Serbia settles scores with Danube's bombed bridges

Cruise missiles destroyed them and that is how they will stay, writes Robert Fisk

YOU WOULDN'T think, looking at the great road bridges drooping into the Danube, that they could be so powerful a financial weapon in the hands of Slobodan Milosevic.

The tarmac surface and neat white lines and railings finish in the dark, powerful green billows of one of Europe's major waterways, a grim tribute to the American cruise missiles that destroyed them in April. But that is the way they are going to stay until Europe shows its remorse; because as long as the Danube remains blocked, Serbia has a steel grip on the jugular of Europe. Special friends excepted.

Europe bombed the bridges - so now it will have to pay the price. And it will be a high one. According to the Serbs, German investors in Hungary are losing billions of Deutschmarks because of the river's continued closure. Which may be why an Austrian mission turned up with a proposal to clear the Danube and build a temporary pontoon for cars on the piles of the blasted the Austro-Hungarian bridge. The Serbs promptly told the Austrians they could rebuild all the bridges - or none.

Then the International Danube Commission, under EU pressure, offered to rebuild all the bridges. And Belgrade turned down the offer. It would accept no such generosity, the Serbian government said, until Yugoslavia was readmitted to all international organisations, including the IMF. There is, of course, a painful beauty in all this. Europe closed the Danube river, so now it can stay closed - except for a chosen few.

For by extraordinary chance, the Austro-Hungarian engineers who long ago drained the great lakes of Vojvodina, constructed a canal system around Novi Sad, a waterway whose road and rail bridges Nato never thought to destroy. And along these gentle rivers, Russian and Ukrainian vessels are now moving through Serbia, bypassing Novi Sad and keeping open their maritime passage down through the Iron Gates to the Black Sea. The canal system is a national channel, so ships need Belgrade's permission to travel on it. Only Serbia's friends, and those from whom she needs gas and oil through the winter, need apply.

It seems bleak compensation for the loss of Kosovo. Indeed, Serbia's frontiers seem to grow steadily closer each year. But the Serbs understand, as many Europeans do not, that time is as long as a river and lasts longer than a lifetime. They didn't have Kosovo at the beginning of the century. And they certainly don't have it at the end. This mood of longevity seems to pervade Belgrade, where Europe's embarrassment on the Danube is light relief compared to the historical loss of Serbia's supposed "heartland". But as Radomir Diklic says, the Serbs will wait. "They'll wait one or two centuries for Kosovo if necessary," the editor of the independent Betanews agency insists. "We waited five centuries. And when trouble comes at some point in the future, when they feel strong, the Serbs will strike back."

Mr Diklic is not a bloody-minded man, but he has no illusions, and seems to enjoy Europe's predicament on the Danube. Without Serbia, he says, there can be no peace in the Balkans. There must be a democratic Serbia. But mention the political opposition to President Milosevic and there comes from Mr Diklic a choking sound. "After the war, the opposition here had a unique opportunity," he says. "People were very angry - they are still very unhappy and disappointed - but they are unable to do anything." Mr Diklic is right. On Republic Square each evening, ever- diminishing groups of young people call for the departure of the man Nato couldn't kill. The police watch and smoke cigarettes and look bored. The speakers tell the people how poor their country has become, how destitute, how terrible the winter will be. Not, of course, how atrociously the Albanians of Kosovo were treated. And early each morning a thick, clammy, brown fog lies over Belgrade, a powerful mixture of wood smoke and untreated diesel that drifts through the frosty streets.

The dinar is still falling; you need 18 to buy a single Deutschmark, the currency to which it was originally pegged, and the Serbs with money to spend in Belgrade's restaurants come from northern Bosnia. It's a closed world with not a single foreign newspaper on sale, with only government exhortations to rebuild - Mr Milosevic remains a master of "people's struggle" rhetoric - and a deserted international airport. Not a single plane flies to Europe, and the US has tried to dissuade other nations from allowing JAT, the pariah national carrier, from landing. So Russia, China, Tunisia, Libya and, interestingly, Israel, where Washington apparently has no leverage on such matters, are among the few countries to receive flights from Belgrade.

In the towns and villages of Serbia, they are opening memorial books containing the names of those who died in Nato's bombardment, civilians first, soldiers afterwards. There are memorial slabs in squares and hoardings to cover up bomb sites. The motorway bridges on the road to Macedonia have been repaired. Even the railway bridge at Gurdulice, where Nato bombed a train into the Morava river, has been reconstructed. A single incinerated carriage lies below the girders as a reminder of the slaughter.

But the only bridges that matter are the ones still unrepaired at Novi Sad. The longer they are in ruins, the more expensive it becomes for Europe. And the more Serbia expects the Europeans to pay.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Belong: Volunteer Mentor for Offenders

This is a volunteer role with paid expenses : Belong: Seeking volunteers who c...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Marketing Manager is ...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionists - Prestige Brand

£6 - £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: Admin Assistant

£12000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An admin assistant is required ...

Day In a Page

Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests