Under the Orwellian regime of Slobodan Milosevic the people of Serbia endured war, UN sanctions, a NATO bombing campaign, and a rate of inflation that at its peak reached 313,563,558 per cent.
October 6th, 2000 was the day that regime finally came to an end. One usually pessimistic columnist wrote: ‘That which I have been dreaming about for years has happened: everything, literally, everything is possible in Serbia! We have won!’ Just nine months previously a survey ranked Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, the twelfth worst city in the world, a cultural no-man’s-land. ‘This was a city’, writes Matthew Collin, ‘which had almost lost its heart, and was fast losing its mind.’
Originally published in 2001, This Is Serbia Calling is an account of a very different battle for hearts and minds long before the coalition rhetoric. Piecing together testimonies from members of Belgrade’s alternative youth scene, Matthew reveals the city’s rebellious underside that refused to be brainwashed by the government. He focuses on the young journalists of Radio B92, a cult radio station airing news and music aimed at opening the minds of the listeners; Veran Matic, B92’s editor, called it ‘liberation through culture.’ Later, concerned that their supporters were swallowing even their anti-establishment line too readily, B92 employed the slogan ‘Trust no one, not even us.’ In ten years, the station was shut down four times by the government.
If Matthew’s style seems a little sensationalised, his sympathy with his subject is genuine. B92 supported Western values and played outspoken Western music – in 1998 they even won the ‘Free Your Mind’ free speech prize at the MTV awards. When NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, the people felt betrayed. Many of those quoted insist that the military action increased nationalistic fervour and put them in an impossible position. They couldn’t support the regime, but neither could they support the bombing of the city they loved. Radio B92 was shut down for the third time. It was to be off air for four months – its longest absence. ‘The NATO bombing has destroyed us,’ its editor told reporters.
With the impact of yet another Western military ‘intervention’ still being felt, This Is Serbia Calling is more relevant than ever. In the wake of a war in which the media has played a leading role, Matthew’s book bears witness to war’s first casualty: truth. Although he focuses mainly on the manipulation of the Serbian media, he indicates that the Western press, heavily influenced by NATO, the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence, was far from independent in its coverage of that conflict. Television networks such as CNN were altogether more sophisticated; the propaganda was there, but it was more subtle, perhaps ultimately more insidious.
If the book ends on a high note, with the defeat of Slobodan and a dream of the future, the events of the ensuing years lend it a rather different colour. This is a timely reissue: the story of Serbia’s liberation, and underlying it, a moving critique of Western values and the price we pay for them.