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August 1990

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A House Much Divided,

Up in Belgrade people worry me worrying about their enemies, but I like the city anyway. Settled for millennia, destroyed many times, like the Serbs it keeps its pride. To me a day in Belgrade is incomplete without a walk through the dark shade of Kalemegdan park’s big chestnuts to the ramparts of the mighty fortress overlooking the strategic confluence of the Sava and the Danube. Or a visit to the Skadarlija quarter. Carryout stalls do a big business there. People buy snacks, then stroll or sit on stone walls to munch. Biting meat from wooden skewers, smartly clothed women teeter uphill, their spike heels trembling on the cobblestones.

But politics is never long out of mind. I once told an old Serbian friend, one of the gentlest men I’ve ever known, about secessionist sentiments I’d heard in Slovenia.

“Let them secede!” he roared. “Tomorrow won’t be a minute too soon. We’d rather go it alone. We don’t need the Slovenes and Croats. The Serbs have taken enough!”

Across the Sava the towering government buildings and apartments of Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) rise like hackles from reclaimed marshland. Sidewalks exist, but they are usually empty.

Lost in this immensity of pavement and concrete boxes sits the Palace of the Federation, a pile of breathtaking sterility. The president (the position revolves annually among the country’s six republics and two provinces) and the prime minister have grand offices at the head of marble staircases. But ceremonial trappings belie their relative impotence. Power resides in the republics.

Seven months ago Prime Minister Ante Markovic, a Croat, attacked Yugoslavia’s 2,600 percent inflation rate by making the dinar convertible to Western currencies and lopping off four zeros. The million-dinar note shrank to a hundred dinars. At 100,000 dinars to the dollar, the stacks of paper needed for simple transactions had become ridiculous; people were losing their multimillion-dinar shirts.

Markovic coolly concentrates on monetary reform while treating human-rights abuses as an irritant. Supporters defend his program as pragmatic: Give people security and maybe they’ll calm down; bread will still their cries for circuses. Except for vigorous economic initiatives, the federal government is largely ineffective. Elsewhere in Belgrade, leaders of the Republic of Serbia hold to their dictum: Kosovo is our own internal affair.

In the Belgrade station I joined passengers traveling not so much with suitcases as with taped bundles, into which they delved for boiled eggs and salami. A woman in a blue scarf gnawed a cold lamb’s shank clutched in one hand and wiped the fat from her lips with black bread held in the other.

Twenty bleary-eyed young men were toxic with slivovitz, lurching, shoving one another along, braying lyrics as they piled aboard. As the train pulled out, one lighted a large firecracker and threw it out to explode among waving, laughing friends. A young soldier hung out of a still open door, swinging an enormous black radio as the quickening train bore us southward.

The railroad from Belgrade to Bar on the Adriatic coast negotiates 234 bridges and 254 tunnels in its tortuous 295-mile route. The line is an engineering achievement in which the Yugoslavs justly take pride. Climbing through cornfields and plum orchards to Kolasin, crawling along a sheer wall of Montenegro’s Moraca gorge, the train descends to Titograd, then crosses the marshy north end of Lake Scutari and a cypress-slashed plain to run along the sea to Bar.

They have built a magnificent railroad only to run a squalid train on it, with little consideration for the passengers. The corridors hold as many people as the compartments. A trip to the bife, or buffet car, is more of a climb than a walk, with people sprawled in every space, cigarette smoke streaming from their mouths.

The day I rode the train about 75 men crowded the bife, guzzling and bellowing. Those who found room sat on the floor, littered with wrappers and the remnants of bread and cheese. I squirmed to within shouting distance of the counter, exchanging dinars and beer over other passengers’ heads. I retreated to a window to let in some mountain air; the window wouldn’t budge. But the bartender opened his and threw out a large box. It sailed across a waterfall, strewing trash.

* * *

The coast can be the most relaxing or the most nerve-racking section of Yugoslavia, depending on whether you are on a beach or driving to one.

The Adriatic Highway convolutes 643 spectacular miles (1,035 kilometers) from the Albanian border to Italy. It affords little margin of error on its lanes, which typically trace the edge of a precipice with no guardrail between one’s tires and a long drop into the sea. But it takes one to the walled city of Dubrovnik, a magnificence of glowing white stone, and to storied ports where the Lion of St. Mark carved on gateways recalls the imperial heyday of Venice.

I would rather travel the coast on Yugoslavia’s excellent ferry service, Jadrolinija, which annually carries 6.3 million passengers and a million vehicles. Its 120 ports of call include places as small as Drvenik, population about 150. The service is punctual, clean, and inexpensive. Without it, many of the Adriatic coast’s 66 inhabited islands would be isolated.

One day I boarded a ferry for Hvar. The island’s green hills shelter tidy ports with fine Renaissance architecture and a pleasing climate where the Venetian fleet used to winter and repair its ships. Among its blessings, Hvar, like the other islands, is free of ethnic strife. And the dependable sunshine favors lavanda—whose oil is used in perfume, after-shave, medicines, and washing powders.

Jakov Dulcic, a lavender farmer, showed me his fields. For centuries peasants had scrabbled away the stones and heaped them into whalelike hillocks to make room for the lavender. The plants were flowering, a purple mist against the green. The afternoon waned. People were riding home on donkeys.

In the nearby village of Brusje, we went to Jakov’s konoba, or wine cellar. He drew amber wine from a 450-gallon cask and lifted a loaf of goat cheese from a vat of olive oil. In a walled garden Jakov placed the pitcher on a weathered table. Neighbors arrived.

“There’s an old Brusje tradition,” he said. “Nobody pours wine in your glass. You pour what you want. If someone pours it for you, you might not want that much. “Zivili!”

Then everybody started talking about village feasts, open doors, the korzo, the need for everyone to have a boat and veze, or connections; you could count on your friends. Love for the old ways poured out—a powerful unifying factor in a society that, with its state-imposed afflictions, could have sunk into sterile, modernistic despair.

The slanting sun played on their faces and the garden wall with a mellow saffron light, and a breeze moving down the hill stirred the roses and geraniums and rustled dry ivy against the stones. Darkness fell. Still they talked. They talked so much they lost interest in pouring wine, and no one went for candles.

I sailed farther out in the Adriatic to Vis, an island that had entered history as Issa, a Greek colony with its own Adriatic outposts. From its beautiful cup-shaped harbor I set out in a downpour to see the cave from which Marshal Tito directed the Resistance in 1944. British and American forces joined the Partisans on Vis, and their collaboration changed history: Attacking and tying down German divisions on the mainland, they helped win Allied victory in southern Europe and international recognition of Tito’s leadership.

Munching huge figs I’d plucked at roadside, I climbed a rain-soaked mountain path through rosemary and sage to the fortified entrance to Tito’s cave. In his “bedroom” water dripped from many fissures in the limestone ceiling, and the floor was all puddles.

When Tito wanted fighters, he didn’t ask where they came from. His system of ethnic balances was explained by a man in Budva: “If consensus didn’t work, there was Tito. Now we are left only with consensus, and it doesn’t work.”

The islands are part of the Republic of Croatia, which is so divided by mountain ranges that it maintains its unity chiefly on the strength of ethnic cohesion. The maritime portion is sun-toasted villages and easy wine. Over the Dinaric Alps lies continental Croatia, with its brisk central European outlook. For long periods Venice ruled the coast, the Habsburg empire the interior, and the differences are still obvious.

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