Coronavirus Travel Diary: Belgrade, Republic of Serbia
Serbia's ramshackle, yet charming, capital city is a uniquely unusual place to spend the 2021 lockdown. Its anarchically friendly citizens and atypical political system render it full of surprises. Serbia may be turn out to be one of the relative European winners from the global pandemic.
Never try to stop a Serb from talking. Serbs must be some of the most sociable and talkative people anywhere in Europe, if not the world, far outstripping even the Italians in their propensity to stop for a gabble, kiss and embrace one-another, and gather in cafes to talk the day away. These people will talk the hind legs off a donkey, morning, noon and night. This means that when staying in Serbia you will never be short of opinions, whether you want them or not. The very concept of lockdown - keeping people away from one-another - is so virtually antithetical to Serb existential principles that it was always going to be a struggle to enforce it. The Serbs would just talk it away. And, indeed, that is very much what has happened in Belgrade. Strict lockdowns of the kind found across Europe have proven very difficult to enforce.
One of the opinions the people of Belgrade delight in expressing is that they live in a dictatorship. This is obviously untrue, or they would not be free to express such an opinion. Nevertheless, perhaps in part due to their communist heritage, they rejoice in expressing negative views about their government, typically involving complex and unmemorable conspiracies about their various politicians. As with most rumours, this is all rather unfair. True, the government has struggled with enforcing lockdown, lurching from one extreme (everyone under curfew and locked indoors for extended weekends, something that caused raucous street demonstrations) to the other (nightclubs opening at 6.00am and working all day, under the pretence that they are really outdoor cafés). But on the whole, the people have been cognisant of the risks and a relatively moderate approach to lockdown, slightly stricter than the Swedish approach and nowhere near as lax as the Belarussian approach, is something the Serbs have learned to live with.
It has helped enormously, no doubt, that the government has executed one of the most effective mass vaccination programmes in Europe. She has husbanded her resources effectively, and avoided the clutches of EU bureaucracy that have proven so far rather ineffective in providing vaccinations to EU citizens. Serbia is an (in theory advanced) EU accession state candidate; but her politicians, probably wisely, take the view that the EU accession remains some way off because EU priorities lie elsewhere. Hence she has forged her own vaccination programme from whole cloth, buying up large quantities of virtually every vaccine available at any price it was necessary to pay. She then adopted an approach of vaccinating anyone who wanted a vaccine, in no particular order - hence eliminating bureaucratic costs and delays en masse. Huge tents were set up within conference facilities in Belgrade, offering five-minute vaccination procedures. All you needed to do was to complete a short online form, including providing a choice of which vaccine you wanted, and you would receive an email telling you to which tent to come at what time and on what day. After a while, even the requirement for an appointment evaporated. You did not even need to show a connection with the country; you just needed to be physically present here. Refugees and the needy from neighbouring countries were amongst those flocking for vaccines. Serbia has surged forward with her vaccination procedures far faster than have most countries in South Eastern Europe. Her government hopes that this will compensate for the relatively lax enforcement of formal lockdown rules, which at the time of writing are gradually being untied.
Serbia is a middle-income country (2019 GDP per capita US$7,412) that relies in substantial part for her economic growth upon investments emanating from China and the Gulf. The upscale redevelopment of large tracts of downtown Belgrade, and work on a new high-speed international rail service whose hub will be a new railway station outside the old part of town, are illustrations of the investments made so far. The decrepit system of historical trams and trolleybuses is gradually being replaced with modern equivalents. Much overdue work on the roads and broader infrastructure is being undertaken. There is even talk of dusting off a decades-old plan for a Belgrade metro; Belgrade may be the largest capital city in Europe without an underground railway system, and certain the city most in need of one. Belgrade is being transformed, slowly but surely, into a different sort of city from that it used to be. Serbia knows that her principal source of foreign income has been and will be from tourism of various kinds. Belgrade has for two decades been the nightlife capital of Eastern Europe, and that is unlikely to change because the tourists who have always funded the nightlife are likely to remain hungry for what Serbia offers. To the extent that Spain's Covid travel rules inhibit European nightlife tourism in the summer of 2021, Serbia hopes to harvest those tourists into its own complex nightlife system, temporarily dormant.
Hence Belgrade maintains a persistent optimistic vibe of construction and activity, notwithstanding the myriad and oft-changing lockdown provisions that have been in force over the past few months. In this regard Belgrade must be one of the more unusual contemporary capital cities. In 2021 there have rarely been occasions when the streets are empty of traffic and activity: only a couple of long weekends in which lockdown was enforced vigorously across the board. The city is being rebuilt. Because in their gossiping Serbs love to be pessimistic, people will tell you of the money being wasted while hospital admissions are high. It is true that the system of public healthcare in Serbia, having been cash-strapped for years, is not as efficient as it might be. Nevertheless the quality of education remains high in Belgrade, and the trained medical staff are dealing with hospital admissions due to Covid-19 fairly sensibly. Other types of healthcare have become less reliable as medical resources are diverted to Covid-19; but that is typical of many countries across Europe, including ones far wealthier than Serbia. Moreover Serbia remains macro-economically stable. The government has succesfully pegged the Serbian Dinar to the Euro for several years. The government debt to GDP ratio is an impressive 52%. Serbia has found innovative methods of obtaining off-balance sheet financing of her infrastructure projects.
The gamble being undertaken is clearly that rapid and effective vaccine administration will pay dividends in reducing hospital admissions and hence taking pressure off the public sector, permitting the nightlife and hospitality trade to go into full swing this forthcoming summer. There has been a political battle between various factions representing the bloated Serbian public sector, and the hospitality and nightlife sector, as to for how long to keep the lockdown provisions in force, but it appears that the latter is now gaining ground at the expense of the former and Belgrade may enjoy a beautiful summer.
One thing Serbia has not done in response to the Coronavirus, in contrast with the vast majority of her fellow European states, is to close or restrict her borders in any significant ways. In recent years Serbia has adopted one of the most liberal visa and immigration systems in the world. Visas are not needed for the majority of passport holders: a measure designed to encourage tourism and foreign investment, and to cut historically excessive red tape. A greater majority of foreigners are free to come and go as they please from the country. Serbia has an informal "wash through" policy with refugees: as a general rule Serbia closes her borders to refugees; but many enter nonetheless, on their way to somewhere else. Although there are some reports of street confrontations and violence between migrant refugees and Serbs, on the whole refugees are tolerated provided they do not cause problems in the country. As a middle-income country, Serbia has scant resources to undertake a role of care and integration for refugees, and the refugees know this. Hence they move onto the EU and to comparatively generous states such as Germany and Sweden. Few have reason to stay in Serbia.
For this reason, the vast majority of foreigners making their way to Serbia are very welcome, because they are spending their tourism or investment dollars; and they are treated as such. The sort of infrastructure short-term visitors rely upon is very crisply organised. Over the last few years, steel pylons with coloured maps have sprung up over the city to help foreigners find their way around. Even the taxi drivers who operate where foreigners are to be found, such as the airport, have been told to learn some English and not to rip anybody off. If only somebody might print a comprehensive bus map for the city, things might be truly perfect.
So Belgrade is a city waiting impatiently to open its doors, as the Coronavirus pandemic winds down. It must count one of the cheaper capital cities in Europe, and hence it is a Mecca for budget tourists seeking to explore an unusual, friendly and safe place. (While there is crime in Belgrade, none of it involves foreigners.) The women are beautiful, the men are friendly, the beer is cold, the food is delicious (Serbia is a predominantly agricultural country with impeccable weather for the purpose) and the dance floor groove is undeniably up-to-date. Certainly Serbia will be compelled to repay her off balance sheet loans that she has taken from the East. There is no such thing as successful investment without ample returns. Nevertheless her gamble is that by staying open to visitors and relentlessly promoting her own self-improvement, Serbia can balance the books and develop towards the standards of a wealthy and modern European nation.
There is admittedly still a long way to go. While the media and elections are free, the courts are politicised. While the Police are far more professional than they used to be, there is an undercurrent of mild corruption in a number of government institutions. There seems no doubt that the Serbian government has advanced in leaps and bounds in recent years. Even if it is often criticised by Belgrade's youth as autocratic, Serbia's government has efficiently pushed the periodically stubborn Serbian population in the right direction. Belgrade was once the capital of a small federation, that we remember as Yugoslavia. Serbia's increasingly youthful population have little knowledge of the wars and conflicts that stained the region a few decades ago. Western diplomats may have longer memories than young Serbs, but issues such as the status of Kosovo and conflicts in Bosnia are of little interest to the citizens of Belgrade. Rather their concerns are principally to earn an honest living and to enjoy themselves. The residents of Belgrade have retained their cosmopolitanism even as the federation of which Serbia was just one piece sometime ago fell apart.
The Serbs' principal political complaint is that they are not receiving sufficient investment from Europe, and hence they are needing to turn eastwards more than they might wish to. This is an old game played by Yugoslavia throughout the twentieth century, as a state that retained positive relations with both east and west throughout the Cold War. Nevertheless the proof is in the pudding; and if Serbia's gamble works out, in pushing through a comprehensive and expensive mass vaccination programme; unlocking social restrictions relatively quickly; and inviting massive Gulf and Chinese investment into Belgrade and beyond, then the European Union will no doubt become impressed with this small but fundamentally optimistic country's achievements. Of the Western Balkan countries still not members of the European Union, Serbia is by far the most developed in institutional, macroeconomic and political terms. Let us wish them well.