an equally vicious retaliation against the Serbs. Yet
despite Kosovo's independence being at the top of the politician's
agenda, day-to-day life now offers some future hope and excitement.
So a sort of recovery seems just around the corner. Now Radovan
Karadzic is on trial at The Hague for war crimes, some of
the heat has been taken off the ordinary Serbs. Although there
is no atonement that could make up for the atrocities committed,
there's a sense that these trials do bring closure for many
people on opposing sides. Only
the spectre of alleged Bosnian-Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic
now casts a shadow over Serbia's formal bid to join the EU.
Back in the thriving cafe culture of Belgrade, I worry that
the city's charm and tranquility is being overtaken by the
new state-of-the-art shopping mall complete with cinema complaex,
bowling alleys and Costa coffee houses. But, although I think
corporate retail chains and American-style shopping malls
are the last thing that transition countries need as they
oust family-owned shops and create a consumer society, they
will bring further foreign investment and boost jobs.
They are also a good sign that Serbia is finally being accepted
back into the fold.
went to Kosovo in 2005 to report on the security situation
and progress made on reintegrating ethnic Serbs and Kosovar
Albanians. Forgotten Voices: Building Peace After War
can be found at