In the Yugoslav capital, hope is crushed by Balkan politics 'Thugocracy,' despair rule weary Belgrade

August 09, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- In the often flashy and violent Belgrade underworld, where gold chains shimmer, guns blaze and gangsters are revered by aimless young men, Darko Asanin was a hoodlum who stood out.

Unlike many of Belgrade's "wise guys," Asanin disliked publicity, shedding his alleged drug-dealing past by acquiring a string of seemingly legitimate businesses. He ran a mirror factory, a casino that catered to the political elite and a cafe called the Coliseum.

But this summer, Asanin's picture hit the front pages for the wrong reason. He was gunned down in his cafe June 30 while watching a World Cup soccer match on television. The gunman got away, to nobody's surprise.

Asanin was another fatality in Belgrade's long-running gang battles, another symbol of Belgrade's rotten core.

The city, physically untouched by wars that destroyed the former Yugoslavia, earned its scars from years of international isolation and the rise of what some have called a "thug-ocracy." While gangsters fight for turfon the streets, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic rules the country firmly, outfoxing opponents and fanning the embers of Serbian nationalism.

Caught in a vise between the gangsters and the politicians is a population grown weary and apathetic after lost battles, economic sanctions and shattered political dreams. War may be flaring in the province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs by 9 to 1, but few in Belgrade seem to care.

"Every year is worse and worse," says Vesna Pesic, leader of the Civil Alliance, an opposition political party. "This will be the worst point of our history. We are more and more crazy."

This is a journey through Belgrade, population 1.5 million, where the Danube meets the Sava River, and where hope is crushed by Balkan politics.

Serbia's lost generation

Warrior and student, protester and fledgling historian, Vladimir Dobrosavljevic is part of Belgrade's lost generation.

He yearns for change yet sees his city stagnant. He wants to earn an honest wage, yet he watches as Belgrade's gangster elite tool around town in Range Rovers and Mercedes-Benzes, shop for Versace suits and dance the night away in opulent discos where patrons are asked to check their weapons at the door.

"We are the Generation X of Serbia," says Dobrosavljevic, 27, sitting in the stifling heat of a cafe at the University of Belgrade. "We're not like Americans. We can't just live with the music of REM and Nirvana, and watch the movie 'Reality Bites.' "

For a few months in the winter of 1996-1997, there was hope in the streets. Thousands of students and workers, homemakers and teachers, marched every night against Milosevic's regime. They were trying to force the authorities to accept election results that gave an opposition coalition named Together control of Belgrade and other local towns.

Dobrosavljevic, who fought in the Yugoslav army in 1991 at the beginning of the Balkan civil war, was among 13 student leaders who shepherded the protest.

"It was such a great feeling," he says. "It was the best period of my life. I really felt great. I felt strong. We really believed we could win."

Milosevic's government backed down -- and Together was given the local victory. But within months, the coalition collapsed as the politicians squabbled and fought over the electoral spoils.

"It all went to the wind," Dobrosavljevic says. "In one moment, we thought we had won. But now, I don't think so."

Dobrosavljevic is back in school, studying modern Yugoslavian history, joining an opposition political party, hoping that the country can break with the past. More than 200,000 others, mostly young and educated, have left the country. Dobrosavljevic stays.

"If every one of us left, who would turn on the lights?" he asks.

'So many crocodiles'

Marko Nicovic was once Belgrade's top police officer, the head of the city's criminal unit until he quit in 1992. Now, he's an attorney and legal gadfly, with a bellyful of anger and an office wall crammed with international citations.

"Just think how it is to survive in this jungle," Nicovic says. "It's a small lake and there are so many crocodiles. And every day is worse. The economy is smaller and smaller. And there are a lot of angry young men out there."

Nicovic says it was the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s that transformed the city and gave the gangsters a foothold.

He says the criminals -- in cahoots with the politicians -- got rich on war profiteering when the country was hit with U.N. economic sanctions.

The gangsters did the dirty work for the regime. They ran guns, cigarettes, stolen cars and gasoline. Nicovic says some even set up paramilitary units that fought in the wars.

Nicovic says the gangsters continue to take their cut of the economy, from "protection" of shops and cafes, to drug-trafficking to ownership of casinos. He claims they even take a percentage of the import trade.

"They've destroyed the economy for the next generation," he says.

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