A Beginner's Guide to Visiting the Republic of Serbia
UPDATE 15 MAY 2022
We understand a new drug is being offered for sale in Belgrade nightclubs, called G (or Golden).
What this is is an Ecstasy tablet laced with flunitrazepam, a powerful opioid of the benzodiazepine class.
As the reader of our earlier article on professional poisonings will recall, flunitrazepam is the professional poisoner's preferred toxin, as it causes immobility and amnesia. It is also potentially fatal in the wrong doses.
What the effects of mixing flunitrazepam with MDMA are, we can scarcely imagine; but at least one possibility must be cardiac arrest.
Stay away from persons selling G.
Belgrade, the capital of the Republic of Serbia, has grown substantially recently, and is now heaving with foreigners for most of the year. There are two categories of visitors. One is Russian escapees from their own country amidst the war in Ukraine; the other is international tourists coming to enjoy Belgrade's riotous and heaving nightlife that is increasingly regarded as one of the very best of anywhere in the world. Serbia had a good COVID, and now she is reaping the rewards. Here are some pointers for a safe trip.
Belgrade can be rather lawless. These problems almost never affect foreign visitors unless they are looking for trouble; but a prudent visitor should always bear in mind that there are ugly things going on that the visitor will simply not see.
The airport is currently a massive construction zone of rubble and detritus. Try to arrange for someone to meet you at the airport if you fly in. There is no public transport from the airport at the current time. There are some taxis but they are effectively unregulated. There are no toilet or sitting facilities in the arrivals hall!
Accommodation prices have as much as doubled in some areas, due principally to the influx of Russian escapees. (Serbian immigration law is very laxly applied to any visitor with money, and it is one of the few European countries for which Russians do not need visas and there are ample direct flights with Moscow). The new Russian movers may be here for a few years, depending on how the war in Ukraine develops. This new Russian community keeps its collective head down and does not go looking for trouble.
Serbia is a society with a totally free media (indeed a lot of it is plain nonsense) and total freedom of speech. You can meet anyone you like and talk with them about anything you like. Nevertheless avoid conversations about the war in Ukraine, because you may be challenged over your views by people with very different perspectives from your own.
Arguably Serbia is the only neutral European country left in the conflict in Ukraine, and her government is at pains to preserve that position.
Avoid making light of the NATO 1999 bombing of Serbia, as Serbs virtually to a last person consider they were the victims of a historical injustice. Anti-American sentiment remains to this day over the 1999 bombings. Also avoid discussions of Kosovo unless you are an expert, as Serbs also almost universally feel very strongly about the subject and sometimes want to engage foreigners at length about it.
In the context of the war in Ukraine there have been periodic pro-Russian demonstrations on Saturday afternoons in central Belgrade but they have all passed off peacefully. Just bear in mind that these events cause horrendous traffic congestion.
Although there was a spurt in gang violence a few months ago, following a quiet Police crackdown on drug gang members you are no longer likely to witness any violence. Belgrade has gone back to its overwhelmingly peaceable self.
We have never seen or even heard of an incident of racism against foreigners with ethnic backgrounds visiting Serbia for tourism, business or official purposes. Rumours that Serbs are racist are totally bogus.
Homosexuality is legal and homosexual relationships are tolerated although homosexual displays of affection in public are rare amongst locals. (Indeed all sexual displays of affection in public are rare amongst locals.) Homosexual nightlife venues exist but are not advertised in the usual places. You have nothing to fear if you travel to Serbia in a homosexual couple. Although you might raise eyebrows, nobody will discriminate against you should you engage in homosexual public displays of affection.
Any aggressive drunks you meet in Belgrade's nightlife are likely to be foreigners. Stay away from them. It is not socially acceptable to be publicly drunk in Belgrade, notwithstanding that the city must have the highest concentration of bars outside Manhattan.
The nightlife venues scattering the city are some of them highly unorthodox (e.g. a pair of speakers and a giant fridge in a clearing in a wood) but virtually all of them safe. They cater to every taste and budget.
Drug use in Serbia is endemic amongst every generation and every social and professional class. If you are coming to Serbia to take drugs, please think again about the dark economy you are financing. We cannot support it.
There is no distinction between hard and soft drugs either in the practical application of penology or the public understanding.
At the time of writing the two easiest drugs to source are domestically manufactured powdered amphetamine sulphate and Ecstasy pills manufactured in the Netherlands. Amphetamines are extremely bad for your mental and physical health. Avoid them.
If you must buy drugs, ask Serbian friends virtually any of whom will know the right people. Avoid buying drugs in nightclubs. It is dangerous and stupid.
In Belgrade, after a period of searching foreigners aggressively for drugs, the Police seem to have gone back to their laissez-faire approach: a foreign passport will mostly avoid a drug search. However it is not 100 per cent. Always carry your passport with you, and wear clothes that make you stand out as a foreigner.
Police justice can be rough - for example just beating a group of people up because it is suspected they have drugs on them (without actually checking). This is very unlikely to happen to a foreigner, but such things do happen. Penalties for drug possession, where due process is observed, are typically fines and fees less than 1000EUR in total; plus a deportation order from the country that the Police will usually be considerate enough to ensure coincides with the date of your departure ticket.
On the other hand, penalties for supply of drugs are swingeing: three to five years' imprisonment for a first offence. Do not supply drugs to anyone in Serbia, even as a gift or anything else equally dumb.
The Police can no longer be straightforwardly bribed; do not attempt it. Indeed casual bribery has been eliminated from much of Serbian public life; many of her institutions are remarkably robust and functional.
The Police can be remarkably professional and helpful to a person in dire straits. Do not hesitate to approach them for help. You will be given the best assistance and support they are able to provide. If you have been robbed in a serious way, they will act with extraordinary efficiency to hunt down your assailant there and then. The person may be presented to you for positive identification within a matter of hours. All police officers in Belgrade are trained in English, but speak slowly and clearly. There are far worse Police forces than those in Serbia; but always remain scrupulously polite no matter how upset you are. In Serbia being a police officer is a respected profession and the Police are proud of their high reputation and the effective work they do. They do not like rude people.
Never get in a private vehicle with other persons you suspect to be drunk or on drugs. Call a taxi. Police stops - which are common - tend to take a view of collective responsibility and you can all end up on the same charges.
If you are admitted to public hospital for a drug overdose, hospital staff may inform the Police who may come to arrest you. Use one of Belgrade's private 24/7 Emergency Room services. They will even use a private ambulance.
Serbs are gregarious people. Things stay open unusually late without explanation or lawful authority. Expect large amounts of noise from adjacent hotel rooms at nights. Belgrade is not a city to get away from it all!
The girls may be pretty but do not touch them. Serbia is a socially conservative society in which casual sexual encounters are uncommon and relationships, often suggested by friends and family members, are expected to end in marriage. It would be scandalous for a Serbian girl to have a casual sexual encounter with a foreigner, so do not expect it and do not suggest it unless you want that girl's large male Serbian friends (which will be any large man to hand) explaining to you in less than polite, and potentially in non-verbal, terms what they think of you. Treat people with respect in an unfamiliar environment. Serbia may be one of Europe's least hospitable destinations for sex tourists. Do not come here with such intentions in mind.
The Police will afford you no protection if you are beaten up as a resulting of transgressing this rule. Every single incident of violence against foreigners that we have observed in Serbia has been the result of a foreign man seeking the attentions of an unknown Serbian woman; his being rebuffed politely; his persisting in an unwanted way; and his failure to comprehend that the situation around him is suddenly exponentially spinning out of control. If you do overstep the mark, apologise immediately and just step away, and the problem will be resolved. Contrary to some prejudices, Serbs are relatively slow to resort to violence.
By contrast with Belgrade, the rest of Serbia can be extremely tranquil. We recommend the rest of the country wholeheartedly, even though transport connections are often poor.
Although there are various borders and informal roads between the two, do not attempt to mix a visit to Serbia with a visit to Kosovo unless you are a highly experienced Balkan civil conflict specialist (in which case why are you reading this?). One could write an entire volume on different things that could go wrong if you try to traverse that border without knowing exactly what you are doing, and a second volume on things that have gone wrong to people who thought they did know exactly what they were doing.
The annual EXIT music festival in Novi Sad is an experience but the Novi Sad police are far tougher on drug and other offenders than the Belgrade Police, for reasons unknown. Be particularly careful if you intend to go to the EXIT festival, and avoid any even minor violent incident. Novi Sad's criminal gangs seem to be more violent than those in Belgrade, so take care when partying in Novi Sad.
Remember that Serbia is a poor country, with a GDP per capita of approximately USD7,100, so be generous wherever you find the opportunity. Generous tipping is hugely appreciated because it is rare.
Serbs, in particular Serbian women, have the most curious habit of borrowing one another's clothes and not returning them for long periods of time if ever. If a Serb asks to borrow any item of clothing from you, including a pair of sunglasses, construe it as a request for a gift. Keep your jacket close by if you have removed it in a public space.
The Serbs have a certain stubbornness of personality which is much to their credit. They persevere through good times and bad. And, above anything else, they like to have fun. That is surely why you will have fun here too.
They are also a nation prone to crypticism, complex social habits and paranoia: their national personality an ineffable mixture of Russians, Turks, Greeks and Italians, all rolled into one complex mystery. To understand the Serbs well, and to get the most out of living with them (which can be enormously rewarding), involves a lifetime of study.