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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Babysitter Katie and Paul have terse words in the park
tvReview: The strength of the writing keeps viewers glued to their seats even when they are confronted with the hard-hitting scenes
Life and Style
Make-up artists prepare contestants for last year’s Miss World, held in Budapest
fashion
Life and Style
life
News
‘The Graduate’, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, was directed by Nichols in his purple period
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

What are Jaden and Willow on about?

Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

Cold war

How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager