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.
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.
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 corrupt. Corruption 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?” Teaching them money laundering 101 through 404?
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.
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).(see Money laundering also increases real estate prices in Serbia, May 2021).
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.”
But for that to work, the government has to look a bit askance. And many palms need to be greased and bribes paid.
“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.
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.
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, the same seems to be the case on the inside, too.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST: A THING OF BEAUTY WHICH COST VERY LITTLE
Finally, here’s an example of how much can be accomplished with sheer imagination and creativity and very little money. I came across this beautiful natural sculpture while biking this weekend on the Ada, an island on the river Sava, which is one of the popular recreational spots in Belgrade.
Obviously, there is creative talent here. But not enough manages to bubble up to the surface. Belgrade needs more examples like this.