Justin Vela

Travels 2006-2009…Returning to Belgrade…February 2008….

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Hello Justin

I am glad to hear that you are fine and in Helsinki. I just want to warn you that I will not sign off on an Independent Contract that involves travel to Serbia at this time due to the State Department travel warning. Even if it appears to be a political statement, there are liability issues for the College if we allow students to travel to listed countries for academic reasons. If you intend to extend your study abroad through Spring and Summer, please consider countries without travel warnings.



Academic Dean

Because of the riots and attack on the US Embassy after Kosovo declared independence, Serbia has been put on the US State Department travel warning list. I receive a surprise email from a dean warning me not to return. I am crushed. With my academic work so tied to what I am doing professionally, I nearly forgot that I am also earning a degree.

There is no way I will let a dean stop me from returning to Serbia however. I fax my contract saying that I will be in Bosnia and Bulgaria, say goodbye to Finland, and head south.

Crashed in D’s apartment in Prague, I wake to read that Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica has collapsed the Serbian Government until parliamentary elections can be held in May.

“The government of Serbia has no united policy any more on an important issue related to the future of the country- Kosovo as a part of Serbia,” he tells reporters in Belgrade.

This means the entire presidential election amounts to nothing. There is again a crisis and Serbia may move away from someday joining the EU. The new election holds the potential to take power away from Tadic and make it possible for Kostunica and Nikolic to block a move towards the EU.

That Kostunica has chosen this moment, amidst the aftermath of Kosovo’s independence, to assert himself is no coincidence. He is trying to use the anger Serbia is feeling over the loss of Kosovo to gain power for his political party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS).

The lines are being drawn. Tadic announces that Kostunica will not be prime minister if his political party, the Democratic Party (DS) wins the election. Tadic being so blunt is unusual. As I was packing my bag to leave Belgrade for Prishtina last February M came up, wanting to talk about Tadic’s reelection.

“Tadic should get some balls and tell Kostunica to fuck off. Friends are here today, gone tomorrow. At least if you have enemies you know who they are.”

However, with Serbs angry over the loss of Kosovo the likelihood of DS doing well in the election is slim. This must have been what Kostunica was counting on. During the presidential election he had been thinking ahead to this moment. That is why he did not offer support to either Tadic or Nikolic during the final round of the election. He was waiting.

If DSS gains a majority in the parliamentary election, or joins a coalition that gains a majority, then Kostunica’s position as prime minister is secure.

But by Kostunica keeping himself in power by using the anger over the loss of Kosovo, Serbs will remain in isolation, entrenched in bitterness and anger.

How anyone can take advantage of such a situation for their sense of personal power goes against what I want to believe about humans. How can Kostunica push down an entire population just so he can retain power?

The answer is not so simple as corruption. Kostunica has been a firm legalist for his entire career. He was jailed during the Yugoslav era for criticizing Tito and spent years leading the opposition against Milosevic. If anything he has spent the majority of his career as a great patriot.

“He is currently at the top. Its now a contest to hold onto what he has to lose,” D says.

Kostunica is the most powerful politician in the country. He has a lot to lose.

So he is using the sentiment surrounding Kosovo to gain votes for himself, tactics only too similar to those used by Milosevic during his initial ascent to power.

D instructs me to rent an apartment in Belgrade and wait for his arrival in late April. Until then my only goals are to be in Serbia and wait for the election in May. Igor has also mentioned a story we could attempt together. There are increasing clashes between the supporters of two muftis in the Sandzak region. But no one quite knows what is going on…

On Tue, Feb 26, 2008 at 12:29 AM, M.R. wrote:

Are u cold back there…Of course,i don’t think about that embassy burning crap,that produced a lot of unpleasant heat for all of us. I think of beautiful girls that warm
your heart and eyes, and slivovica that heats up your soul…but you already know that. I am just sorry that the victims of this Kosovo thing will again be ordinary people. As i am concerned,let it be,and let’s all of us try to live as better as we can one by another.

Belgrade is moving in rivers of people and cars that simply hadn’t existed during the winter.

Spring’s arrival has swelled the streets. Belgraders are outside, walking while holding shopping bags full of new clothes or sitting at the tables of restaurants and cafes that have been expanded out onto the sidewalks.

A man dressed in a suit gently plays piano at the Hotel Moskva. The music drifts outside and is overwhelmed in the bustle of Knez Mhailova. In the newly opened outdoor cafes people are chatting and sitting comfortably in a way that says they have started the spring gossip and are enjoying the sun after months of the winter that they collectively deplore.

That is what is seen at least.

As I walk up from the train station and through the city I again and again hear the words Kosovo, Tadic, Kostunica, Nikolic sprinkled amongst the cheerful conversations.

The Serbs.

Even as they bury themselves in their gossip and drinking outside in the sun, the political situation forces itself upon them.

Letting myself into Three Black Catz with a key I’d failed to return when I’d left for Kosovo, I wake M who opens one eye and says, “Ho ho, Mr. Justin…you’re back.”

He clamors down from his loft near the door and pours me coffee and a rakija and lights himself a cigarette. The hostel was empty for days after Kosovo declared independence. Weeks later there is only two guests.

“This fucking independence and these fucking stupid riots all over the news, what tourist will want to come here now?”

I walk to the US Embassy. It is a white building a block down from the bombed wreckage of the former Defense Ministry. A squad of Serb police armed with semi-automatic machine guns are guarding the embassy. Some sit in a van, guns in their laps. Others stand directly in front, carefully watching the people that pass.

Most of the embassy’s windows have been boarded up. The wall under one of the windows is singed, as is the right side of the building. A new US flag flies outside. On the wall of a building across the street someone has spray painted: Kosovo Je Serbija.

Kosovo is Serbia.

Walking past city hall, I see that a small Radical Party demonstration has blocked off the street. In a series of short speeches they repeat their new political line. Since their loss in the presidential election they have changed from being anti-EU to stating that while Kosovo is Serbia, Serbia is a Europe country, and therefore deserves to join the EU, but the EU cannot have Serbia unless Kosovo is returned to it.

Though they are trying to appear more open, they are essentially saying that Serbia will never join the EU.

The demonstrators, standing in the middle of the street, hold pictures of Serb police and soldiers that were killed in Kosovo during the war. Journalists, remembering the beatings their colleagues had taken covering the recent riots, maintain a distance.

I meet J, S, and A.

“So you are back,” J says. “Why are you back?”

“Serbia is a great country. I like Serbian society.”

J looks at me as if there is a serious gap in my understanding. “Look at me,” he says. “I am Serbian society.”

“Hey listen,” says A . “The measure I use to test a society is if they bus their own trays at McDonalds. In Moscow they don’t. Here they do.”

“Fucking McDonalds,” J says.

Around a table at S’s apartment we talk and gesture wildly. I tell them about hearing the word Kosovo all over the streets, but they refuse to talk about the independence declaration.

Trying for a reaction, I talk about the feelings of peace I experienced while at the Monastery of Pec.

J sneers, “I know what you are talking about, but those monasteries are places. They are nothing special.”

“They are something special,” I counter.

“Yes, but they are places.”

We talk awhile longer and then J leaves to work on a story. He does not call me for several days.

M and Igor meet me at Republic Square.

“So you are back,” M says.

“Why?” Igor says.

They laugh.

Igor is buying camera equipment and trying to sell his motorcycle in preparation for moving to Botswana. M wants to talk about the saunas and snow in Finland. Smiling, he says that life in Serbia is as it always is.

S meets us for dinner.

They talk about covering the demonstrations after Kosovo’s independence, but don’t have much to say about the government collapsing.

“It’s what you can expect,” M says.

The three roll their eyes and laugh at what somewhere in their growing up they decided was the stupidity of political reasoning and getting too upset about it.

The upcoming election will be big, as was the last election, but they are not holding their breathe about what might or might not happen.

Igor and S want to leave Serbia. M is focused on the positive, something he seems to see a lot of, but is not so obvious to everyone else.

Read previous chapter.

Learn more about this book.


Written by Justin Vela

February 17, 2011 at 11:15 am

Posted in Travels 2006-2009

Tagged with , , ,

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