Clubbing's not what it was for Serbia's gangsters

Times are hard. You can't even find a rich thug to dance with
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The Independent Online
It's A quiet night at the Tas 202 disco in central Belgrade. Just a few months ago, the place would have been hopping with men in crew- cut haircuts and designer suits accompanied by their dolled-up, over-perfumed girlfriends. But these days, with revolution raging on the streets outside, Serbia's inimitable class of wartime gangsters-turned-nouveau riche "businessmen" are keeping a low profile.

The dance floor is deserted and only a handful of corner booths are occupied - most of them by single women in contraband Italian fashion wear, wondering where on earth the guys have gone. A bouncer in a fake Dolce and Gabbana bomber jacket explains apologetically that the place, said to be owned by Mirjana Markovic, the wife of President Milosevic, has been upstaged by the opening of a new venue on the other side of town.

"I'd suggest you go to XL," he says. "Marko has been there the past few nights, and that's where everyone will be."

Anyone cruising the nightclub scene frequented by the bright young things of Belgrade (for which read profiteers from four years of war and sanctions) soon learns that Marko is Marko Milosevic, the 22-year-old son of Serbia's First Couple, the epitome of cool on the Serbian youth scene who, even in these straitened times, still sets the agenda of what it is in and what is not.

Part of Marko's appeal is that he makes only rare public appearances, preferring to stay away from Belgrade in his parents' home town of Pozorevac, where he part-owns the aptly-named Cafe Rolex as well as a nightclub called Madonna, decked out in hacienda style. When Madonna opened to great fanfare last summer, local farmers were so bewildered by the laser light show they were convinced a UFO had landed.

Off we drive to XL, a hangar of a club. Sure enough, the place is packed, all 600 square metres of it, with the teenage children of Belgrade's elite. But the politicians and businessmen themselves are not in evidence, and neither is Marko.

"This is a place for city people," explains one black-clad woman with peroxide hair. Belgrade's night-life, it emerges, is split into clubs for the home-grown rich kids and those for the altogether more vulgar crowd from Serb-controlled Bosnia, who come up to the mother country for cosmopolitan weekend fun. Never let it be said that gangster capitalists have no class; they are as snobbish as the rest.

What about Marko? "I don't know anything about him," our new-found acquaintance replies. "But people who have met him say he is totally normal."

Normal is perhaps not quite the word to describe a playboy millionaire in a country on the brink of economic meltdown, whose favourite pastime is to "borrow" expensive racing cars from his father's friends and then trash them. He is famous for recounting how his father got angry about the first 15 cars he smashed up, but doesn't mind so much any more.

In fact, the Milosevic family offers a revealing glimpse of the decadence of Serbia's ruling clique, a macho world of fast cars, automatic weapons and loud clothes to match the garishness of Prohibition-era Chicago. The family villa in Pozorevac is so lavish that locals nickname it The Pyramid and Mr Milosevic The Pharaoh. Marko's elder sister Marija, who runs a propagandistic radio station, boasts how she never leaves home without cigarettes and gun. When a women's magazine asked her if she might one day get married and have children, she said: "No... A gun in one hand and a baby in the other - it's all much too complicated."

Even before Serbia's street revolution began in November, some of the shamelessness of the gangster culture had begun to fade. The white fur and torrents of gold and silver that were status symbols in 1993, the height of the war and Serbia's hyperinflation crisis, have given way to the more sober elegance of Versace and Donna Karan.

Many of the designer labels are fake, not for reasons of cost (in fact, they tend to cost more) but because the real things are unavailable to all but a select few whose credit is good enough to commission agents to fly off to Paris and Milan on their behalf. The gangsters and their molls would no doubt make the trip themselves, except that many of them are on Interpol wanted lists.

Since November, the gangsters' behaviour has toned down, along with their clothing. Restaurants once packed with regime people and their cronies are beginning to fill up with opposition figures. A US congressional delegation that visited last week were taken by members of the opposition Democratic Party to an Italian restaurant called Verdi on Belgrade's main street, Terazije; had the same delegation called on Mr Milosevic's government a year ago they might well have been invited to the very same place.

A similar transformation in clientele has taken place at Dionys, a restaurant frequented by people of influence. On the menu of this remarkable gastrononomic haven, where a meal for two costs about the same as the average monthly wage of a Serbian worker, is fresh mango and alligator meat.

With the exception of haunts like XL and a few private clubs, the ruling clique has cleared out of old Belgrade in favour of the new town across the Sava river, where the revolution has yet to get a toe-hold. You can still see the overdressed thugs and their belles (known as "mobile phone babes" or "pager babes" to underline their principal role as fashion accessories) at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where they like to spend evenings eating chocolate cake in the Tea House and listening to soft classics played on a shiny black grand piano.

You can see them, too, at the 24-hour Grand Casino International at the Hotel Jugoslavija, another new venue owned by the most notorious gangster of them all, Arkan. Here, the reception accorded to unfamiliar strangers is frosty. Our visit is cut short by a thug in a penguin suit with a bulge under his left armpit.

Arkan, held responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, has made his own special contribution to Belgrade's gangster-chic scene. He owns many of the designer stores in the new town's Sava Centar and his singer wife has helped develop a new musical genre called turbo-folk, a blend of hip-hop, rock 'n 'roll and traditional Serbian tunes. Security at the casino is provided by Arkan's own "detective agency" called Delije, or Heroes. The very peculiar kind of detective work that made Delije notorious during the war was to track down stolen cars for a fee of several hundred German marks. In reality, the agency had stolen the cars themselves.

The days of the Grand Casino may also be numbered, since it lies in a city district won in last November's municipal elections by Arkan's arch- rival in extreme nationalist circles, the Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj. Mr Seselj has hinted that he will close the Casino, and Arkan has gone nowhere near it for the past few days. But closure may not be necessary. At the rate the revolution is progressing, the thugs may soon be clearing out of the Casino, and every other night spot in Belgrade, all by themselves.

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