Like other Central and Eastern European cities that were once overrun by the great cinder block of Communism, Belgrade may be difficult to appreciate as a city of aesthetic charm—unless you're in a socialist realist state of mind. Even with the majestic confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, and Old Belgrade's picture-postcard cathedrals and monasteries and ancient fortresses and thickly wooded parks, Belgrade is all too frequently interrupted by Communist-era behemoths, utilitarian boxes, and housing projects.
What it may lack in symmetry and grace, however, it more than makes up for in the humanity and customs of its café culture. It is a city rich with bars and restaurants, which, in the warm months, sprawl out onto the streets and create the modern-day equivalent of the medieval town square. There is much hand shaking and toasting and drinking of brandy and Turkish coffee, and ribbons of cigarette smoke.
When night falls, the city's rough edges and incongruous patterns fade and turn into groovy urban backdrops for lively street scenes. The cafés continue to run, but the slick atmospherics of the city's countless bars, lounges, and beer gardens take over. The floating barges docked on the banks of the rivers, the splavs, home to nightclubs and restaurants, illuminate and cast light across the rivers' slow currents, and fill up with alarmingly beautiful women and strikingly handsome men.
Ordinarily, this is Belgrade. A city that lives for nights of unfettered decadence. A place where you can eat hearty meals of grilled meat; where, on gypsy boats, you can drink, sing, and dance on tabletops until dawn. It is a city unrivaled in its Dionysian spirit and in its appetite for life's simple pleasures. I have been told on more than one occasion that many young Belgraders can go for months without seeing the light of day.
This was the place that I had hoped to revisit. But, as fate would have it, my arrival in the city was eclipsed by the forces of history and the contortionist politics of the Balkans' never-ending game of ethnic Twister.
The last time I traveled to Belgrade was in August 2001, at the height of summer fun and the beginning of a new millennium and milieu. Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a pro-Western democrat, was in power. Slobodan Milosevic, the bogeyman of the nineties, had recently been sent to the Hague to face war crimes charges. The economy, if not in practice at least in theory, was being reformed. And the tens of thousands of young people who had led the velvet revolution that brought about a remarkable political transformation were giddy with excitement. Belgrade, fresh out of the war years, having survived a relatively bloodless coup, was no doubt weary, but also optimistic about its future.
Having taken in the full effect of the city's good mood back in 2001, I was a little thrown by how quickly the political landscape had been reversed upon my return in March of last year. In my three-year absence, Djindjic had been assassinated, apparently by members of a special police unit. The Serbian transition economy was in shambles. Unemployment, especially among the young, was astronomically high. The criminal class had grown exponentially. In a dismal twist of events in the weeks leading up to my visit, the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party won enough seats in parliament to effectively kill the reform movement and any dreams Serbia had of joining the EU. And in a prideful act of defiance, the new government was refusing to turn over to the Hague its most notorious war criminals, which meant that the alphabet soup of Serbia's donors and lenders—the United States, the EU, the IMF, the World Bank—would more than likely be withholding crucially needed foreign aid.
Serbia, in other words, was on the verge of economic ruin and slipping back into international isolation. As if this weren't bad enough, the day before my arrival, Kosovo, the southwesternmost region of Serbia, some 200 miles from Belgrade—the flash point of ethnic conflict that mobilized the 1999 NATO bombing campaign—erupted into mayhem for the first time since the end of the war. The majority Kosovar Albanians, who had been tenuously living side by side with the minority Serbs since armed conflict ceased five years ago, unleashed all their pent-up rage. Over the course of five days, 19 people were killed, numerous international peacekeepers and hundreds of others were wounded, some seriously, and more than 30 Orthodox monasteries and other religious sites were burned to the ground.
Following the first night of violence down south, outraged Belgraders up north gathered at the one remaining Muslim holy site of historic importance in the city—the 17th-century Bajrakli Mosque—and set fire to it. Later that afternoon, as I was settling into my hotel, thousands of demonstrators—a crowd mostly made up of teenage boys who had come of age during the Balkan wars of the nineties—amassed at the cathedral of Sveti Sava, where the nationalist leader, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, was waiting for them. In a brief speech, Kostunica called for calm and unity and then sent the demonstrators on their way.
Over the next several days, the city anxiously watched the violence and the burning of monasteries broadcast for 24 hours, unfiltered, on Serbian TV. Many of the bars, lounges, and splavs went dark. And the teenage boys who had gathered at Sveti Sava on the first day of the onslaught continued daily to rally in the mornings at Republic Square and march off as a pack into the gray Belgrade streets. As I sat at cafés with friends, trying to gain some insight into this threshold Balkan moment, these boys appeared and disappeared like an orderly chorus, angrily chanting slogans, demanding justice, reminding us of the massacre taking place only a few hundred miles away.
I have been regaled with many stories about the NATO bombing of Belgrade, notably about how, when the air-raid sirens sounded, the people refused to move from their café tables—in part as an act of defiance, in part, perhaps, as an expression of nihilism one embraces when being bombed. They sat with their rakija and their coffees and their smoldering ashtrays and watched and listened as ministries were blown into rubble. This incident in Kosovo, however, ultimately didn't elicit acts of defiance or self-destruction. If anything, it appeared to trigger a universal sadness for the lives lost and the cultural treasures destroyed. Kosovo, for historical reasons, holds a strong pull on the Serbian imagination. It is a place charged with mythological resonance. And given that UN peacekeepers control it, and that the Serbs were powerless to stop the onslaught, the conflict played out as a complex metaphor for the state of limbo in which the Serbs find themselves with regard to the outside world and a geographical region they once thought of as their own.