Hostile environments, Part #12: the Republic of Serbia
Like a number of the essays in this series, its title is to a degree unfair because the danger and hostility in Serbia is actually confined to central Belgrade. Outside North Kosovo (a region between Serbia and Kosovo to the south of Serbia whose status is highly contested and that is used as a warehouse for the transit of cocaine and heroin; it is extremely dangerous) Serbia is not as a rule a dangerous country. It is predominantly rural, conservative and harmless if with atrocious transport connections.
However Belgrade is something else altogether, and it has recently been experiencing a downward spiral of violence, scams and generalised anarchy that now renders it arguably the most dangerous city in Europe outside Ukraine. The city feels like the Harrison Ford movie Bladerunner. As the owner of a Venezuelan restaurant in central Belgrade explained to this author, Belgrade has become so violent and chaotic that it now has the air of Caracas, Venezuela's capital city and the most dangerous city in the world. Danger in Belgrade lies round every corner; rip-offs, supported by threatened violence, are everywhere; and the greater majority of the city's residents are preoccupied principally with travelling between their places of work and residence without incurring the risk of violence.
Any city colourably compared with Caracas in terms of danger levels is undoubtedly very dangerous indeed.
Here are some sample incidents of which this author has had experience in just the last few months:
Drug addicted security guards routinely attack customers in hospitality venues over trifles, leaving prone and unconscious bodies on the floor and sprays of blood. The Police do not arrive.
Taxi drivers lock customers in their cars to demand extortion fares. The Police do not intervene, even when adjacent to the incident and observing everything.
Police officers, high on drugs, raid hospitality venues looking for drugs not sold by their cartel; and force everyone to lie on the floor with their hands behind their heads whereupon they kick them and beat them with sticks.
Police officers close hospitality venues that are not paying them a kickback on their drug sales takings.
Routine administrative procedures are intentionally slowed or stopped (e.g. residence permit acquisition) without payment of a bribe.
Postmen and customs officers routinely steal mail of apparent value including the vast majority of international deliveries that simply never arrive.
Taxi drivers flip a bank note they are given in payment of a fare for a lower value banknote and then demand payment of the fare again. The doors of the taxi are locked until you pay.
Airport taxi drivers charge foreigners up to EUR100 for a ride into the city when the correct fair is circa EUR15.
Restaurant staff add onto bills items that you have not ordered; or charge them at a higher price than that advertised on the menu.
Customers in hospitality venues are invited to pay by credit card but they have their credit card details copied as part of the payment process and thereupon fictitious charges are applied to the credit card.
Security staff at hospitality venues extort bribes from foreigners in exchange for entrance.
Police officers arrest foreigners for non-existent drug crimes (i.e. they plant drugs on people) and then they extort money to destroy the legal papers, marching foreigners to cash machines to pay arbitrary fines.
Drug dealers with disputes with Police officers running competing drug rings enter nightclubs and fire multiple bullets at off-duty police officers 'off the hip' from a semi-automatic handgun. (This author was adjacent to the assailant in such an attack and saw a man gunned down with blood spattered all over the place).
Lawful demonstrators are routinely attacked by the Police using blunt trauma weapons in the middle of the day on some of Belgrade's main thoroughfares.
Groups of white skinheads holding pro-Russia motifs arbitrarily attack refugees with darker skin.
In hospitality venues, persons unknown routinely steal one's drink; take swigs from it; spit in it or place cigarette butts in it; or bar staff simply take it away without your finishing it. Men also routinely sexually assault women in nightlife venues People's behaviour is generally revolting.
It is common that a Serbian woman will come to talk to you in a hospitality venue as a foreigner; and then Serbian men, so incensed that you are talking to a Serbian women, will come and interfere with you, threatening you with violence or even using violence against you to prevent the interaction from continuing, even if they have no relationship with the woman in question and even if she wishes to continue talking with you. Serbian men, as a general rule, are unrelenting unpleasant sexists.
Serbian workers have such a poor reputation for laziness or a bad work ethic and for stealing from their employers that international construction companies are now importing workers from the Indian subcontinent at higher net wages in order to avoid hiring Serbian people.
Serbian men have such an atrocious reputation for domestic and other violence against women that the city's prostitutes now frequently feature in their online profiles statements such as 'no Serbian men'.
Police arbitrarily stop persons in the street, including people who have identified themselves as foreigners, and aggressively search their pockets and accessory items for drugs notwithstanding protests as to lack of grounds; absence of a warrant; or requests for legal counsel. No papers or documents are provided; the police provide no evidence of their identity; persons being searched are treated roughly; this has been known to happen in broad daylight. Upon a negative search, the person searched may be given a clout around the head and sent on their way.
Irrespective of how close your friendship may in your view be, Serbs will never assist you without taking a hidden commission. This habit is infuriating because it entails that you are stolen from every day, whether it comes to a restaurant or bar bill; a taxi fare; or any other transaction of substance. The net result is that you must never extend anyone credit, even in the slightest amount; or your debtor and your Serb friend intermediary will cut your deposit between them and you will end up with nothing for your money. All transactions must be point transactions (goods against money). If you get sold something worthless, the Serbian view is that you are a stupid foreigner and you deserved to get ripped off to their benefit. Remember this when contemplating doing business in Serbia (which at the current time is frankly not recommended at all).
Belgrade remains extremely and seemingly increasingly violent and generally dangerous. If you travel to the city, be aware that it is a risky proposition for both you personally and for your finances. Plan your every movement around the city to avoid violence, danger or risk.
The reasons for this deterioration in civil society are complex. In large part it is a sudden reduction in living standards as a result of COVID and war in Ukraine. Serbs imagine they are immune from these external influences but of course they are not. Another reason is the inherent fragility of institutions in consequence of the country being left outside the European Union. But a lot of it is a loss of internal social capital: Serbia used to be a country of people who trusted one another and were open to foreigners; and through lackadaisical insularity that seems to have faded away. Let us hope that the Serbs find their former collective strong personal qualities once more, rather than being satisfied living in a society beset by petty prejudices, blatant rip-offs and casual violence.