Giving NATO the middle finger

Belgrade tries to win the war of symbols.

Published April 26, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

If you walk down central Belgrade's Terazije Boulevard, pass the massive, Communist-era Beograde Department store and make a right at the turn-of-the-century, neo-classical Moscova Hotel, you will come to a tree-filled park. From there you can see bridges spanning the Sava River below. On the far side is Novi Beograde, a cold-looking district of indistinct concrete and brick high-rises. One building, however, stood out from the rest by sheer size: the 24-story Business Center Usce, once home to the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. When that federation fell apart, Serbian nationalists, led by Slobodan Milosevic, took over the building. With its stark lines and monolithic rigidity, the building embodied socialist architecture. Milosevic's party headquarters were there, along with regime-linked television stations and many of his supporters' businesses. The place symbolized Serbia's descent into cronyism, chauvinism and, ultimately, isolation. Belgrade once hated it. Last week, NATO destroyed it.

As any propagandist will tell you, symbols play a vital part in any conflict. In the right circumstances, a fluttering flag and uplifting music can spur loyal citizens into battle. (Something romantic yet martial works well.) The importance of symbols is particularly evident in Belgrade, where those itching to hit back at NATO must be content for now with thumbing their noses. Over the past month Serbs attacked Western icons in Belgrade with glee. Television stations broadcast short blasts of hatred made by local production houses. Hooligans burned flags and threw rocks at Western embassies and cultural centers.

The Serbs' great talent for symbols is matched by a dark sense of irony. The Kosovo crisis has brought out the best and the worst of that irony, which runs from street-level graffiti to slick video productions. The now-pervasive bull's-eye, Serbia's badge of defiance, is on everything from cars to dog collars. My favorite graffiti refers to last month's downing of an F-117 Nighthawk, a "stealth" fighter that can't be seen on conventional radar. "Sorry, we didn't know it was invisible," it reads. The references to President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky on seemingly every street corner are too crude to mention.

With little else to do these days, many Belgrade advertising and production houses spend their time thinking up ways to, as one creative director said, "give NATO a big Serbian middle finger." One of the funniest pieces lampoons the person Serbs hate more than anyone, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose family sought shelter in Belgrade after the Nazis occupied her native Czechoslovakia. An artist made a fairly accurate clay caricature of her, complete with the all-too-noticeable neckline (or lack thereof), and stuck it before a mike to sing the blues. Backed by a guitar banging out a throbbing beat, the figure wails in Serbian, "They called her crazy Mad-lena, she went to school in Belgrade, my mother was her best friend, she says she still loves us, and throws the bombs on our heads, we wont forget Mad-lena."

A more disturbing clip, reflecting the Milosevic regime's attempt to equate NATO with the Nazis, harks back to the Holocaust. The animated piece starts with the words "NATO's Final Solution," which fade to reveal a darkened wasteland of orange and black. Barbed wire surrounds a field of crosses. From the entrance a sign inscribed "Yugoslavia" creaks in the wind.

While these acts may make Serbs feel like they're flipping NATO the bird, their real purpose is to galvanize the masses behind Serbian leadership. Most of the clips play only on Serbian television. With the support of the Serbian people, that leadership has stayed resolute -- even as NATO missiles destroy its factories and infrastructure.

This, in turn, seems to have frustrated a NATO leadership that evidently did not plan for such lengthy defiance. As NATO scrambles to find a strategy -- and perhaps out of frustration over its own relative impotence -- it has begun targeting places that embody the very core of Milosevic's regime. On successive mornings, Business Center Usce, the presidential villa and state-run television have all gone up in flames. In the parlance of the military, a NATO spokesman refers to them as "high-value targets."

The first symbol to go, early Wednesday morning, was the Business Center Usce. It is conveniently located only a few hundred yards from the Hyatt Hotel, home to most of the foreign press corps, who trundled out of their luxury digs to watch the deserted building burn. (Realizing that the tower was a prime target, most workers had cleared out, and nobody was inside that night.) The tower not only housed the headquarters of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, but also those of at least 20 companies connected to his regime. With the hit on the business center, NATO struck at the heart of the spoils system that has made Serbia an international pariah. Yet ironically -- and Serbs were quick to note this -- it also hit the place that may have taught Serbia's masses the most about middle-American culture. TV Pink, owned by Mirjana Markovic,
the wife of a senior official in Milosevic's party, broadcast a wide array of American programming from the center. The station director, Robert Nemecek, said over 20 percent of Serbia watched "Friends" every Saturday night (a potentially overlooked cause of Serbian anti-Americanism). He was particularly saddened that he lost 123 recently delivered episodes of "The Simpsons."

Some time after 3 a.m. Thursday came the attack on the semi-official presidential residence, a spacious villa where Communist leader Josef Tito once lived. NATO justified the hit by saying it was a command bunker, but the message was clear: NATO can target Milosevic at will. The problem, of course, is finding him.

Finally came the hit on Radio-Television Serbia, the propaganda-filled mouthpiece of Milosevic's regime. Dozens of workers were inside at the time. Many of them died. NATO had been warning for nearly two weeks that RTS was a legitimate target because the station propagates Belgrade's campaign of ethnic cleansing. That's a stretch. The cleansing is clearly done under strict military orders and not by popular will. But it definitely allows the president to brainwash his people with very selective news broadcasts that, among other things, don't mention the brutality the sons of Serbia are inflicting on Kosovo.

How hitting such targets will end this war or return Kosovo's refugees to their homes remains unclear. But when they sent missiles Milosevic's way, alliance military strategists probably got the same primal release that flows through a young tough when he sprays anti-NATO sayings on Belgrade's walls. As one Serb who has come to hate Milosevic and NATO with equal passion told me, "You can't beat Milosevic by playing his game. They're becoming as primitive as he is."

The meaning of one icon has been transformed since the NATO bombings began. On Terazije Boulevard, just across from Moscova Hotel, sits what was once the world's largest McDonald's. A two-level restaurant with seating for 300, it held the company record for most annual customers until Moscow and Beijing opened their own franchises a few years ago. Its 1989 opening symbolized Yugoslavia's seemingly inevitable move toward the West -- an embrace, for better or worse, of middle-American culture, cuisine and, of course, capitalism. Belgrade loved it.

Angry mobs attacked the 15 McDonald's restaurants throughout Serbia immediately after the first cruise missiles struck a month ago. They smashed the front windows on Terazije Boulevard and destroyed the cash registers and kitchen. In the following three weeks, white particle-board sealed the entrance and quickly became filled with anti-American graffiti. A sign pointed people to a back door, where the lower dining room had been converted into a bomb shelter.

The McDonald's team knows the power of symbolism. Management feared that as long as the bombing continued, angry youth would exact revenge on them. "We realized that people thought we represent America and in many ways the damage was expected," said one manager.

So McDonald's reworked its image. Last week it reopened, but the icon of Americana had become the embodiment of Serbian pride. That first day, as legions of teenagers mobbed the floor, the general manager jumped from table to table like the chef of a fine restaurant, exchanging pleasantries with well-known patrons he had invited. New posters lined the walls. One declared that a dinar (about six cents) will be donated to the Serbian Red Cross for every McDonald's customer served. Another one showed the Golden Arches in front of a fluttering Serbian flag. The traditional green Serbian hat hung askew from the right arch and black-and-white bull's-eyes illustrated the corners. The restaurant was filled, even if many people couldn't afford much more than french fries or an ice cream. "I hate America now [but] I don't see McDonald's as American symbol, because our people made this food," said Ivan, a 23-year old rap musician after he had finished his Filet o' Fish.

There wasn't any irony in his voice.

By J.G. Freund


Related Topics ------------------------------------------