To say that the Balkans have been turbulent throughout its history would definitely be an understatement.
If you could visualize a map of Europe as a set of freeways, the Balkans would be on it. After all, it was and always will be the shortest route between Europe and the Middle East via Turkey. As points on the freeway—pit stops if you will—the Balkan cities (particularly Belgrade) have never had a quiet, back road life. As pit stops, they never seem to be considered genuine European centers. All this has meant a tempestuous and contradictory history of the region and most of its cities. This is especially true of the more prominent and larger ones, those representing key spots on the route.
Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, is a prime example of these contradictions. It is a city with an ideal location on the banks of two rivers but with no unified urban structure. To more knowledgeable visitors, Belgrade gives an impression of a city that is stuck between two wheels, one wheel pushing fast forward and the other grinding backward. Its inhabitants seem to remain stuck between those two wheels. Still, in the last decade or so, Belgrade has acquired the title of “the place to go” for entertainment, yet another Balkan contradiction. So what lies beneath Belgrade’s story, and where is this city heading?
The urban structure of Belgrade is the mirror of these contradictions. In its early stages, Belgrade had a slow development, having been one of the backwater cities of the Turkish empire. It got its first taste of true urbanization between the World Wars, but the city was destroyed during the Second World War. First came the German “Operation Retribution” in April 1941, when Yugoslavia pulled out of the alliance with the Axis powers, and then in late 1944, during the liberation of the city by the joint Yugoslav-Russian forces. After the war, the city was rebuilt under a strong political influence, known as the “heavy industrialization” program, promoted by the Socialist authorities. In the 1990s, the city underwent a patchy process of rebuilding. This was particularly evident after the city underwent NATO bombing in 1999. Everybody was building “whatever they wish, wherever they wish.” There seemed to be no evident plan. The facades in most central parts of town haven’t been renovated since the 1950s, and the effects of the air strikes from the late 90s are still evident. Some of its more prominent buildings, like that of the former Ministry of Defense, remained in ruins up until 2016.
Current authorities are not immune to urbanization problems. Some parts of the city disappeared overnight. This happened in a violent manner, without any clear explanation of how and why. Then there are other problems. Belgrade, in recent times, has become one of the key transit cities for migrants from the Middle East. Many of them stay at the bus/railway station complex in the center of the city. From there, they attempt to find transport farther into Europe.
On the other hand, that forward wheel is bringing in positive trends. The city is undergoing a series of giant restructuring projects. These, like the Belgrade Waterfront, give a sense of serious planning and purpose. This is an ambitious project, by the Serbian government and Abu Dhabi investors, that is already taking shape. The complete transport infrastructure is being rebuilt. This includes a renewed railway link to Budapest, financed mainly by China. The Chinese investment has raised a few eyebrows, having to do with possible Chinese political interests in the Balkans. As many analysts indicate, Chinese involvement has mostly to do with the opening of a European leg of the “New Silk Road” that would run from the Greek port of Piraeus, through the Balkans, and farther into Europe. But one thing is sure—Belgrade, as a city, stands to make a huge gain from a renewed infrastructure system. It will connect it further with Europe and other parts of the world.
Tourism in Belgrade
All contradictions aside, Belgrade is, at the moment, considered one of the hottest entertainment destinations in Europe. How did Belgrade fit into this entertainment niche?
It all seemed to open up after the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic from power in October 2000. That change of power was definitely not a peaceful one. It even involved the ransacking of the Parliament building by angry anti-Milosevic protesters. But then, the flow of “entertainment” tourists started. At first, they came from republics of former Yugoslavia. There were two key attractions. First was the row of barges along the two rivers that were converted into cafes and restaurants. The other was the so-called turbo-folk music culture that was synonymous with the barges. In one of its reports on the phenomenon, the BBC qualified turbo-folk as “a high-energy mix of Serbian traditional music, electronic pop and scantily-clad women.”
Due to the war and sanctions, Serbia and Belgrade were, in essence, cut off from the world during the 90s. But the stories of “wild turbo-folk parties on the barges” started seeping out into neighboring countries. As the political tides began to change, people started to flow in, so to have a taste for themselves. The turbo-folk scene even attracted the attention of scholarly analyses. What was more important for the city itself—the number of tourists and, particularly, party-goers—started to soar. According to the official data, by October of 2016, there were more than 1.2 million registered tourists that visited the city. And with all the contradictions and problems, the number of tourists is still on the rise.
Belgrade itself has started to acclimate to the “entertainment center” fame. Not only does it offer a full night club service, but the city is adapting its identity to new possibilities. We talked to Zvonko Karanovic, award-winning poet, novelist and author, who closely follows the changes in the Belgrade urban scene.
“Belgrade, as a city, is adapting to changes. Some of these changes are spontaneous, unconscious. But the local authorities seem to have realized that they have to go along with them,” he said. “For example, the area of Sava Mala hosted cafes and restaurants that were popular with Belgrade inhabitants. When this area was recently flattened, the cafes and restaurants simply moved to a street in the center of town (Cetinjska Street). That seems to be the place of the moment. But this was not a planned action. It was an instant opportunity that arose, and people took it,” Karanovic told us.
“At the moment, the whole barge/turbo-folk phenomenon seems to be on the wane, at least in Belgrade. One reason for that are instances of violence on the barges. But, also, the more serious security measures at these barges are becoming a detracting effect,” he continued.
“The old cultural forms and events that were part of the Belgrade scene are intact. These, among others, include FEST, the international film festival that has been held continuously since 1971; BITEF, the 50-year-old international theatre festival, one of the most renowned in Europe; Belgrade Jazz Festival, now in its 33rd year; and quite a few others. But the new ones appear too. For example, Belgrade is organizing an international poetry event in March of 2017. Its theme will be the connections between poetry and rock music. Still, have in mind that Belgrade has been given the name ‘Europe’s Bangkok,’ with all the connotations that title brings. What is to prevail is yet to be seen,” concluded Karanovic.
With the development Belgrade has had in recent times, no wonder it is hard to tell. One thing’s for sure—the city keeps moving on.