Money can buy you death, Serbia's new rich discover

Shootings a lifestyle downer for gangster society

Friday February 11, 2000

The killing this week of the Yugoslav defence minister, Pavle Bulatovic, is the latest in a series of mafia-style hits that have spread fear and panic through the political and financial elite of Belgrade.

The absence of a ready explanation for the assassination and the fact that it happened less than a month after the killing of the paramilitary leader and gangster, Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, has left Serbs asking, "Who next?"

Nerves are particularly frayed among the nouveaux riches of Belgrade. These are people who have made their money in the last 10 years through dubious deals and by busting sanctions imposed on Serbia by the United States and the European Union for the role played by Belgrade's leadership and military in promoting the ethnic war that ravaged Bosnia after 1992.

They call themselves "businessmen" but their business often consists of smuggling and running black market and protection rackets.

"To get really rich in Serbia you need good connections within the authorities and you should have good contacts with some gangs," said Bratislav Grubacic, a journalist and political analyst. "The only problem is that the money you earn is not just yours. You have to share it with those who protected you or those who gave you the opportunity to do the job."

The huge wealth amassed by this small group of individuals has given them considerable power and led them to believe that they are beyond the law. The rash of shootings since the start of the year has broken this illusion of invulnerability.

The new rich like to flaunt their wealth but they also like their privacy. Arkan had the money to buy himself the veneer of respectability and could be seen in public places such as the Intercontinental hotel where he met his death.

Lesser hoodlums prefer to lurk in private clubs, like La Coste in the affluent suburb of Dedinje. A couple of bruisers with thick necks and golden chains guarantee the screening of clientele.

A safer way to brush shoulders with the nouveaux riches is in the City Passage shopping centre. In these calm, marble-clad halls, exclusive Italian designer boutiques offer the monied of Belgrade a number of solutions to the dilemma of what to do with their cash. A pair of imitation tigerskin boots can cost £100. The average salary in Serbia is about £25 a month.

There has been an upsurge of interest in cosmetic surgery among Serbian high society. A number of politicians' wives have benefited from cosmetic surgery, including breast implants, liposuction and nose jobs. "These people have so much money they don't know what to do with it," said Bratislav Grubacic. "They've bought houses, they've bought cars, now they want to buy back their youth."

There is no shortage of wannabes, young men and young women who saw Arkan and his lavish lifestyle as a model to aspire to. Many girls have embarked on careers as models in the hope that their looks will take them places, preferably away from Serbia. In the meantime, there is at least the chance of earning some decent money: a model can earn more in a day than a factory worker can in a month.

"Unfortunately education and spiritual values don't matter in Serbia today," said Nebojsa Grncarski, a successful male model. "All that counts is money and material things. It doesn't matter how you get them: the end justifies the means."

A visit to the studios of TV Pink provides an introduction to the get-rich-quick values of Serbia under the Yugoslav presidency of Slobodan Milosevic. The television station belongs to a crony of the president's wife, Mira Markovic. Arkan's widow, the top folk singer, Ceca, used to make regular appearances. For aspiring actors and pop stars there's a simple lesson: if you want to get ahead, get on TV Pink.

"There's no big deal about being a celebrity in Yugoslavia," insisted a TV Pink presenter, Ivana Bojic, somewhat disingenuously. "But on the other side there is another level of the jet-set, people that I don't know and who don't want to be known."

And then, of course, there are the newly poor of Serbia. These are people who used to have a middle-class lifestyle, but whose standard of living has fallen steadily during the 10 years of Milosevic's rule.

They see no way out of the poverty trap and long for political change. But as long as the system continues to serve those who are rich and powerful now, things are likely to stay just as they are.

Original article