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28 Jul 17

Belgrade’s Nouveau-Riche and Nativism

Srdjan Garcevic

There are two types of snobs to know (and avoid) in Belgrade.

Some people have entered the political vocabulary in Serbia as being part of the “circle of the two” – a reference to the circular route of tram two which circumscribes the city’s old core. Photo: Pixabay

“Local Belgradism, here we are all snobs,” drawls Serbian rapping sensation Sajsi MC. Born Ivana Rasic in Vracar, Belgrade’s original “posh” neighbourhood, Sajsi often plays with themes of snobbery and class, and has even developed an alter-ego called Tiffany, a nouveau-riche teen obsessed with expensive tacky clothes, unnecessarily dropping English words into her affected Serbian.

If you stroll down Vracar’s unofficial main drag, Njegoseva, on a Saturday, you will see all the expected sights of a well-off neighbourhood: nice cafes, well-groomed mini pets, colourful loafers and botoxed faces. Njegoseva and the streets around the Church of Saint Sava are stomping grounds for Tiffanys and their ilk. Vracar has housed Serbia’s urban elite since its development in the late 19th century by a Scottish missionary. Its large inter-war flats as well as (architecturally underwhelming) new developments have been a magnet for those doing well in post-transition Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro.

Our growing culture of flaunting wealth means that most Belgrade snobs are happy to spend several average annual salaries on clothes, and then a little more on incessant coffee drinking (more precisely: espresso lungo with milk).

Even if it is obvious enough that having a Louis Vuitton bag in a country with average monthly salary is  400 euros is enough to be automatically classed as rich, these snobs will helpfully offer to list prices of any activity they have paid for in the past few months: trips to Thailand, a fur coat from Italy or their latest car.

“Tiffanys” in Belgrade, will invariably direct conversations towards your salary in order to ascertain your position in the pecking order.

Although these nouveau-riche practices can be common globally, they took root in Serbia during the 1990s. As a socialist country, Serbia was egalitarian and flaunting one’s wealth was deeply unpopular, especially after WWII, when it could get you branded as traitor of working class ideals.

This changed drastically during the Slobodan Milosevic era. Although he was nominally socialist, during his reign the media celebrated the ostentatiousness of businessmen and starlets, as a counterpoint to the dramatic impoverishment of the country.

The lifestyle, most famously promoted by Karic family of entrepreneurs who gained prominence in the ‘90s, involved building gilded Versailles-like palaces, wearing garish clothes and incessant public chatter about wealth.

Turbo-folk starlets quickly espoused “le goût Karic”. Celebrity Jelena Karleusa, who is the most famous proponent of this style, even married a Karic heir, albeit briefly.

However, snobbery in Belgrade is not limited to the nouveau-riche. The other type is much closer to Sajsi’s media persona: Belgrade nativism. If the nouveau-riche dominate the snob-scape of Vracar, Dedinje and Senjak, it is Dorcol and Stari Grad where nativists rule the roost.

Unlike the nouveau-riche, the nativists are not concerned by wealth, but something even more arbitrary: heritage. In their eyes each ancestor born in Belgrade raises one’s value considerably. Although Serbia never properly had aristocracy, for these people it is a matter of intense interest what your great-uncle did and how wealthy your family was a century ago.

As a rule of thumb, the less accomplished they are individually, the more likely you will hear stories about great family wealth, invariably taken by communists or lost in the war.

Given the number of people claiming immense lost wealth in Belgrade, one would believe that pre-war Belgrade was a metropolis on par with New York, Paris and London in 1941, rather than a semi-industrialised city of about quarter of a million souls and quite a few slums.

These nativist illusions sadly spill over into daily and political life. For example, a personal acquaintance from Dorcol blamed the influx of out-of-towners, rather than their own application, for not getting into their preferred law school.

It has been fashionable to blame out-of-towners for not understanding political enlightenment since Milosevic’s time, at least in some circles. These people have entered the political vocabulary in Serbia as being part of the “circle of the two” – a reference to the circular route of tram two which circumscribes the city’s old core.

Nevertheless, this insularity and unexamined privilege is still not properly addressed even by the established liberal elite in Belgrade.

Many of them still celebrate victories in central Belgrade, as if winning an election with a liberal platform in Stari Grad or Vracar was not only a slightly more difficult feat than dynamite-fishing in a barrel.  

While there is overlap between the nouveau-riche and nativist snobs in Belgrade, they are by no means mutually exclusive, there is usually an antipathy between the two tribes, related to the matters of taste and politics.

While the nouveau-riche tend to like the popular culture of starlets and turbo folk, the nativists usually aspire to higher culture. Aesthetically, the nativists shun the kitschy bling, and prefer bare walls of cafes where they can overconfidently drawl about merits and demerits of various single origin coffees and craft beers.

Politically, nouveau-riche are opportunist, while the nativists tend to be strongly ideological and are either Christian democrats, socialists or neoliberal.

A shared trait of both groups is that they seek approval from foreigners and look up to them for style guidance. If as an expat or a tourist, you are interested in further dissecting snobbery in Belgrade you will most likely be welcomed into their company.  If you are not, then there are at least a million of others in Belgrade who will never bother to examine the brand of your watch or ask you about your family tree.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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