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15 Jul 15

Life in Serbia

Slobodan Georgiev

Despite the kind words that international financial institutions are addressing to the Serbian government, the people fail to see much result - on the contrary.

Just the other day I saw a television report on the natural history centre in Svilajnac, a small town east of Belgrade. A new scientific institution has been opened and, next to it, a kind of a “Jurassic Park”, that is, a park filled with dinosaur replicas.

I thought that this was a great reason for me to visit this town, famous for its former mayor who bragged about how he bit off his toe that was hurting and who made graffiti artists scrape the paint off the walls with their bare hands.

Now they have this park and those dinosaurs, a facility that looks like a modern museum; it seemed reason enough for me to spend a day, or a weekend, there with my kids.

However, before I go to Svilajnac, here are a few impressions from a mini-tour of Serbia that I took in June 2015.

Over a period of two weeks I visited ten different towns in various parts of Serbia, towns and municipalities that could be described as places with potential for development and for becoming good places to live in.

These are towns that have attracted some investors, that have at least one important company operating on their territory and which are trying to interest people in joining various projects that could help these towns become better and more attractive not only to those who are born there but to new people from elsewhere.

So, these are ten locations in which anyone might think that there is hope that Serbia will not depopulate over the next 50 or so years and reduce itself to the capital and the city of Novi Sad.

So, what was I able to see there?

I saw that local governments are more open to outsiders than to their own people, even when those outsiders come from organizations branded as “traitors, mercenaries” and so on.

The heart of even the hardest-line former Serbian Radical Party member trembles when you tell him that you represent a concept that supports the EU.

The political change that occurred in Serbia in 2012, confirmed in the 2014 elections, shows that the governing Progressives are the most European option ever in Serbia.

They might be overdoing this Europeanism of theirs, however, just as they overdid other things, when they were the Radicals, as this understanding of “Europe” is superficial and goes only so far as to mean that we need to get our house in order “to use the money from the [EU] funds”.
Ordinary people understand the relationship between Serbia and EU in terms of “gimme the money”.

The people will take an active part in something if they see that it brings them direct benefit, in other words, money or employment.

At this point, it is practically impossible to find people in Serbia who would be willing to do something for themselves and their society in cooperation with the local community; any plea for activism that implies joint work towards achieving a common goal has to pass an evaluation test that shows just how much each person will “make”.  

On the other hand, most local leaders are trying to be “big”. They promise big things, big infrastructure projects, bringing in big foreign investors, employing a big number of people…

In all this ecstasy, they fail to see that these towns and places are neglected and dilapidated and that the people now living there can’t even paint over, let alone restore things that were built 200 years ago.

However, big promises go hand in hand with big expectations of people who believe it is possible that their lives may change overnight, just like in a Turkish television series, so you wake up and you are this new person with a brighter future: like those who were once great Serbian nationalists and then became European nationalists overnight…

The government is also making promises to the people and to most of them these promises feel good because that is the one thing they have left, the belief that a miracle will happen.

The relationship between the local governments and the people works best at this level.

But, when the local authorities start “fixing” things up around town, polishing them up, doing stuff that make the place look prettier and recall the former glory of a street, town square or building - if they make a “Dino Park” - this doesn’t go down well with most people because it is a sign that the works were rigged, that they are stealing on such jobs. What do I need a pretty town for, if I don’t have a job!?

This is the logic of the majority and it is extremely difficult to change such a mentality among people living in or on the verge of poverty, with an average monthly salary of €330 and an unemployment rate of over 20 per cent.

Plus an economy that isn’t working. And with a bad public administration. And with no direct foreign investments. And with hundreds of thousands of immigrants at the borders.

Man! It can’t be like this everywhere in Serbia, can it?

Talk about it!

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