AN AMERICAN IN SERBIA: WHAT LIVING IN BELGRADE IS LIKE AFTER 50+ YEARS IN AMERICA

LIVING IN A POLICE STATE – GULTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT – RUDENESS AND INEFFICIENCY ABOUND EVERYWHERE, INCLUDING IN BANKS LIKE KOMERCIJALNA

“A police state describes a state where its government institutions exercise an extreme level of control over civil society and liberties.”

THREE SHORT STORIES

INTRODUCTION

Three years ago, I arrived in Serbia. The idea was to see what living in my native city for about six months would be like after spending half a century in America. Well, the best laid plans of mice and men…

Three months after my arrival, a temporary living arrangement became a permanent wedlock. I married my landlady. I grew a beard. I still wear it. I lost some weight. Healthier food and lifestyle, I suppose. Those were some of the good things.

The rest… well, it was a culture shock. So much rudeness. So much senseless bureaucracy. So much unnecessary regulation. So much intolerance.

If you pause in traffic for a moment after the light changes to green, people honk behind you. If they want to pass you on a sidewalk, they brush against you or practically push you out of the way without even an “excuse me.” If you want to buy something in a store, the merchants, especially the younger ones, treat you like an interruption to their “busy” day. And in government offices, you are just a number. And a negative number at that. Nobody smiles or even looks you in the eye. You wait in long lines for everything. Just like in the waning years of the Soviet Union. Everybody looks grim. As if they are waiting to hear what sentence was pronounced on them.

Now we are back in Belgrade for a fourth summer in a row. And my culture shock has morphed into resentment. What are we doing here? Why are we putting up with all this rudeness and shoddy treatments by people whom we are giving our business? (like banks, store clerks, waiters, the police, and various other service companies). And with the trash in the streets. And the congestion and the stink of fumes. And the parking fines.

SERBIA: POLICE STATE LIVES ON

THREE SHORT STORIES

SCENE 1: LINE IN FRONT OF POLICE STATION

A fat slob of a man stood nonchalantly in front of the police station at Savska Street in Belgrade, machine gun hanging from his shoulder, a fag from his lips. Next to him a long line of people waiting to get their cars registered, passports issued, new residence reported… a myriad of little chores that have nothing to do with police work in civilized countries and which are done mostly online.

We came here because the police had screwed up something with my car registration last year and we wanted them to correct the error.

My wife walked up to the fat policeman to ask him something about what the line was for that. He muttered something unintelligible looking sideways, as if he was talking to the wall.

“I beg you pardon,” my wife. “I didn’t hear you.”

“It’s not my fault you cannot hear,” he replied rudely, without looking her in the eye.

My wife came back seething with anger. “Such arrogance, such belittling attitude,” she said followed by several expletives.

So instead of waiting in line, I got the information I needed on the phone and we returned home, leaving the other poor souls in the care of that fat, arrogant slob with a machine gun and a fag.

“I will write the President and his female PM about this,” I said. “They keep telling the nation on TV how everything is hunky-dory while their police treat them like dirt. Just like when the commies were in charge.”

“You should,” my wife agreed.

SCENE 2: LINE IN FRONT OF A BANK

I went to withdraw some Euros from my foreign currency account at Komercijalna Banka in Belgrade. It was a hot day. A long line of people waited their turn outside the bank branch at the Borba (former communist newspaper) building.

Why wait in line at a transaction as simple as cash withdrawal?

Well because there is only a limited number of ATMs that give out cash in Euros. And it’s hard to know in advance which branch has it and which one does not.

After about 15-20 mins of waiting in line which was getting longer all the time, people had begun to grumble. Some who tried to jump the line “because they had an appointment” were quickly brought back to heel. Meanwhile, the gatekeeper (a bank security guard) whose job was the keep order in the line, was nowhere to be seen.

After some banging on the locked entrance door, he showed up. We demanded to see the manager.

“He is not here,” he said.

“Then bring us his deputy.”

The mood in the crowd was getting ugly. The line was taking on the shape of an angry mob ready to lynch the manager.

“It’s all because of the Slovenians,” an angry woman shouted. “Since they took over this bank, they fired half the people and now the lines are everywhere.”

After a few minutes, a man and a woman emerged from inside the bank. They were deputy managers or at least the bank employees who had enough courage to show their faces to the crowd.

They confirmed that they were short-staffed but said nothing about “the Slovenians.” At that point my turn came to enter the bank, so I left the heated arguments behind me. My business inside the bank lasted less than two minutes. While the teller was counting my cash, I asked, “why were these other customers ahead of me each taking so long?”

“Oh various reasons. They had a lot more paperwork. But we are all working as hard and as fast as we can,” she added defensively.

“So why then can the simple transactions, like withdrawing cash in Euros, be done at the ATM?”

“Oh but they can,” she said. “It’s just that not all bank branches have that facility.”

“I knew that,” I said. “But how do you know which one does and which one does not?”

“You ask us.”

“Right. After waiting in line for half an hour,” I said sarcastically.

“This branch, for example, has such an ATM?”

“So I could have taken the cash out without waiting in line?”

“Yes.”

Ouch. That was like adding insult to injury.

SCENE 3: LINE INSIDE A BANK

My wife as the manager of a building in which she owns several apartments. By law, she is required to perform certain administrative and financial duties. One of them is to have a business account in the name of the building to which the other owners should make their payments for maintenance and other expenses which “kućni savet” (building board) approves.

Last year, she opened such an account at branch of Komercijalna Banka on Svetogorska Street where I also have some personal accounts. It required much paperwork, stamps signatures and all. Since we were soon about to leave for Arizona, she also tried to get online access to that account. Alas, the procedure was so convoluted that she was never able to complete it before we left.

So a few days ago, she went back and started from scratch, though this time with an already existing business account.

Even though she was technically a business customer with a separate section within the bank walls, which was supposed to imply preferential treatment, she had to wait in front of the bank in a long line just to get in.

Once she got in and explained what she needed, she was told that they could not do it without the business stamp. Which, of course, she did not think she would need again because the account had already been opened.

Several days went by.

My wife showed up again at the bank with the business stamp. More hassles ensued again at the entrance about whether or not she should stand in line.

When she finally fought her way back into the business section of the bank, she faced off with the same man and the same intransigent manager about the same issue. How to activate her online access to the account. After a heated argument of a few minutes, finally they asked her, “why do you need it?”

In other words, she needed to explain to the bank why she needed something that’s now standard part of every bank’s service – online access to her account. “Guilty until proven innocent,” just like with the police.

To accomplish this, in Serbia one needs something called an “activation code.” One receives that from the bank via an email. So the Komercijalna Bank staff finally filled out the required paperwork, had it stamped with the building stamp, and promised my wife to send her the activation code by email.

Several days went by.

After about a week or so, my wife back to the bank again in person. And she got into an argument with the staff about why they have not done what they had promised. This time, the person who stood for the bank manager on the business side of the bank literally barked off at this business customer of the bank an order, “sit down!” As if she were a dog.

A manager should address even an underling with more respect let alone a customer. For a business to treat a customer that way would be unthinkable in the US and probably anywhere else in the civilized world, too.

I just shook my head in disbelief as my wife later recounted the story of her experience at the bank.

“So what happened at the end?” I asked.

“The same man with whom I have been dealing all along finally sent me that email while I waited. After several unsuccessful attempts at first.”

“So you’ve now set up your online access?”

“Yes, but only after I had spoken to a nice woman on the phone from the. bank’s technical support.”

Another example how even the simplest and the most banal activities can become frustrating nightmares in Serbia, a country where the tail wags the dog (to borrow a phrase from an excellent 1997 films “Wag the Dog“). And you are guilty until proven innocent.

SCENE 4: THE NATIONAL PARLIAMENT DISGRACE

Our apartment is located within half a kilometer of the Serbian National Parliament. Designed in a classical European government style, the building was completed in 1936 when Yugoslavia was still a kingdom. It looks elegant and majestic. But only from a distance.

Serbian National Parliament

If you zoom in on the details around the building, which we see almost every day when we walk by it, you see decaying sidewalks, torn up tiles, weeds where grass is supposed to be, foot-trodden paths through the lawns, dog poo and even rusty flagpoles without any flags.

You’d think that someone in the Serbian government would care to divert some money into renovating and maintaining the grounds of arguably the most important building in the city? (the national parliament).

If the government leaders cared about such things as the decorum of their offices. Or took pride in presenting this country to the world in the best possible light.

Obviously they don’t care about things like that. Ironically, that would not cost much money. One just has to care. Like a homeowner does to make his house and garden beautiful. So all the greater is fault for the Serbian government to allow its national treasure like the parliament building to look so shabby. Like a home without a TLC (tender loving care), full of rust and weeds.

CONSTRUCTION, REAL ESTATE BOOMING IN BELGRADE: SYMPTOMS OF A MONEY LAUNDERING ECONOMY

Meanwhile, the rest of Belgrade is full of construction sites. Real estate prices are rising and the building industry booming.

How’s that possible? Where’s all that money coming from?

Certainly not from the Serbian indigenous economy.

The “Belgrade Waterfront” project, for example, got more than $4 billion just from a UAE firm according to initial (2014) project estimates). In other words, the Arab oil money. And the government is taking the credit for it even though it never allowed a public discussion, or Serbian tenders, or even Serbian architects to participate in this, what some call, Aleksander Vucic’s megalomanic project. (see “A Look At Abu Dhabi’s ‘Bad Joke’: The Belgrade Waterfront Project,” FORBES magazine).

That’s the stuff that’s visible in public. Or not. Because the planning for this project revealed in 2014 was done in secret by Aleksandar Vucic, now president of Serbia, then the Vice President, with minimal or no public participation. Vucic even somehow dragged the now disgraced Donald Trump lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York, into the 2012 public unveiling. Basically, Giuliani campaigned for Vucic and his party in the elections that year.

SHADY PALS: GIULIANI, NOW SUSPENDED IN NEW YORK AND WASHINGTON, HELPED PROMOTE VUCIC’S BELGRADE WATERFRONT

Speaking in Belgrade on in April 2012, Giuliani said he and his consulting company would be advising the Progressives on how to run the capital if they take power on May 6 (emphasis added).

“I’ve seen cities turn around,” Giuliani told a joint press conference with Vucic and other Progressive Party officials. “I am very excited at helping you do that.” (see Balkan Insight).

At the time Giuliani was being considered as Trump’s secretary of state, a longtime associate defended Giuliani’s extensive international work, according to a Nov 2016 Chicago Tribune article, saying the former mayor currently has only one international security contract. It is with the government of Colombia, said the associate, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak officially for the former mayor.

Colombia? Hm… Remember Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartel? And the corruption in that South American country has only increased since these drug lords were taken down.

Eighty-one percent of the Colombian population believes that political parties are corruptCorruption levels have increased continuously since 2009, and as of 2019, corruption exists at every level of government, from local to national. Investigations for corruption have taken place regarding over 48,000 government officials across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, due to corruption in the judiciary system as well, a majority of these politicians avoid prosecution by using their own political parties’ budget to bribe judges. (an excerpt from Ten Facts about Corruption in Colombia).

So what exactly was Giuliani doing for Colombia? And how was he advising Vucic and the Progressives “how to run the capital?” Money laundering 101?

Oh, by the way, this former New York City “9/11 hero,” and a former presidential candidate who helped Vucic get elected in 2012, who can’t even dye his hair right, is now suspended from practicing law in New York and in Washington, DC.

Why? Because he lied. Among other things.

In a 33-page decision, the New York appellate court panel wrote that, “there is uncontroverted evidence that [Giuliani] communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts, lawmakers and the public at large in his capacity as lawyer for former President Donald J. Trump and the Trump campaign in connection with Trump’s failed effort at reelection in 2020.”

DRUGS AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING

That’s just the stuff visible above the surface. Below the surface, however, gobs of drug and human trafficking shipments are also flowing through Belgrade. Which needs to be washed clean before the criminals can use it for legitimate businesses.

The real estate prices are also soaring. Which is another symptom of an economy based on money laundering.

“Money laundering experts claim that the increase in the prices of residential and business space in Serbia is most likely a consequence of the influence of a significant amount of money from illegal activities on the real estate market, according to the report of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).
Real estate prices are growing faster than in neighboring countries, and are not limited to Belgrade, which is why experts suggest that the Serbian real estate market has become a regional hub for money laundering.”

(see Money laundering also increases real estate prices in Serbia, May 2021).

But for that to work, the government has to look a bit askance. And many palms need to be greased and bribes paid.

See Serbia Weak On Penalizing Money-Launderers – Analysis

“Only 15 per cent of money-laundering cases end up before the Serbian courts, with minor sentences often handed down to those who are put in the dock,” according to a EuroAsia Review July 2019 report.

Those convicted often handed a minor sentence of less than a year in prison or fines of fewer than 100 euros, a new analysis by BIRN of Serbia’s fight against money-laundering over the last decade shows.

Miroslava Milenovic, a financial forensics expert from Belgrade, told BIRN that money laundering is a consequence of organized crime, because it is used to introduce money from the sale of narcotics, human trafficking or arms trading into legal financial flows.

Meanwhile, “the Western Balkans is a crossroads for the trafficking of many illicit commodities, and it is a geographical hub for the smuggling of drugs and migrants who are trying to enter Western Europe,” according to

Meanwhile, “the Western Balkans is a crossroads for the trafficking of many illicit commodities, and it is a geographical hub for the smuggling of drugs and migrants who are trying to enter Western Europe,” according to a Global Initiative report.

Analyzing flows of people, drugs and money in the Western Balkans

For a full 88-page report, click here

Perhaps that’s the reason that nobody seems to care about how the Serbian national parliament building looks. And why even the basic landscaping maintenance is not being done. Everybody’s focused on making money off this cashflow instead of spending it on beautifying the national heritage buildings, like the Parliament.

Shame and disgust. That’s what every Serbian citizen should feel when they look at the sorry state of this beautiful building. Or do they even notice such things as torn tiles, beaten tracks through the lawn, dead trees, rusty flagpoles? I have not seen any articles in the local media about that.

And what about the opposition? Why don’t they make a fuss over that? Theoretically the parliament is also their building.

What opposition? Most parties boycotted the June 2020 elections. The rest are either waiting for their turn at the trough to enrich themselves, or are happy with just handouts so as to keep their mouths shut. This resulted in the lowest turnout since the establishment of a multi-party system in 1990.

“Since Aleksandar Vučić came to power in 2012, Serbia has suffered from democratic backsliding into authoritarianism, followed by a decline in media freedom and civil liberties,” writes Wikipedia.

Tanja Fajon, the chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with Serbia, stated that “the level of democracy has deteriorated significantly, let alone the situation of media freedom“, citing that the absence of parliamentary opposition calls into question the legitimacy of parliament.

So not only does the Parliament look shabby on the outside, it seems the same is the case on the inside, too.

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