Open letter to the President of the Republic of Serbia on the occasion of his re-election
Dear Mr President,
I would like to congratulate you upon your recent reelection as President of Serbia on 31 May 2022 for a further five-year term. I am a supporter of yours and I participated in a party to celebrate your reelection. Serbia is a healthy democracy with total freedom of speech. These are considerable achievements and they took place during your tenure. So you deserved to be re-elected. I am one of Serbia's greatest western supporters, and all the Serbian people have a friend in me.
Nevertheless, and pursuant to that freedom of speech that you have cultivated, a good friend must offer constructive criticisms for a renewed term, of issues that urgently need attention in your country if it is not to have its reputation diminished across the world. You will observe the political courtesy and diplomatic sensitivity I have shown in not raising these issues until after you have been reappointed.
I will try to divide the issues up into distinct categories.
The experience of foreigners generally travelling to Serbia
Your continued liberal visa and immigration policy towards those who come to Serbia to spend money continues to be appreciated.
You must fix the airport! At the current time the arrivals hall is a disgraceful heap of concrete rubble and detritus, with no toilets or seats. The taxis are all unregulated. A foreigner arriving at Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade has a truly horrendous experience in trying to get out of it.
There is an abominable shortage of taxis generally. This is due to COVID. Because many taxi drivers are not from Belgrade, during the COVID pandemic, when demand was down and taxi drivers did not receive financial support, many or even most of them sold their vehicles and returned to their towns of origin. The net result now is that it is very difficult to get a taxi at any time. The traditional taxi ranks stand empty for 16 out of 24 hours. The taxi companies all have (identical) Apps but they are all identically useless. No taxi comes. The only way to get a taxi is to enter a five star hotel or well known bar or restaurant and ask them to call one for you. The taxi companies will prioritise orders from certain high-end businesses. Obviously this is no good. Belgrade needs at least double the number of taxis it currently has. Consider subsidising taxi drivers to return.
Casual rip-off and theft against foreigners is endemic. If you accidentally drop anything on the floor, it will be stolen. If you (as a foreigner) leave your coat or another object it may not be there when you go back Staff will try not to give you your change. Manufactured entrance fees and double pricing are created to rip off foreigners.
The net result is that visitors to Serbia have an unfortunately common view of Serbs as dishonest people. (We will explore this further in our discussion of foreign investments, below.) That perception must be corrected if Serbia is to thrive. You must provide moral leadership and use the criminal law to enforce honest dealings.
Consider having a tourist Police who specifically deal with foreigners and their problems and complaints. Make them easy for foreigners to use. So they should speak English. One might hand out a leaflet at the airport describing their services and giving their 'phone number.
Serbs have in the last couple of months become increasingly rude and unpleasant to (western) foreigners. Here is an example of a conversation I had to endure from a (genuine) stranger. (Serbs sometimes misuse the word 'stranger' to describe foreigners.)
'Hey stranger, give me money.' 'Why do you want me to give you money?' 'You are stranger. Give me money.' 'I'm sorry but I am not going to do that.' 'Hey stranger, fuck you, give me money.'
Consider enacting criminal legislation against verbal abuse. Many democracies, including mine, have one. It is used to deter racist slurs, harassment of foreigners and unpleasant behaviour of drunk people.
I have received several complaints of foreign visitors being the subject of heavy handed (i.e. violent) Police action in nightclubs. Belgrade's nightlife is probably your biggest single source of foreign currency revenue. Reputations travel so quickly in the modern age of social media, that for every one foreigner abused or assaulted by the Police, maybe 1,000 or more foreigners contemplating visiting to enjoy Belgrade's unparalleled nightlife (the country's biggest single asset) will not come.
Public transport is diabolical, and foreign tourists do use it! Or they try to. But there are no maps at the bus stops. There is no App in English that shows you how to move around the city by public transport. (Or if there is, it is so badly advertised that this author cannot find it.) The old trams are quaint but it is impossible to find out when they run or where they go. All signs are in Cyrillic. Consider giving out a comprehensive public transport map (or App) to all persons arriving at the airport.
The public transport is not diabolical in the sense of there not being any. It is diabolical in the sense that it is impossible to find out anything about it if you are a foreigner. This is so easy to change.
Belgrade must be the biggest city of its size in Europe with no metro. Unfortunately a metro is currently 20-25 years away. The EBRD will disburse funds only very cautiously for this project, given Serbia's defaults on her debt arrangements with the Chinese and Emiratis (we will discuss this below). So we need to think how to speed the EBRD up. It can be done.
WiFi in much of central Belgrade is ropey. Instal an open WiFi network across the city, so that foreigners (and Serbs) have access to the internet at any time. This will vastly improve visitor experience.
Belgrade nightlife specifically
Most bars and clubs are reasonably well run. The security guards are mostly reasonable, although there are some bad apples. They should be regulated, requiring licences issued by the Police to work.
Serbia has a shocking reputation for timekeeping. The online information about Belgrade nightlife venues is routinely wrong because the venue manager has just decided to change the hours or days unilaterally, and has not updated the online information. This leaves groups of foreigners standing in the street in the middle of the night, wondering what to do. They should be in venues, spending money. Make it easier for them to do so. Introduce a licensing or accurate marketing regime that incentivises venues to be open when they say they will be. It can be enforced by the Police or by a trading standards authority.
Standards of English language in the hospitality industry remain low. License bartenders and waiters, on the basis of their having passed an English language proficiency test.
You have not yet managed to rid Belgrade of an underclass of violent dangerous criminal drug dealers. This must be a top priority: to go after the violent ones. Foreigners visiting Belgrade for its nightlife have conveyed to this author that they feel between a Scylla and Charybdis of violent drug dealers and aggressive police officers. It is essential that visiting foreigners have neither such experiences.
Some hospitality lavatory venues are unsanitary, with effluent washing across the floor. The courts should revoke the operation licences of venues that have been warned about sanitary standards and have failed to improve.
Closure of hospitality venues should be in the hands of the courts. Now the Police are arbitrarily closing venues they do not like, for whatever reasons. That is not an approach consistent with rule of law. You want to keep venues open. Foreigners spend money in them. Closure of venues can only be a last resort.
The solution to Belgrade's endemic drugs problem is not Police brutality. It is to make available provision for voluntary drug rehabilitation schemes; standards of psychiatry in Belgrade, perhaps one or two rare practitioners aside, are pitifully low. You will achieve more by investing in psychiatry, public information and rehabilitation, than by investing in the Police to beat people up.
If the regular Police find tourists in possession of illegal narcotics (not being dealers but just coming to Belgrade to consume), the tourists should be immediately be handed over to the tourist Police who explain politely the drugs policy of the Republic of Serbia, advise them not to breach it, issue them with a summary fine (e.g. EUR100), confiscate the illicit substances and let them go. This way, foreigners understand the country's policy (Serbia's international reputation is as a drugs free for all) but are treated delicately and pointed in the right direction, and not with the rough justice habitual of the Serbian Police. By adopting such a policy, Serbia's international reputation for drugs will gradually change.
Belgrade's museums are just ghastly, run in the Communist style. Foreign visitors do not want to come to such places, even if they can find them.
Renovate the museums! Some of them are full of interesting things. Issue an English language booklet that covers them all and that is distributed for free at public information points.
Pedestrians' maps of Belgrade should also be issued for free at public information points. Tourists tend to do a lot of walking.
Belgrade is awash with cheap labour. Establish a website of certified tourist guides who will be honest towards their clients. Publicise the website.
Commission the authorship of a well-written, short English language pamphlet about Serbian history. I have found lots of bad books meeting these criteria. I have never found a good one. They are typically hugely wordy translations of a dense Serbian text that bores the reader. Serbian history is interesting! Sell it to foreigners.
Try the same thing with the Serbian Orthodox Church. It is fascinating but impenetrable to the visitor. Consider publishing a pamphlet about Serbian Orthodoxy, and the opening times and service times of the churches. Plus of course a fold-out map showing where they all are.
A guide to Serbian food, in English, would be useful. Serbia has excellent food. Advertise it!
A website with every hotel, guesthouse, restaurant, kafana etcetera in the country, in English, with links to their websites and the ability to make reservations using the portal, would be extremely useful. Again, advertise it.
Tourism around the country
Serbian intercity public transport is appalling. It is not just the quality of buses (which is bad); it is that there is no central internet repository in English of where the buses go from or to. Create one, and advertise it, and ensure it is up to date and reliable.
Foreign tourists do use public buses! You must upgrade the system or you are systematically damaging the country's reputation.
Belgrade Central Bus Station is an international embarrassment. It has no redeeming features whatsoever: confusion, unhelpful staff who do not speak English, no information in English, no comprehensive online timetable, no centralised internet booking facilities, no proper shops or other facilities. It needs to be started again with a new architectural plan.
Also create a central internet repository service for intercity taxi drivers, with licences and fixed rates. And advertise it. So if wealthier tourists want to bypass the bus system with taxis, they know how to do it.
Do not encourage foreigners to hire cars. Serbian driving standards are amongst the worst in Europe. You do not want foreigners having car accidents.
Publish a short brochure in English of every tourist attraction in Serbia (outside Belgrade) and how to get to it. Consider giving it away at public information points or charging a small fee for it. It should be be coupled with hotel and hospitality information.
In the long run, you have a massive exercise on your hands to improve Serbian road quality. If you want foreigners to go to the Guca trumpet festival, you need a straight road from Belgrade to Guca. The current drive is impossibly difficult and unpleasant, even in an expensive car.
You must also sort out Serbia's railway system. It is a terrible mess. Publish a booklet in English with accurate information about where and when the trains go, how to buy a ticket, etcetera. English speaking railway station staff would be useful. Upgrade rolling stock. Serbian trains are almost laughable in their antiquity.
Make the rules about crossing into and back from Kosovo clear in tourist materials. Foreign tourists often assume that this is a normal border. Of course it is not, and foreign tourists should not attempt to use it. They must be expressly so advised.
Publish a short free pamphlet in English explaining the Serbian government's position on Kosovo, and supply it free to foreigners. This author could easily write it for you, to prevent government infighting over political custody of the issue. Such a pamphlet, well written, would vastly increase the general international public opinion about Serbia. And that translates into more visitors.
The EXIT Festival
This Novi Sad festival that takes place every July remains Serbia's biggest draw for foreign tourists. It is probably the most famous thing for which Serbia is known, outside Serbia.
Nevertheless as with music festivals globally, it attracts a lot of undesired attention, including drugs, drug dealers, violent drunks, petty thieves and colossal quantities of waste.
People are there to have a good time; and like any music festival it needs to be sensitively policed. Groups of paramilitary-style men dressed in black with military boots is not the right way to police an event attracting hundreds of thousands of people a substantial proportion of whom are foreigners.
Policing should be discreet and plain clothes, with an emphasis on addressing issues involving violence. It is no good going around chasing petty drug dealers inside the walls of an enormous fortress. If you were going to catch them, you should have done it before they arrived in Novi Sad.
Accommodation remains over-subscribed. A central database of all accommodation options, and reservation systems, should be created and advertised from the EXIT festival main website.
A central registry of taxis doing the Nikola Tesla Airport - Novi Sad route for a fixed fee should also be established, with information and bookings from the main EXIT website.
If EXIT is the only experience a visitor has of the Republic of Serbia - and that may be the case for huge numbers of festival goers annually - then it needs to be made as pleasant, safe and comfortable an environment as possible notwithstanding the huge influx of people. If you get tourists' EXIT experience right, they might come back next year and stay twice as long. Or they might encourage their friends to come.
Serbia has a poor reputation for foreign investment and amongst foreign investors. Let us explore why, and what we can do to try to fix it.
Serbia is seen as an evasive debtor, by both small investors and sovereigns alike, and everyone in between.
This means that Serbia takes investments and then simply ignores the obligation to make repayments. Naturally this infuriates foreign investors, and they advise their other friends and colleagues who are foreign investors to stay away from Serbia.
The Belgrade Waterfront is the most blatant result of this philosophy; but the country is littered with them.
The outstanding debts to both the Chinese and the Emiratis are very bad for Serbia. It places Serbia's position in the league of international bad debtors in the doldrums.
Foreign investors do not differentiate between government bad debtors and private bad debtors, even if the credit ratings agencies do. So every private loan or investment repayment default is damaging the country's reputation on the international markets.
The situation is so dire that no knowledgeable investor in their right minds would currently invest in Serbia. And Serbia needs those foreign investments, because she cannot raise capital in her own right on the capital markets, that have a low opinion of Serbia as an investment destination.
Serbia has to start repaying the Emiratis and Chinese, even if in diminished but regular amounts. COVID intervened; everyone understands that; but still you must regularly and without negotiating pay something.
The process of rebuilding Serbia's reputation as an international investment climate will take time. Start now.
The legal profession can be capable at its highest levels but they are atrocious at keeping Chinese walls; they deal with each other behind their clients' backs. This legal culture must be eliminated.
An office to encourage and facilitate smaller investments should be established, in order to give foreigners a fair deal and to resolve smaller disputes informally.
The commercial courts are totally unfit for purpose. They need dramatic judicial reform. You need to start again with a blank piece of paper. It will be a big job. But you must do it if you are intending to improve Serbia's reputation as a destination for foreign investment.
Does Belgrade really need any more luxury apartments or hypermarkets? Why not replace the Dorcol industrial railway, whose tracks are currently being torn up, with a green walkway area and something in between a public tram and a tourist train service of the kind found in Mokra Gora? Belgrade has lots of unused urban-industrial space that could be used in innovative ways to make the city more beautiful, interesting and captivating for visitors. Central Belgrade is blighted by atrocious traffic and the associated smog, and the only way of mitigating against that is to create public transport facilities that people actually want to use, in parallel with gradual traffic restrictions that are inevitable sooner or later. That is something a foreign investor might be interested in.
What about an airport express train? An investor might well be interested in that too, and it would draw foreign visitors in an entirely different order of magnitude to what you are used to. You could easily charge RSD800-1000 for an airport-crosstown shuttle with several stops. Many or even most tourists would prefer this to the chaotic and periodically scandalous Belgrade airport taxi system.
Of course ticket sales would have to be enforced. The current situation, in which all public transport in Belgrade is de facto free because nobody enforces ticket sales (and indeed it is not clear where to buy tickets - machines at the stops is the only rational solution but no such machines exist) is almost unique worldwide. Free public transport is a bad idea because it produces what economists call 'the tragedy of the commons': free public assets just degrade through lack of replenishing investment. Whereas if everyone paid RSD50 to use a bus or tram, you would have the funds to upgrade the often decrepit rolling stock.
Your hand is now strong - as strong as it will ever be. Play it. The Serbs are a somewhat unruly people. Nevertheless with proper incentives, they can serve the national economy as well as their own self-interest. It is all about exercising the discipline of the administrative state.
The contemporary visitor to Belgrade is disappointed in its lack of efficiency and old-fashioned chaos, compared to Budapest, Bucharest, Zagreb or Podgorica. That perception can easily be changed, and then Serbia will grow ever wealthier.
In this and all other matters that might advance the interests of the Republic of Serbia, I remain, Mr President,
Very truly yours.