A mad time in an inexplicable country

In Love on July 19, 2012 at 5:16 pm


At the end of 1990 when I was approaching 40, I was the editor of a daily newspaper and I was earning 2,000 deutschmarks a month. The publishers also paid me a decent rate for my poems and translations – an average amount per standard page of 40,000 characters. I also got paid for taking part in literary evenings. Moonlighting in this way, I managed to build and furnish a house with a garden 15 kilometres out of town. A few years later, when suburban transport became a rarity and petrol had to be bought by the teaspoon, this daily commute became a real adventure. With a passport from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, you could travel to over 100 countries without a visa. My daughter flew to see her aunt in Australia at 13. I couldn’t even imagine how precious the several hundred metres of fishing line she brought me would become, since very soon afterwards not even that could be bought here. In December 1990, the first multiparty elections took place in Serbia. The former communists headed by Slobodan Miloševi´c achieved an easy victory. Six months later, the whole of Yugoslavia had descended into war. It was dangerous to go out in the evening because groups of armed drunks roamed the streets. They called themselves volunteers. By the end of 1991 Yugoslavia had ceased to exist. During those months a police car or a military jeep frequently drove up to my house, bringing my conscription papers. That meant that I would have to go and fight in Croatia. My wife would open the door and tell them that I was at work or away. They never went in to check. Once they came to the newspaper but my colleagues said I wasn’t there. I frequently slept at friends’ houses. One of them, a cardiologist, solved my problem. I spent several days on his ward in hospital, and after that he gave me a certificate saying I needed treatment. I took the certificate to the military authorities and asked for permission to go abroad. As soon as it was granted, I boarded a train for Kiev. Kind people arranged for me to stay in some sort of a hostel. For the first time in several months I slept

peacefully, without worrying that someone would arrest me and send me to fight a senseless war. In May 1992, when I returned, the Serbian army no longer needed my military capabilities. It was just retreating from Bosnia and Herzegovina, having earlier left Croatia. My foreign friends frequently asked what was happening in my country. Why had the Serbians given their wholesale support to Miloševi´c, a dyed-inthe-wool communist, at a time when other eastern European nations were toppling communist governments? Why had the Serbians started four wars against peoples with whom they had shared a country for 70 years? Why were the Serbians en masse expecting support and assistance from Russia, but wanting to live like western Europeans? Why have most Serbians left Kosovo, although everyone says that Kosovo is the cradle of the Serbian nation? Why and how was that possible? I always answered that it made more sense to drink beer and watch the clouds than to try to explain the inexplicable. There were more inexplicable things than there were things that could be explained reasonably. I spent four years on gardening leave. What is gardening leave? It is when you are not allowed to the office where you are registered to work but are still paid 60 per cent of your salary, which was sometimes 20 deutschmarks (approximately E10) and sometimes as much as 50 (€25). If I could do it today, I would immediately agree to stay on gardening leave until retirement. The average wage in Serbia today is approximately €300. The empty shops were also inexplicable. History did not take note of the date when this started. Coffee was the first thing to disappear, followed by soap, washing powders, toothpaste, cigarettes, matches, sugar and salt. All these things could be bought only in the street or in the market. Humanitarian aid packages could also be bought there. The European Union sent aid to refugees and to other socially underprivileged groups. Instead of distributing the aid to the needy, the leaders of refugee organisations and

heads of social institutions sold most of it, and kept the rest for themselves. In this way, we were able to buy European tinned food, flour and personal hygiene items, as well as fake whisky. The markets also sold war booty – things looted during the wars in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everything was stolen and sold: tractors, cars, television sets, crockery, various tools, clothes, icons, even books. The government turned a blind eye. Tens of thousands of people survived by selling goods of unknown origin in the street. The suppliers of those goods made fortunes and with the government’s blessing became respectable citizens. Life during hyperinflation was inexplicable too. In 1993, all prices at first increased every day, and then several times a day. If you had bought five deutschmarks in the morning, by the evening you were a rich man. If in the morning you had enough money for a crate of beer, by midday the same money would buy you five bottles, and in the evening none. This is how within a few months we ended up with banknotes with 30 noughts on them. Whoever had 5,000 deutschmarks, and invested them at the right time, soon made 50,000, and soon after 500,000. After the first million, nobody asked you where your money came from. When everything is allowed, people lose their sense of time. The value system breaks down. You can buy a university degree with a lorry load of cigarettes or a tanker of oil. A man called Arkan, the son of a Yugoslav colonel, who was a criminal before the war and during the war became the all-powerful boss of a gang of so-called “volunteers”, before whom the police and the generals trembled, became a member of parliament and the owner of a premiership-winning football club. Arkan was murdered by his army and business friends. President Miloševi´c himself attended the funeral. Arkan’s widow, a popular singer (and the lover of many prominent men) still lives in an illegally built villa in an exclusive area of Belgrade. The self-styled “commander of the volunteers”, Vojislav šešelj, won more votes 

in the election than the greatest Serbian writer then alive, Borislav Pekich. The writer died soon after, while the commander was appointed university professor, and later even became deputy prime minister. Today he is on trial in The Hague as a war criminal. Major state enterprises disappeared overnight. They were acquired for next to nothing by directors, members of the political police, restaurant musicians, sportsmen or drug dealers… The process is simple: an enterprise becomes illiquid, it has no raw materials and so produces nothing, the machinery is removed, the workers are not paid for months and the enterprise is put up for auction. The government turns a blind eye and pretends that the entire process has been completely lawful. Serbia survived in spite of international sanctions. There was a ban on the import and export of virtually all goods but there weren’t actually any goods that weren’t imported or exported. This too was a simple process: a company registered in Cyprus transports some goods from Hungary to Greece. The invoice is paid through the Bahamas. Border control checks all the documentation and discovers that everything is in order. The goods arrive as transit goods in Serbia, and that is where they stay. The end price takes care of all participants of this chain, including those unfortunates who, come rain or shine, stand by the roadside selling petrol. The head of the customs office gives every customs officer the right to confiscate a bottle of whisky and a carton of cigarettes from the smugglers once a week. The wife of the head of state and the leader of the governing party sets up her own party. The professor who supervised her PhD becomes the ambassador to Moscow. Ministers tremble before her, writers and academics try to curry favour. There will always be more than enough people willing to write whatever is required for a few glasses of wine and a dinner. In 1998, I was editor-in-chief of the daily Naša Borba in Belgrade. One evening in October, our office was visited by the Deputy Minister of 

Information, accompanied by a dozen policemen. He handed me a notice banning our newspaper on the grounds that it was spreading fear, panic and defeatism. All our journalists lost their jobs. Several days later, a group of strangers appeared in the office. They loaded the computers and all other equipment onto their truck and left. We reported the theft to the police. The police told us to give them the names of the thieves and witnesses. At that time, nobody wanted to be a witness. Some weeks later, a car import company owned by the son of the head of state moved into our offices. The President’s daughter became the owner of a television station. After all this, the bombing started. NATO aircraft, flying at 10,000 metres, precision-bombed bridges, barracks, police stations and the government television station. Serbian anti-aircraft rockets have a range of 3 kilometres. The Ministry of Defence announced every day that several enemy aircraft had been shot down. A certain story was repeated in every village and town: a black American pilot was captured nearby last night. In his pockets he had US$ 5,000 and the address he was supposed to go to. It was always the address of someone living near where the plane came down, a Croatian or a Hungarian, never a Serb. The propaganda-mongers who started these stories never explained why the pilot had to be black, why he had to have US$ 5,000 and how his commanders knew where he would be shot down, so that they could give him the right American spy’s address. After 78 days of bombs, it was announced that around 80 enemy aircraft had been shot down. In fact, one had been shot down. The officer responsible later opened a baker’s shop. Life goes on. How can one live through all this? On the afternoon of 5 May 1999 the air raid alert in Novi Sad, the main city of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina in the north of Serbia, lasted several hours. The barracks on the edge of the town and its oil refinery were attacked. The earth trembled under the bombs and anti-aircraft guns. My colleagues and I were sitting in the office of the 

Independent Journalists Union and in the street across the road from us over 100 people stood calmly in a queue – the kiosk had just had a delivery of cigarettes. One of my colleagues rushed in to say that beer had been delivered to a shop nearby, and even the non-drinkers rushed out. Later on, a taxi driver took us to see the bomb site free of charge. The bombs had missed the barracks and hit a residential house. There were no dead. Beer and cigarettes could always be got hold of somehow. In my village my neighbours and I sat in the courtyard virtually every night and cooked something special. No distinction was made between teachers, doctors, farmers and the workers from the closed-down factory. Someone brought some meat, someone else potatoes, tomatoes, beans or raki. We lived as if every day were the last. Army cars would rush down the darkened streets. At night, after the all-clear, firing would continue for at least another hour. The fire came from rifles, automatic weapons and anti-tank guns fired by hundreds of soldiers stationed in the surrounding fields, giving vent to their joy. During the bombardments, the parliament voted for the unification of Serbia with Russia and Belarus. No response was received from Moscow or Minsk. Eighteen months later, on 5 October 2000, the Miloševi´c regime was overthrown. Strangers kissed and hugged in the streets, shouting “He’s gone!” This was the start of democracy. Members of the opposition who for 10 years had promised freedom and the righting of all wrongs rushed to receive the reward for their patience. Some rushed to get jobs in ministries, others in local authorities, yet others in business. No one remembered their main battle cry: “Thieves to prison, madmen to madhouses”. Those who had grown rich under Miloševi´c expressed their loyalty to the new power, partly in words but mainly in cash. When the first democratically elected prime minister put serious pressure on the political and financial underground, he was assassinated by Miloševi´c’s special police. Most of the former members of the security services are still doing well. They live in fashionable villas in 

exclusive areas of Belgrade. They live in luxury, though it is unclear what they do. When the papers write about the mafia, no names are ever given. Only euphemisms are allowed – “shady businessmen” or “the rough guys from the street”. No one knows how they made their first million. They travel in armoured cars, accompanied by bodyguards. They have no problem travelling abroad. The tabloids write their colourful biographies in countless instalments – how they grew up in poverty, what sincere patriots they are, what sincere orthodox believers, how remote they are from politics. They are angels with human faces and bullet-proof vests under their shirts. Their dirty work is done by 20-year-olds, the ones with no moral scruples, average incomes and high school diplomas. Neither the general public nor the police know the names of the perpetrators of nearly 500 unsolved murders committed in the last 10 years. Life goes on. Seven years after the arrival of democracy, a minister suddenly remembered that we ought to have a law that required buyers of state enterprises to verify the sources of their assets. Most enterprises had long since been sold. Private entrepreneurs had bought national, regional and local television stations and newspapers. Everything had been done strictly in accordance with the law. Anyone may publish and write whatever they like, provided they obey those who pay them. If you can buy a public prosecutor, a judge or a professor, imagine how much cheaper a journalist would be. Miloševi´c is buried in the courtyard of a house outside Moscow, owned by his wife, a person not responsible for her actions. Their son lives nearby. Their daughter lives in Montenegro. Two ministers of police from the Miloševi´c era have committed suicide. Some of his close associates sit in prison and await sentencing. Others sit in parliament, in government institutions or private companies. Life goes on. In socialist Yugoslavia, a party card opened all doors. Today we have many parties, but even now party cards can work wonders. The party can help you 

open a kiosk, a bookshop or a supermarket, buy a plot of land and build a house with 50 apartments where a square metre costs €2,000. Parties use their people to award literary prizes to their own, provide them with space in art galleries and scholarships. Those without a party sponsor need not bother to write books, produce wonderful film scripts or paint. Throughout the collapse of the state, the wars and the transition period, artists paid a terrible price – some by going to live abroad, others by writing odes to Miloševi´c, and others by fawning on anyone with a little power or money. There is a wonderful Serbian joke about this very thing. A man is standing in the street and reading a paper. A friend comes up and says, “What does it say in the paper?” “X has died,” says the reader. “Who was he?” asks the friend. “He was our writer,” answers the reader. The friend asks, “So who is going to be our writer now?” At the start of November 2007 the papers reported that the writer Dobrica C´osi´c, called “the father of the nation” by the “patriotic forces”, was present at the opening of the largest Belgrade megastore. At one time he had been a commissar with the partisans and later a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Even later he was made a figurehead president by Miloševi´c… This year, the Belgrade Book Fair was visited by 200,000 people in seven days – exactly the same number that goes to the largest Belgrade beach on the Sava river every summer day. Historians who in socialist Yugoslavia wrote about the brotherhood and unity of the Yugoslav peoples can’t publish a book today without discovering new differences between the Serbs and the Croats, and new conflicts in the recent and more remote past. Recently, historians discovered that Macedonians and Montenegrins are fictitious nationalities, that there is no such language as Croatian, and that the Croats are the descendants of Serbs who had converted to Catholicism.

Twenty years ago I lived in a country where after you had graduated from university you could get a decent job. Farmers could take their families to the seaside for a fortnight after they had brought the harvest in. Factory workers could get a loan to build a house, and pay it back punctually out of their monthly wages. Today, people who haven’t spent a single day at a university can wave their diplomas at you. Serbia has nearly 200 villages where not a single person remains. Farmers can still just about feed their families, but no more than that. Some businessmen own 20,000 hectares of land or more but factory workers and teachers, if all they have is their wages, cannot earn enough in their lifetime to buy an apartment or build a house. All they can do is feed themselves and their families. Where previously we had stores and craftsmen’s workshops, we now have the glass edifices of foreign banks. Twenty years ago I lived in a predictable country, where everyone did their job: university professors, lorry drivers and political functionaries. Life was transparent and comprehensible, it could be planned. My friend Janko, an electrician, worked on the railways and was well paid. Then he decided to leave his job, explaining to me that all the management positions had been given to non-professionals who ordered people to allow faulty carriages and locomotives onto the track. He explained that there were no spare parts in the workshops, that no one was responsible for anything, that all the tools had long since been stolen from the workshops and that none of the managers were bothered by it. Today, Serbian trains travel at an average of 30 kilometres per hour. Janko has gone private. He repairs electrical appliances, farms several hectares of land and uses his tractor and combine harvester to provide services to farmers. His daughter has graduated in pharmacology and has emigrated. The transition period has helped Janko to live on the proceeds of his own work and to live better than if he were working for a state enterprise. He works 12 hours a day and gets no annual holidays.

He doesn’t trust a single politician. He doesn’t go to church. He can’t end the day without several bottles of beer. Most of his contemporaries, now in their fifties, haven’t done nearly as well. They have no permanent work, or else they are working in the grey economy with no social protection. They manage to earn enough for beer. They don’t see themselves as obliged to earn enough to bring up and educate their children. They don’t trust the politicians, they don’t believe in God and they swear all the time. The trains in Serbia have not been on time for the past 20 years. We no longer have a system of socialist self-management and we don’t yet have capitalism. And we’re still, all of us, on a train which is not hours but years behind its schedule. Cheers!


Mikhal Ramach is a journalist, translator and writer – and the chief editor of the independent daily Danas.

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