For as much as I love Sarajevo, it lacks a certain kind of excitement that can be found in some larger cities– Belgrade, on the other hand, practically buzzes with energy. Crowded trolley lines packed shoulder to shoulder on rainy days; crowds rushing back and forth downtown as street bands jam on guitars and violins. Lovers making out on park benches. Bars packed at night, cafes packed by day.
Always, a crazy, gritty, sometimes dangerous but always hip and young vibe that is unique to Serbs and to their city. I have missed this place.
This city reminds me of the title of an old Hemingway short story: The Capital of the World. Hemingway was at the time writing of Spain’s Madrid, but Belgrade in many ways has that very same feel, at least as far as the Balkans are concerned. For as beautiful as Zagreb is, as significant as Bosnia is, not Zagreb nor Sarajevo, Podgorica nor Skopje, nor ever Bulgaria’s Sophia or Romania’ Bucharest carry the same kind of importance to this part of the world as Belgrade. This was the capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the seat of communist Yugoslavia. This was the heart of the old Serbian Kingdom that was once the last nation standing between Vienna and the Ottoman Empire. Even in 2016, it remains in many ways the Capital of the Balkans, the Capital of Southeastern Europe.
To many Slavs of the former Yugoslavia– many who still think of themselves as Yugoslavs– that makes it the Capital of the World.
I came here on another overnight bus trip (which are becoming my go-to way to travel through the Balkans) in order to continue the second half my journalism co-op, but also to seize the opportunity live for a few months in the White City. I find Sarajevo to be the most beautiful city in all the Balkans, and to be sure Belgrade’s post-communist grittiness can’t hold a candle to the Austrian architecture of Croatia or the Turkish minarets and bridges of Bosnia. But something about Belgrade– something about the energy of its nights, something about the Serbian people themselves– has made me fall in love with it.
Two rivers cross here, the Sava, which flows from Slovenia through Croatia and Bosnia and forms the northern border of the Balkans, and the Danube, which snakes its way from from Germany through Vienna and Budapest before turning from Belgrade into Romania. The Sava, like the Drina on the Bosnia-Serbia border, has always been a chiefly Balkan river, but the Danube serves as perhaps the greatest reminder to Serbia of its connection to the Central Europe, today entirely part of the European Union.
It’s all just symbolism of course, but like Croatia, Serbia has recently been divided between being part of “Western” Central Europe and standing on its own between West and East as the capital of the Balkans. Yugoslavia was in its own time that very European “Third Way”, but much has changed in the past few decades, and today Serbia finds itself at a crossroads: to join the nations of the European Union, many of which were part of the NATO campaign against Serbia in the 90s, or risk a tentative partnership with the newly nationalistic, unpredictable and growing Russian bear.
I still don’t know which way the wind will blow in answer to that choice– but even over just the past year, Serbia’s willingness to join with the European Union has diminished significantly. Nationalism is rising like ever before, spurred by examples in Hungary, Poland and Austria. Tensions with Croatia are only building, further eroding Serbia’s appetite for being its partner in the Union, and meanwhile corruption, organized crime, and far-right extremism continue undeterred.
Even as I love this country, city, and people, I do worry for what the future might bring for it– although I know that not I, nor anyone else in the West, can be the one to decide this country’s fate. The people of Serbia must choose for themselves where their nation’s path lies, even if its a direction that goes against the European Union and the United States.
But whether they decide to join the rest of Europe or forgo the idea the Union represents altogether, Serbians still have much work left to do for their country’s future: to curb government corruption, to eliminate the influence of organized crime groups, to prevent unchecked nationalism from spiraling out of control, to promote greater tolerance and acceptance of ethnic, sexual and religious minorities.
Luckily, there are many Serbians– journalists, activists, even a few politicians– willing to put forward the effort to make their country into something better, even if they may be labeled in less-than-favorable terms by those who benefit from today’s status quo. I’m proud to be a part of that while I’m here, in whatever small way that I can.
October now. The wind has turned cold, the leaves brown, and people on the streets have already begun to bundle up in thick winter jackets. Fall always passes fast, and winter will be here soon. It’s been a long time since I had any kind of real time in the States, and I find myself looking forward to this coming December as the months continue to roll by.
Photo Credits: Sydne Mass @Syd_Mass