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.
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