June 2008

“Who the hell is Miladin Kovacevic,” you might ask, “A war criminal?”

Not quite, he is a Serb college basketball player involved in the horrific beating of a fellow student in a New York State town who was then helped to escape the USA and return to Serbia by a Serbian diplomat.

The US government is justifiably outraged at this gross abuse of privilege and obstruction of justice.

Serbs everywhere should be outraged that that their own government have not just obstructed justice (bad enough) but tarnished the Serbian diplomatic corp as corrupt criminals who abuse diplomatic privileges to help known fugitives escape justice and they have helped reinforce the Serbs-as-violent-thugs stereotype by making sure this dreadful story of alleged Serb thuggery is front page news becuase of the Serbian state’s involvement, albeit just one corrupt individual.

Thew whole sorry affair revolves around a violent bar fight on the night of May 5th 2008 in the University town of Binghamton in upstate New York.

Here is one account of what happened:

It was the wee hours of Sunday morning at the Rathskeller, a popular hangout for Binghamton college kids, and pretty Melissa Cartagena felt an unwelcome hand on her body.

It was just a grope – but it was late, the guys were drunk and soon things got out of hand.

The scene was a birthday party with a Studio 54 theme, the dance floor was full, graduation was two weeks off.

Among the many revelers was Bryan Steinhauer, a senior honors student with a slight build and a bright future.

Miladin Kovacevic was there, too. The sophomore basketball player, a burly 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, towered above Steinhauer and the rest of the crowd. The jock and the aspiring accountant traveled in different campus circles – but they found themselves in an uncomfortably small space inside the bar on State St.

Ann Pesahovitz and Lauren Levy, standing just off the dance floor, noticed the mismatched duo. A baby blue shirt covered Steinhauer’s 135-pound physique. He stood a full foot shorter than Kovacevic, who was dressed in black.

It was about 1:20 a.m. on May 4. There was a commotion and “a lot of yelling,” Levy recalled, apparently after someone groped Cartagena – a pretty Binghamton University sophomore with Kovacevic’s group.

The dark-haired beauty wasn’t there with the ballplayer; she was with boyfriend, Sanel Softic, a 21-year-old wanna-be state trooper who claims he never laid a hand on the victim.

Kovacevic took it upon himself to defend her honor – though it was not clear who groped Cartagena. Seconds later, Steinhauer wasn’t standing; then he wasn’t getting up. The bespectacled senior was battered to the dance floor. Witnesses recalled the big man’s foot thudding into the smaller student’s torso. And then his head.

Over and over.

Steinhauer – his cheeks shattered, his skull fractured, his brain swelling – was defenseless, his body motionless.

Pesahovitz said the violence ended as abruptly as it began. “He just stopped kicking the victim,” she told police, “and left.”

[From Binghamton University student at heart of Miladin Kovacevic’s attack ]

Kovacevic was arrested a few hours later and spent several weeks behind bars. This is where the sad and brutal story of a violent bar fight becomes a cause celebre and yet another PR disaster for Serbs and Serbia.

Kovacevic was still behind bars when June arrived, although his parents – doctors in their homeland – were working with Serb diplomats to get his bail posted.

At a June 6 hearing, Serbian diplomat Igor Milosevic and the suspect’s mother arrived in Broome County Court with $20,000 cash and an $80,000 money order.

“Standard diplomatic practice,” Serbian Consulate General Slobodan Nenadovic said later.

Kovacevic surrendered his passport, and the local judge instructed him to stay in Broome County pending trial on a felony assault charge.

Just before 6 p.m., the hulking hoopster left the courthouse. Within 72 hours, Kovacevic had left the country – with a new, hastily-issued replacement passport. A high-ranking Serbian government official said Kovacevic’s mother, Branka, wept and begged until Milosevic provided the get-out-of-jail-free card – an emergency document.

Kovacevic flashed the paperwork to board a Lufthansa flight out of Newark. His mother was on the flight with him.

His deception was discovered only when county officials became concerned that he might jump bail. They notified customs officials at the Canadian border that Kovacevic could try to enter the country without a passport.

A check of his status showed Kovacevic was gone. So was Milosevic; officials at the Serbian consulate in Manhattan said he was on vacation as the beating exploded into an international cause celébrè.

Milosevic, his career in tatters, slipped back into Serbia Friday to receive a likely pink slip and possible criminal trial.

Kovacevic was hiding out in his homeland.

[From Binghamton University student at heart of Miladin Kovacevic’s attack ]

The Serbian government (wait, Serbia does not have a government yet!) now have an opportunity to show their maturity and International standing by swiftly correcting the “mistakes” by their Consulate in New York.

Despite what his parents say about the tabloid media bias against him (which does appear to be true), Miladin Kovacevic must return to the USA to face justice. The US courts will take full account of the media circus and careful jury selection by a competent lawyer will ensure a fair trial. Anything less than this and he becomes just another excuse to smear Serbs. And anyway, it is the right thing to do.

Igor Milosevic, the diplomat who “was swayed by a mother’s tears” needs to face the consequences of his stupidity. In a sense he is even more responsible that Kovacevic because he knowingly helped an accused man escape custody and violate the terms of his parole. This is a crime. Diplomats do have immunity in their territories they are stationed, but they are not above national law. At the very least Mr Milosevic should be fired (if it can be proved he was merely stupid). If there is any suggestion of bribe or mens rea, he should face criminal charges here in Serbia.

He completely violated diplomatic accords and brought shame and disrepute upon his country – the very opposite of a diplomat’s mission. An example to any other diplomats “swayed by a mother’s tears” might be well advised.

See also:

Bar fight in upstate New York turns into international incident as Serbian suspect flees – Associated Press
Thug Life: Finding Miladin Kovacevic – NY Post
Serbian diplomat Igor Milosevic punished for aiding Miladin Kovacevic – NY Daily News

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“Lippmann…argued in his best-selling book called Public Opinion that democracy was fundamentally flawed. People, he said, mostly know the world only indirectly, through “pictures they make up in their heads.” And they receive these mental pictures largely through the media. The problem, Lippmann argued, is that the pictures people have in their heads are hopelessly distorted and incomplete, marred by the irredeemable weaknesses of the press. Just as bad, the public’s ability to comprehend the truth, even if it happened to come across it, was undermined by human bias, stereotype, inattentiveness, and ignorance. In the end, Lippmann though citizens are like theatregoers who “arrive in the middle of the third act and leave before the last curtain, staying just long enough to decide who is the hero and who is the villain“. – “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovac and Tom Rosensteil (2001)

In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson calls this resistance an ideological immune system: “educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions” (1993, p. 54). According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become (and remember, we all tend to look for and remember confirmatory evidence, not counterevidence), the greater the confidence in their ideologies. The consequence of this, however, is that we build up an “immunity” against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones. Historians of science call this the Planck Problem, after physicist Max Planck, who made this observation on what must happen for innovation to occur in science: “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning” (1936, p. 97). –  “How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things” by Michael Shermer

Michael Totten has posted the latest in his series on the Balkans, this time covering Serbia (outside of Belgrade), Republika Srpska and Bosnia & Hertizigova, Croatia and Montenegro.

After massive battles in the first two parts (1 & 2), I was pleased to see this one was much more balanced and fair.

The report is only mildly anti-Serb in the sense that all the nasty characters and places are Serb, all the decent folks are non-Serbs. That said, he did plug “Old” Belgrade nicely.

What follows is my response to Michael. It will make no sense unless you read the original article.

These articles and their subsequent discussions highlight the Serb predicament.  The double standards, the denial of Serb victimhood, the libels against the Serbs (as though they did not have enough real crimes to be guilty for) and a distinct lack of empathy, it is all there, mostly in the comments. They highlight the fact that what was true of Lippmann’s 1920’s America is doubly true of the Balkans today (and the ongoing debates about its past, present and future).

The Serbs are permanently established as villains, the rest – Croats, Albanians and Bosnian Muslims – are all designated victims or heroic resistors of Serbian aggression. The very word “Serb” is a loaded word. One finds that even on websites like Michael Totten’s, commentators are welcome to post openly hateful libels against Serb whilst merely pointing out that the libels are based on half-truths, cherry picking, hasty generalization or lies,  will get your banned or warned.

As H. L. Mencken noted “For every complicated problem there is a simple and wrong solution”. In the Balkans it is blame the Serbs. In the Middle East, blame the Israelis, elsewhere it is typically blame the Americans.

As I noted in my Pajama’s Media article I believe that most Serbophobia is based on what British journalist Nick Davies calls “flat earth news”, a story – in this case Serb villainy – that appears to be true and is widely accepted as true, such that eventually it becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true — even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion, and propaganda.

People are deeply ignorant about the Balkans and its recent history (not to mention medieval or pre-history). All they know is what they picked up in that third act, namely that the villains are Serbs. This exploited by  anti-Serb bigots whose favourite tactic is to point out Serbs wrong-doings, but out of context and without comparison. This is, of course, the fallacy of Selective Observation.  When  one addresses this fallacy by noting the wider picture or pointing out that Serbs comparatively blameless/innocent/not guilty, one risks being accused of being a bigot attacking the groups one is comparing the Serbs against.

A good example of this is the Serbs-as-WW2-collaborators-and-Jew-killers libel. One an Albanian-American commentator kept trying to claim that “Serbs” were anti-Semites becuase – oh the irony – a Croatian documentary about Serb collaborators in WW2 claimed as much.

As I noted in the comments:

Lets say that it is true that 11,000 Jews were killed by Serb collaborators in WW2, how does that crime stack up against the crimes in context of the time and region?

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum states that:

“The Croat authorities murdered between 330,000 and 390,000 ethnic Serb residents of Croatia and Bosnia during the period of Ustaša rule; more than 30,000 Croatian Jews were killed either in Croatia or at Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

At the same site we read that Romania killed 270,000 Jews and Hungary killed 500,000 Jews.

The People of Albania, to their credit, were heroic in hiding and protecting Jews in Albania. To their discredit, though, they had an Albanian SS Division and they too had collaborators who handed over Jews. The number of Jews handed over was tiny, but this is because there were only 2-300 Jews in the entire country.

The picture was different outside of Albania proper.

“Between 1941 and 1944, nearly 600 Jews from Greater Albania were sent to their deaths in various concentration camps around Europe. It is for this reason that many historians disagree over the role of Albanians in the Holocaust. While Albanians may have attempted to rescue the Jews in Albania proper, the government was aware of the round-up and deportation of Jews from the Kosovo region.” [Jewish Virtual Library]

She kept trying to libel the Serbs as anti-Semites based on their putative historical crimes and I was forced to post Jewish and Israeli holocaust sources to expose her blood libel, but in doing so I was forced to point out Albanian and Croatian wrongs.

She was doing to Serbs what was done to Jews for centuries, making up lurid and patently false charges of brutality and evil that the ignorant and bigoted public accept as true. And this is just one example of many. The anti-Serb comments on the Totten articles are a veritable example sheet of fallacies: Proof by Anecdote, hasty Generalizations, Straw Man, Guilt By Association, Biased Sample…the list goes on.

Oddly enough I am not that worried about the more active and open bigots. Their one-sidedness and extremism tend to serve as warning to the more intelligent readers (the ones who matter) . Self-advertising hater-mongers are not the danger, it is the soft bias that causes the most trouble.This is where people like Michael enter the story. Despite his protests to the contrary, I detected a clear, lack of sympathy towards the Serbs (so far anyway).

This conforms with what I have observed about biases in general, even in their mildest forms, they strangle empathy. On example is Michael driving around with a Belgrade registered car getting paranoid about being mistaken for a Serb, but yet completely failing to imagine what it must be like for a real Serb to face that constant aggression and hostility.

Who cares if some independent US journalist “does” the Balkans and comes out against the Serbs based on his few hours in country?

Well I care.

Michael certainly seems to have left with a negative impression of Serbia (and Serbs) that is completely at odds with experiences reported by most visitors I have spoken to. I think this is becuase he arrived with that “impression” and he saw only what reinforced it, not what is really here at all.

His visit was way too brief for him to really experience the country and he spoke to only the ultra-liberal wing of the political spectrum (imagine getting your US “facts” from Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, John Berger and Naomi Klein). No wonder he left with the same impression he arrived with.

The problem, as I note below, is that this is an influential independent journalist who is also, I believe,  a completely honourable and well intentioned person.  His voice carries weight and it is precisely people like him that need to be engaged or otherwise, lies pass into history.

The basis of so much Serbophobia and anti-Serb reporting is that so many lies have already passed into history about this country, its people and its recent history.

One of the gravest problems is that the urgent requirement for Serbs to own up to and repudiate what was done in their name is scuttled by gross exaggerations, lies and being blamed for things they did not do. It is further aggravated by negative characterizations of the Serbs growing like mushroom on the back of previous negative characterizations.

Serbs will not be able to grant justice to those they wronged until the wrongs against them are at least recognised, if not redressed. It is for this reason that I take the fight to the comment sections of blogs and spend my precious time countering the bigotry I find there.

Here are my commerts posted on Michael Totten’s blog post.

[click to continue…]

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Inside the War Against China's Blogs

by Limbic on June 25, 2008

We have heard about shills lurking in forums, studios bribing bloggers to write praising movie reviews and astroturfing campaigns (or anti-Astroturfing campaigns) as part of the emerging story of PR and reputation management in the Internet era.

Now it seems there is a growing number of PR companies devoted to monitoring influential forums and having a set of responders who either countervail against the neagtive spin online, or arrange for the client

Daqi is one of a new breed of company that helps multinationals navigate China’s perilous Web. Nike, (NKE) PepsiCo (PEP), McDonald’s (MCD), French cosmetics maker L’Oréal (LRLCY), and others have hired the likes of Daqi, fellow Beijing outfit Chinese Web Union, and Shanghai-based CIC. These companies charge $500-$25,000 monthly to monitor postings and squelch negative information or to create positive buzz.

This year has brought the Net monitors plenty of opportunities to win clients as hot-tempered bloggers have attacked global companies for perceived slights to Chinese culture. Coca-Cola (KO) and French retailer Carrefour were lambasted for what was seen as support for Tibetan independence. McDonald’s, KFC (YUM), and Nokia (NOK) have been tarred for allegedly being stingy with relief money after the Sichuan earthquake. And Citroën had to apologize for an ad featuring a scowling image of Chairman Mao. “If it touches on nationalism, or if the client clearly made a mistake and disrespected a customer, that’s dangerous,” says Sam Flemming, CIC’s founder.
WINNING SYMPATHY

When online commentary turns negative, the monitors assess whether it might flare up. They figure out who’s generating the criticism—an irate consumer, a nationalist teen, even a rival. Then they consider how fast the complaint is spreading, and whether it’s likely to be picked up by Web portals such as Sohu and Sina. “You know it’s a crisis when Sohu (SOHU) or Sina (SINA) has created a special page to collect all the news articles and aggregate comments,” as they did when bloggers angry about Tibet called for a boycott of Carrefour in April, says Flemming.

The companies also can help clients win sympathy. Metersbonwe Group, a domestic apparel retailer, faced eviction from its flagship outlet in Shanghai last year when the local government wanted to replace Chinese-owned brands with big names such as Nike and Adidas (ADDDF). Daqi seeded the Net with opinions linking the issue to a simultaneous controversy over Starbucks’ (SBUX) presence in Beijing’s Forbidden City. While Metersbonwe ended up losing the space, Daqi says the pressure helped the retailer win a lease for a larger store. “In Internet forums we said: A Chinese brand is being pushed out while a foreign brand is still located in the Forbidden City,'” says Daqi’s Zhou. “We got intense and rapid response. People were very angry.” Metersbonwe confirmed that Daqi helped with the Shanghai case but declined to comment further. [From Inside the War Against China’s Blogs ]

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Galbraith: Op Storm no ethnic cleansing

by Limbic on June 25, 2008

Originally published at the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club 

Very interesting comments from former Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith testifying in the Ante Gotovina trial.

Apart from his rather weak contention that the expulsion of the Krajia Serbs was not ethnic cleansing because the population had fled before the invaders arrived, the bulk of his statement is damning.

Galbraith is appearing as a prosecution witness in the UN war crimes court’s case against Ante Gotovina, Ivan Čermak and Mladeni Markač, former Croatian generals charged with war crimes against ethnic Serbs during the 1995 Operation Storm.

In his evidence he said that former Croatian President Franjo Tuđman believed that all countries, including Croatia, had to be ethnically homogenous, seeing Serbs as a threat to this ideal.

Galbraith then addressed one of his previous testimonies, where he said the expulsion of some 250,000 Croatian Serbs did not qualify for ethnic cleansing, "although there had been crimes, committed either on the orders or with the tacit approval of the Croatian leadership, in the presence and with the participation of the military".

….Galbraith…said that he and other American officials had information months before Operation Storm that there would be a military attack on the Serb Krajina.

…But the U.S. never green-lighted the operation, he contended. However, since the U.S. administration knew the assault might be launched, "it expressly warned the Croatian authorities and president Tuđman of their obligation to protect the Serb civilians and prisoners of war. The atrocities like those committed in the Medak Pocket in 1993 were not to be repeated".

In the first days after the arrival of the Croatian Army in Knin, Galbraith recounted, the reports of the U.S. embassy personnel indicated there were widespread killings of Serb civilians and destruction of their houses, "thus confirming that the situation in the field was exactly what the U.S. administration wanted to prevent".

In Galbraith’s opinion, this happened "on the orders or with the tacit approval of the Croatian leadership, in the presence and with the participation of the military".

Although the prosecution indicted the three for deportation and forcible transfer of the Serbs, its witness, Galbraith, does not see Operation Storm as ethnic cleansing, mainly "because most of the population had already fled when the Croatian army and police arrived"

"You cannot ethnically cleanse somebody who is no longer there, although it doesn’t mean that the Croatian forces would not have done it if the Serbs had remained there," he told the court.

In his view, the Serb Republic of Krajina (RSK) authorities are responsible for the Serbs’ departure "because they had urged the population to leave".

However, then Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Šušak "admitted to Galbraith that the Croatian authorities engaged in psychological warfare that partly contributed to the exodus".

When the Serbs left Krajina, the Croatian authorities did everything to prevent them from returning, issuing a decree to confiscate the property of all those who failed to return within thirty days.

Furthermore, their houses were destroyed and their return obstructed in various ways. According to Galbraith, this fit Tuđman’s idea of an ethnically homogenous Croatia.

Whenever they met, the president would emphasize that every country should be ethnically homogenous, adding that local Serbs posed a threat to the homogeneity of the Croatian state.

"He was not ashamed of his views and I wondered how he could imagine that an American would accept his reasoning," Galbraith said, noting that the Croatian president "spoke favorably of the so-called humane transfer of population".

"Tuđman’s attitude towards Muslims was racist and he advocated the division of Bosnia which would lead to the creation of a Greater Croatia," Galbraith concluded.

[From B92 – News – Crime & War crimes – Galbraith: Op Storm no ethnic cleansing]

It seem rather weak that the Serbs permanent expulsion form the Krajina is not considered Ethnic Cleansing whilst the temporary Kosovo Albanian exodus in 1999, which took placer under very similar circumstances, is on record as Ethnic Cleansing. It would appear that if you are a Serb and you flee your home before an invasion force actually arrives, your departure is not Ethnic Cleansing even though the warnings that drove you to flee turned out to be true and you were permanently prevented from returning home. Other nationalities and ethnic groups do not seem to have to to meet these exacting qualifying criteria for Ethnic Cleansing.

Common definitions of Ethnic Cleansing all pretty much express an understanding of constructive expulsion, namely that when you leave is irrelevant – it could be just before, during or after an action – but rather that you were forced to leave, be it for fear of your safety, at gun point or forcibly removed.

‘Considered in the context of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing means rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force and intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area." – Commission of Experts, in their first Interim Report 10/2/1993

“…ethnic cleansing can be understood as the expulsion of an `undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.” Andrew Bell-Fialkoff

What what happened in Operation Storm certainly qualifies for the broader definitions of Ethnic Cleansing and based Galbraith’s testimony, it would appear the narrow definitions stand too.

Area rendered ethnically homogenous? yes. Force and intimidation used? – yes. "Undesirable" population expelled? – yes. Based on a policy (tacit or explicit) – yes?

I think that is pretty damning.

Additionally, I am not sure why Kosovo is considered but many to be legitimate, yet the identical arrangement – an ethnic microstate (Krajina) within a state (Croatia) – was considered to be illegitimate and worthy of clandestine US help in invading and reabsorbing it.

I think the Serbs might very well be onto something when they complain of a double standard. It seems even from my non-Serb perspective that the benefit of the doubt / definitional technicality / failure of the system seem to consistently be to the detriment of Serbs. This is of course labelled paranoia and bad faith, but in my opinion it is well justified.

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When jokes turn out to be true

by Limbic on June 24, 2008

Originally published at the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club

A few weeks ago a visiting Irish friend of mine went out to resupply us wit booze and came back complaining that he could not find Cranberry juice for the vodka.

I told him, as a joke, that Cranberry juice was only sold in Pharmacies in Belgrade as a remedy for cystitis and other bladder conditions. This led to a series of lame gags about rinsing your equipment in Guinness to cure the pox and having to ask for your Cranberry Juice in the same hushed tones one uses for condoms .

Imagine my surprise when I went into my local pharmacy at the weekend only to find…you guessed it….Cranberry juice on sale!

It is the only place I have ever seen it on sale in Belgrade.

Cranberry Juice only available from Pharmacies (Close Up)

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The shameful neglect of Belgrade’s rivers

by Limbic on June 24, 2008

Originally published at The Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club

Extreme plastic pollution on the Sava near Belgrade
People fishing in extremely polluted water on the Sava river near Belgrade (March 2005). Detail here.

Plastic pollution on the Sava
The same spot in May 2008, nothing has changed.

Water expert and member of the International Press Institute (IPI), Joseph Treaster, has posted a well informed article about Belgrade after  attending the IPI’s annual meeting held here this year.

He touches on a point very close to my heart, namely the state of the environment here in Serbia, particularly the gross neglect of Water resources.

The environment was not formally on the agenda for the International Press Institute’s conference in Belgrade. But climate change and water and other environmental issues worked their way into conversations over several days. Next year the International Press Institute will be meeting in Helsinki and it is purposefully carving out time for the environment.

…According to the United Nations Environmental Program, Serbia is the only country in former Yugoslavia that has not updated its laws on water management in keeping with new science and technology. But that may change. For economic reasons, among others, Serbia wants to become a member of the European Union. Serbia and its neighbors face a string of barriers. But one way they can impress the European Union is to improve the way they deal with water and the rest of the environment.

I think it would have broken Joseph’s heart if he had seen the banks of Sava between the Old Sava Bridge and Ada. Rusting hulks of abandoned river boats snag river pollution in the form of plastic bottles and other junk (see above). The bank-side is littered with river detritus and discarded rubbish. Near Ada,  raw sewerage from Banovo Brdo and Topcider runs into the Ada marina, a beautiful spot ruined by the stench of raw faeces. 

The cycle route to Ada from 25th May is supposed to be a premium tourist attraction, one of Belgrade’s best natural heritage sites. It is instead one of the saddest sites one can see in Belgrade, a gorgeous environment abused and neglected to the point of ruin.

Every month citizens of Belgrade pay part of their  local taxes towards River-side care (Listed as Naknada za priobalja here). Apparently this amounts to a mere €30,000 per month (2.2million dinars) , but even €30,000 is a relative fortune with which to address some of the worst horrors, like the eyesore pictured above.

There is some good news however. The new “National Programme for Integration of Serbia into EU” is explicit in addressing both the lack of water legislation Joseph mentions above, and an aggressive action plan for dealing with both the pollution and neglect ( see section 3.27.3. “Waste Management”  and “3.27.4 Protection and management of water resources”).

Government recognition and actions plans are most welcome, but there needs to be a culture change for this to work. The river people (that is, people who live and work on the boats and splavs lining the river banks) need to help with this. If they refrained from throwing their rubbish into the river, installed septic tanks instead of using the river as a toilet (especially the clubs and restaurants) and kept the areas surrounding their riverside properties clean, then there would be a massive improvement.

I am not too hopeful that this will happen any time soon. When even the people who live on the rivers fail to care for them, how can visitors and tourists be convinced to respect them?

I have toyed with the idea of raising money to have a 500m stretch of the Sava river bank cleaned and restored to show people what can be achieved. Perhaps all they are missing is vision of what is possible?

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Serbia has most refugees in Europe

by Limbic on June 23, 2008

Originally posted at The Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club

BELGRADE — International Refugee Day is being marked today, with Serbia home to some 100,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, the highest figure in Europe.

There are about 75 collective refugee centers in Serbia sheltering some 6,000 people, while the rest live in private accommodation or with family members.

The number of people with refugee status was 550,000 in 1996. With many receiving Serbian citizenship in the meantime, that figure has since fallen to about 100,000.

According to statistics from the UNHCR and the Republic Commissariat for Refugees in Serbia, there are about 206,000 internally displaced persons from Kosovo living in Serbia. [From B92 – News – Society – Serbia has most refugees in Europe]

Serb Refugees and IDPs are one of the forgotten and forsaken victim groups in the former Yugoslavia. When one mentions them in discussions about Bosnia or Kosovo, reactions range from skepticism (“They do not really exist, its Serb propaganda”) to a sort of scornful disdain centered around the idea that they somehow deserved their fate, that it is justice for what was done by Serbs to others. Sympathy is very rare, help is scarce and the future is very bleak.

Some times the denial and excuses reach truly ridiculous levels. I personally witnessed a respected independent American journalist liken the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Kosovo to “white flight”, as though the Serbs IDPs were voluntarily leaving the Kosovo ghetto for the Serbia suburbs.

The truth is the vast majority of those people – Serbs, Roma and Gorani – were forced out by ethnic violence and intimidation and still live in dreadful conditions in camps and emergency housing in Serbia. The IDPs suffer especially badly because the UNHCR cannot help them officially, as they have not crossed an international boundary (in the eyes of the UN).

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Ironic night in Belgrade

by Limbic on June 20, 2008

Firstly, the sight of Serbs firstly cheering for the old enemy Croatia, then genuinely sad at their loss, but possibly only because they were playing the older enemy Turkey.

Even the Bosnians were shouting for Croatia tonight (take a bow Miralem).

It was not the 5 goal classic that was Portugal vs Germany last night, but it was not a bad match and there is no doubt Croatia were the vastly better team.

Secondly, I witnessed the strange sight tonight of a group of Roma troubadours on Skadarlija gawping in genuine fascination at a party of Indian tourists. It was as though they recognized their genetic brethren or perhaps they thought they were witnessing the miracle of a group of wealthy Roma touring up Skardarlija.

The Indian people looked very nice, beautifully dressed, happy and relaxed. We Europeans can expect greater and greater numbers of Asian tourists in future as our world flattens and the mega-economies of China and India level up with the EU and USA.

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Creepy relic from Nazi POW camp

by Limbic on June 19, 2008

Originally published at the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club

One of the coffee ladies at work popped into my office today to ask me about a ring she had found on her plot of land in the Belgrade suburb of Kotez.

It looks to me like either a survivor’s ring or guards ring from Stalag III A, a notorious WW2 Prisoner of War Camp that was located at Luckenwalde, 30 km south of Berlin.

Does anyone know anything about this ring? Ever seen one similar?

We are puzzled about where it came from and how it ended up in Belgrade.

Photo-0017

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A recent discussion with a friend working at the  South Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC) alerted me to what is apparently a serious concern for UN Arms Control experts in Serbia, its unregulated Private Security Industry.

From a 2005 report “SALW and Private Security Companies in South Eastern Europe:  A Cause or Effect of Insecurity?” [PDF 2mb]

The situation in Serbia is probably of the greatest concern in the region. At the current moment there is no direct  legislation that addresses the private security market. This has meant that the industry, while extensive and  well  developed,  contains  some  companies  that  are  essentially  fronts  for  organised  crime  organisations.  The  current regulations covering SALW are also of concern. Weapons are owned by and licensed to the individual  guard meaning that there is a greater potential for their misuse. Further, automatic military style weapons are  commonly used by the industry despite their being inappropriate for such usage. The report recommends that  the government adopt a licensing system as soon as possible that will begin to eliminate the more unprofessional  parts of the industry. In the interim it is vital that international employers of security services in the country adopt  some basic principles in order to ensure that the company they employ is professional.

This essentially means that those non-police armed paramilitaries one sees in Serbia see guarding banks, building sites and factories take their weapons home with them. Some of them are the heavily armed divisions of Organised Crime groups and they are potentially armed foot-soldiers in militias or paramilitary groups.

I have noticed these guys before. Their vehicles sometimes have police like flashing lights mounted on them (although blue lights seem to be reserved for cops) and are sometimes very hard to distinguish from police, since often they wear the SWAT style overalls that the elite Gendarmes wear.

Unfortunately so little is getting done in Serbia these days. Projects and initiatives are delayed as the government is agreed and even when there is a stable government, arguing over Kosovo takes precedent over disarming security guards, economic stability and cleaning up the environment.

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