This post is a about Michael Totten’s report “A Dark Corner of Europe” Part 1. You need to read this article for this post to make sense. Michael Totten’s article is mostly very good article, and I, perhaps unfairly, am focussing only on the negatives here.
Michael Totten is a great independent journalist who I have followed avidly over the last few years, especially as he reported from Lebanon.
He is supposedly the master of independent journalism and canny travelogues but my respect for him has been slightly tarnished after he visited Belgrade – my adopted home town – and filed a hatchet job about it that completely contradicts what every other visitor is reports. He suggests, in essence, that Belgrade is a “dark corner of Europe”, a squalid xenophobic and anti-Semitic hell hole full of “Communist architecture”.
Well OK, that may be a bit of a stretch, but the article is negative, at times snide (especially the photo captions), misleading about Belgrade (and Serbia) and very one sided in that is only presents an ultra-Liberal view of the situation here from the perspective of a local film-maker (Filip David).
The Belgrade of Michael’s report is nearly unrecognisable to me, a resident of three years. It says nothing about the real Belgrade that I have lived and worked in for three years, the booming vibrant cosmopolitan party town that rapidly growing numbers of appreciative visitors are flocking to in greater and greater numbers. Unfortunately I think it tells us plenty about Michael’s lack of research, poor planning, paucity of diverse contacts on the ground and his previously revealed touch of Serbophobia .
Perhaps an analysis of his post is in order to help illuminate some of the unfair points?
Michael and the Taxi Driver
The post starts off with Michael and Sean being berated by a taxi driver, who rips them off.
Even cursory research about Belgrade would have revealed the many warnings about the Taxi Mafia who operate from Belgrade airport.They have pretty much cleared out of the airport now, but for many years they have been a pest that both rip off visitors and ruin people’s first impressions of the city.
Well informed visitors simply call one of the many legitimate taxi companies or go to the taxi desk at arrivals and order a legal taxi. A ride into to any part of the city would normally not cost more than 1000 dinars (or on a Sunday, maximum 1500).
The Taxi Mafia are criminal scum, and as you would expect they represent the worst of the country. It comes as no surprise that the cab driver took his opportunity to berate Michael and Sean.
Michael writes that he was afraid to reveal he was a journalist, some 9 years after the bombing, and was worried for his safety because of then recent embassy attacks. It was an unfounded fear, because even in 1999 – at the hight of the bombing – foreign journalists and citizens were treated (as they are now) with kindness, respect and hospitality. Take for example Marko Hoare, a British journalist and Balkan expert:
During the Kosovo War of 1999, I lived for more than a month in an ordinary Belgrade suburb, solely in the company of the native people of Belgrade and without any contact with other foreigners. Several times, during and immediately after this war, I crossed the Serbian international border. During this period, on not one single occasion did I, as a Briton, experience so much as a curse or a rude word from any Serbian citizen or border guard, despite the fact that my country’s airforce was bombing their country. One border guard even said to his colleague, in front of me, that what NATO was doing had nothing to do with me, but was the fault of higher powers. The Serbian people, for the most part, are not hooligans and do not engage in random acts of mob violence and destruction. Why should yesterday’s demonstrators have attacked McDonald’s restaurants, when during the Kosovo War the local management of these restaurants patriotically (as they saw it) supported the Serbian defence against NATO ? McDonald’s posters in 1999 Belgrade displayed the colours of the Serbian flag and promised a share of their profits to a fund for military invalids. Those who view themselves as engaged in a righteous act of national self-defence (as most Serbian people, however misguidedly, genuinely did in 1999), do not degrade themselves with acts of rioting and looting. One rioter was burned to death in the attack on the US embassy; this wave of violence, which has already produced dozens of injuries in recent days, is already violent in comparison with the revolution that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. [Emphasis mine Source]
Michael and the Hotels
Michael complains about the horrible Hotel Royal and denounces Belgrade’s hotels. He writes:
Most of the city’s hotels are in so-called New Belgrade. They are overpriced, far from the city center, and surrounded by communist-era monstrosity architecture.
No, they are not Michael. The two biggest ones are (Hyatt and Intercontinental), but most hotels are in the Old Town (Stari Grad). Many ARE overpriced, but that was because until now most visitors were businessmen – a captured market – and there was no competition.
Things have changed radically. A whole new generation of excellent and affordable hotels have opened in and around the Old Town. Had you done your research you would have found out that the Hotel Royal is one of the worst hotels in the city. Why did you not try Le Petit Piaf or Hotel City Code or any one of the brilliant hotels nearby?
Michael Looks for A Party
Michael and Sean set off in search of some fun, but only found a Ethno-Karaoke bar and a Turkish themed dive.
Michael you walked UP Kralja Petra, you should have walked DOWN to Strahinjica Bana (aka Silicone Valley) one of Belgrade’s famous “strips” where you would have found hundreds of glitterati partying on the many bars and restaurants. I have no idea what Karaoke Bar you found, but you were 100m away from Bar Central, a world class cocktail bar with brilliant music and crowd (it is out of shot to the left in the photo captioned “Belgrade after midnight”).
Had you asked anyone, they would have directed you to one of the clubbing areas (like the river party boats).
If only you had made contact with any of the expatriates in Belgrade we could have guided you away from the crap bars and shown you Belgrade’s incredible nightlife.
Belgrade is deservedly famous for being a fantastic party town. It is a real pity you did not have someone to show you around. Even people like Tom Merchant, founder of award winning travel company Black Tomato, have praised Belgrade lavishly , as have The Times of London , the New York Times and dozens more.
Michael and the Writer
Michael interviews a local writer who speaks for the ultra-liberals of Serbia.
I support the Liberal Democratic Party so the early part of Mr Filip David’s interview with Michael Totten pretty much sums up what I think about much of the politics here.
That said, I am a foreigner and I have my own biases. But Mr David is unrepresentative of Serbs in general, and presents a deeply negative view of Serbia that even I would dispute.
Imagine I went to America and interviewed Michael Moore then reported back that his was the authentic voice of the USA? Well that is kind of how many Serbs will feel about Michael’s encounter with Filip David.
At times Michael and Mr David veer into speculation, generalization and stereotypes. They try and pass off Serbian anti-Americanism as the product mere propaganda and conspiracy theories.
It is true that the lunatic fringe and the Radical Party peddle absurd anti-Semitic and anti-American conspiracy theories but do not let that obscure the fact that Serbian anti-Americanism is firmly rooted in rightful outrage over the Clinton administration’s illegal and murderous bombing of the country in 1999. That bombing campaign is now widely seen to have been the result of being duped by the KLA, an attack on a sovreign state in supported Muslim separatist ethnic nationalists who went on to Ethnically Cleanse Serbs, Gorani and Roma from Kosovo and then turn the province into a corrupt and violent mafia state.
Had you Michael diversified his interview subjects, he may very well have come to understand that even those who support Kosovo independence here are outraged at the bombing and the general bullying manner in which post-Milosevic democratic Serbia has been treated by the US, EU and UN.
At one point Michael shocked me with this throw-away comment, writing:
Kosovo’s current prime minister Hashim Thaci, who really is a bit sketchy, was recently and absurdly accused of harvesting and selling Serb body parts. When you throw The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into the mix, it’s a good idea to fact-check what you hear – which is frankly good advice in the Balkans in general, not just in Serbia.
Well Michael here is what you do not know: Those allegations came from noted UN prosecutor Carla Del Ponte in her book “The Hunt”. The do sound like rubbish, but as Human Rights Watch have noted, the underlying fact is that hundreds of Serbs have been “disappeared” since 1999 and the KLA are directly implicated. HRW have called for an investigation:
NEW YORK — A senior Human Rights Watch (HRW) official has called on Priština to investigate the fate of more than 400 missing non-Albanians in Kosovo.
In this way, Fred Abrahams argues in a commentary carried by BIRN, “it would prove it cared for all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity”.
Carla Del Ponte’s book, Abrahams says, with allegations concerning the possible trafficking of prisoners’ organs from a mysterious yellow house near the Albanian town of Burrel, “has led to Serbian officials exaggerating the claims, while officials in Priština and Tirana called them a slanderous lie”.
So he is not “a bit sketchy”, he oversees a government that allows the ongoing sectarian violence against Serbs, a government which is the inheritor of power from the KLA – a state department listed terrorist organisation and mafia enterprise that is directly implicated in the mass murder of both non-Albanians and Albanians in Kosovo.
For more on the Albanian organ harvesting case and Albanian mass murderers being freed by the Hague after killing all witnesses, see:
You might notice that the point is not about whether the Organ Harvesting is true or not, but the blanket refusal of UN and other bodies to investigate alleged crimes against Serbs and other non-Albanians in Kosovo.
It is the double standard that irks Serbs. Every ridiculous claim but its enemies are reprinted as gospel truth whilst acknowledged war crimes like the abduction of 400 Serbian civilians remains investigated (and unreported) to this today.
Michaels photo captions are very snide at times. For example in one photo he captions a picture of Belgrade’s military museum and writes:
Well no, Michael, it is a museum. Do American’s like to show off their military hardware in public too? I mean what the hell is the Intrepid doing moored at New York?
Serbia had not been bombed
During a walking tour Michael “saw virtually no evidence that Belgrade had ever been bombed.” A walk down Kralja Milena would have provided you with all the evidence required. There are multiple shattered building right across the road from the US Embassy.
Later he sees,
“[The] bombed-out Belgrade TV station building…[which]…stood out as one of the few remaining demolished buildings from the air campaign. It seems to be left as a show-piece. It’s hard to say, though, if this building was left in its condition to wave the bloody shirt against Americans or against the Milosevic regime.”
This is an interesting point because I have wondered why so many ruins have been left in place. Serb opinion is split. Some say it is, as Michael says “to wave a bloody shirt”. Other people have told me there are unexploded bombs, that it is massively expensive to clear the sites and that there are fears of Depleted Uranium. I am not sure if any of that is true.
Michael reveals his ignorance about what really happened in Kosovo
Michael writes that
“[Milosevic’s] ethnic-cleansing campaign turned 90 percent of Kosovar Albanians into refugees”.
This is a half-truth, and as such is one of the enduring anti-Serb myths of the war.
The typical story starts with genocidal Serbs picking on poor defenceless Albanians and ends with trains of Albanian civilians pouring out of Kosovo terrified for their lives, the survivors of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
That is the KLA/Western Media version and has no bearing on reality. It was all media warfare. The story should have started back in 1981 with the Pristina riots. It should have charted the KLA insurgency and, murderous campaign against Albanian rivals. It should include the ethnic warfare against Serbs that culminated in the Serbian Army being deployed to fight the KLA insurgency.
And of course the the story did not end with the Kosovar civilians leaving in droves. We later discovered that the massacres and ethnic cleansing claimed by NATO and the KLA did not happen. The civilians fled because they were warned to by the KLA and because they were terrified by the news reports from the duped Western media. They all returned home within a few months. And then they set about hounding, persecuting and ethnically slaughtering non-Albanians so that 90% of non-Albanians have been permanently Ethnically Cleansed from Kosovo since the NATO bombing.
So please shut up about the temporary, propaganda-driven KLA-orchestrated media stunt and pay some attention to the real outrage of Kosovo: The hundreds of thousands of deracinated Serbs, Gorani and Roma (not to mention the hundreds of missing, probably dead abductees), the illegal bombing of Serbian civilians, the human slave trafficking, the drug smuggling, the ongoing oppression of minorities in Kosovo. That is the real outrage in this story. You may very well see it first hand.
Since you are going to Kosovo. Make sure you visit the embattled Serb communities living in razor wire surrounded ghettos, guarded by foreign soldiers and under daily attack from Albanian sectarian violence.
Head to the south of the province, try and visit the village of Velika Hoca and the town of Orahovac. What you find will shock you.
Safe in Belgrade
Towards the end of the first instalment Michael asked Filip David “I feel like we’re safe here, is that true?”. Mr David replies “Yes, generally. But sometimes you will have somebody say they don’t like you if they hear you speak English.”
Michael notes that no-one had been rude to he or Sean. I think it is worth noting that Belgrade is one of the safest cities in the world. There is virtually no street crime and xenophobia is so are as to be almost unheard of. An American is in more danger in London than Belgrade where the overwhelming majority of encounters will be hospitable and helpful – more so than any Western European capital.
I will introduce you to ideas that you have not explored, for example how it was the KLA who mastered Hizbollah-style media warfare and used it to dupe the West into unnecessary and illegal aggression against Serbia. I will give you Western conservative’s account of what happened here. I guarantee that there is a vast and nuanced complexity to the situation here that you are missing right now, a complexity that I can help explain.
And I will take you out and show you a proper Belgrade good time, I will make sure you are put up somewhere decent and I will get you to the airport for free.
Do we have a deal?