When I visit the city of Jagodina I often sit in the garden of the Cultural Center, or at least what is left of it, read the latest issue of the magazine “Novi put” and listen to the noise of the city. At first glance, one might say that Jagodina is a very vibrant city, especially during green market days on Wednesdays or Saturdays. It definitely shines compared to Cuprija, which looks like it froze in time following the NATO bombing in 1999. Like Belgrade, Cuprija conserved its ruins, but not in the name of patriotic rebellion, but because of endemic poverty and deep-rooted crime. Therefore, going back to Jagodina seems like travelling through time. However, the time machine patented by the long time mayor Dragan Markovic Palma has one peculiarity – it’s taking Jagodina to a historical dead end from which there doesn’t seem to be a way out. Still, this would not be so distressful, if it didn’t represent the general Serbian political system in a nutshell. I’ll try to explain this using several examples from the political life of a city situated in the proximity of major traffic corridors now used only for the transportation of suspicious goods and curious summer weekend-tourists who, attracted by the Jagodina’s advertising campaign – “a new tourism brand of Serbia”, are hurrying to see for themselves this miracle of transition.
Palma as a state of mind
Jagodina is a symbol of the failed idea to modernize Serbia which was once promoted by the government of Zoran Djindjic. It was in this city that after observing the apathy of its citizens during his March 2002 tour “Serbia on the right track”, Djindjic delivered his famous speech using allegories about the cable factory’s broken watches and the biological uniqueness of every individual. Eventually, in the local elections of 2004 (in March of that year Dragan Markovic Palma left Borislav Pelevic’s Party of Serbian Unity and created United Serbia) the pro-democratic option was completely defeated after which Serbia has witnessed a permanent rise in Palma’s popularity. How can this be possible, one may ask, not understanding how a politician like Markovic is able to survive more than two days on the political scene. The answer lies in the fact that Palma is just the tip of the iceberg and that what we see on television is just a minor part of a large and robust power mechanism that obliterates anyone or anything threatening it. The best proof of this is the still unresolved murder of journalist Milan Pantic (2001), that remains a “disciplinary example” for all those who dare question or investigate the mechanisms of municipal government and its transitional processes. Meanwhile, United Serbia with its absolute majority has infiltrated all pores of Jagodina’s social life. After observing the workings of the local government for eight years, it is possible to paint a clear picture of the power elements constituting Dragan Markovic Palma’s rule. At the outset affected were directors of public institutions and the already weak media. The environment shaped by the editorial policy of TV Palma Plus, from the beginning inclined towards nurturing the rural tradition, cheap amusement and nationalistic political content with a touch of the surreal (similar to the program of United Serbia), very quickly silenced every voice of the opposition. The “Novi put” magazine, which once had an interesting political and cultural section, became a flier for advertising Markovic’s “success” while Radio and TV Jagodina became complementary programs to the mayor’s central station. The small city cinema hall was all that was left of the cultural centre, while the larger hall was completely destroyed and exposed to the onlookers as the only surviving memory of an era when Jagodina had far more serious cultural ambitions and affinities. The only thing remaining on the building was a sign with an inscription: “Theatre”.
Beethoven takes the Jagodina railway
Gaining absolute power, D.M. Palma very quickly began to express interest in making architectural interventions, and began turning the central city square into an exercise field for manifesting urban tastelessness. First, a huge cross next to the churchyard fence appeared, just across the gymnasium; in the front of the square emerged a fountain resembling a children’s inflatable pool that someone apparently left there. Unfortunately, together with the cross and a large two level garage between the department store and the elementary school, it remained there permanently. No one objected. New commercial and residential buildings quickly followed, transforming the topography of the once carefully planned urban core into a rural site, just at the time of when Jagodina received city status, which the mayor kept bragging about. Then came the (“Tiger”) Zoo and the Aqua Park project. Luckily, they ran out of free space in the city centre. Concurrently with the “branding” of the city as “a desirable tourist destination”, many populist measures were passed including free public transport for pensioners, conducting blood pressure measurements in the city’s rural outskirts, the establishment of Third Child Fund (in collaboration with Svetlana Raznatovic), complementary summer vacations for fourth and eighth graders (Buljarica hostels have not been renovated in the last thirty years) and providing monthly sums of 200 euros for every fourth child until their 18th birthday. The surreal political phase of Jagodina’s mayor (under his slogan “Patriotism cannot be poured into a tractor”) came shortly after, following United Serbia joining the national coalition government in 2008. Supported by the ruling Democratic Party at the national level, Palma began to think much more than before of himself and his political capacity. He started bragging how “only Beethoven and Chopin never performed for him”, while politically becoming obsessed with an idea of fertilization (of both people and animals). Therefore, on the one hand, he radicalized the war on white plague by developing projects to help bring together spouses, organizing collective visits to the sea and employing one of the partners based on (United Serbia) party order, despite the fact there were no real existing jobs. On the other hand his homophobic political activity began blooming and it now represents an essential part of the current election campaign. All things considered, the vision of Jagodina’s mayor is to have a city of happy retirees and many grandchildren whose (heterosexual) parents all become members of the United Serbia party and (only in this way) receive employment. Manipulation using children, both born and unborn, is an important component of the socio-political life of Jagodina; children are the ideal public to welcome the Patriarch, as well as an ideal spectator on the police anti-terrorist unit’s demonstration exercise, the most prominent cultural event provided by Palma to Jagodina’s youngest citizens. But on that occasion about twenty children were injured. Everything was, of course, subsequently covered up. Not even the parents dared to say something. Essentially, Markovic does not need to worry about collecting sure votes since there are many in the city that have been bought for the “common cause” through some of his populist activities. There is no danger of white ballots, because Palma prevented them with his comprehensive package of anti-white plague measures.
Lesbian scene – do not cross!
In the official biography of the mayor of Jagodina, activities between 1993 (when he entered politics) and 2004 (when he formed his party) have been redacted – this is the period during which he earned his first million. This is the underwater part of the glacier that can’t be seen from his official biography, but can be reconstructed from his policies. On the website Istinomer.rs, which records all of Palma’s false promises and inconsistencies, together with those pledges rarely fulfilled (mostly related to things concerning reproduction: aged couples, bovine, etc..), one can also find the information that after renting tents for weddings and funerals, Palma turned to coal transportation and became “a monopolist in supplying coal to the Cable factory union (the same one in which the clocks stopped a long time ago) and later the army of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”. An enabling factor for this was certainly membership in Arkan’s Party of Serbian Unity. These were Arkan’s most active years. This is how Palma Plus television was created. This is how the concept of the Serbian population being threatened by white plague was developed. Kickboxing as a recreational sport and the Tiger as a mascot originate from that time. The model of harsh discipline used to create the Unit, Raznatovic also used in his business, meaning that Palma went through a drill similar to that through which all Serbian Volunteer Guard members passed. He established the same relationship with his subordinates after Arkan’s death and the final split with Borislav Pelevic. Fear and repression are important components of Jagodina mayor’s governance. When he enters a room everyone present stands up. It is undesirable to speak about him publicly, even less secretly. People quickly pass-on all the information which ultimately converges in his cabinet. Intellectuals stay silent, while Democrats take part in the city’s political life. The only ones showing resistance to Palma’s rule right now are members of the hidden LGBT population which, following the mayor’s threats in October 2011 that he will organize his own “pride parade” where “boys and girls in national costumes” would participate, drew embraced female silhouettes on the asphalt with an inscription “Lesbian scene – do not cross!”
This is also the way Serbia operates.