(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
High school and university textbooks describe a process called “McDonaldization” where foreign cultures adopt American or Western values and aesthetics. In Serbia, this Westernization process appears to come from the demands of the people. In the case of McDonald’s, this is true to an extreme. In a nation where McDonald’s can be more expensive than local pizza shops and bakeries, McDonald’s exists as a delicacy of sorts, free of its American stereotype as merely a late night haven for high teenagers.
For this reason, no Serbians seem to care that the former royal palace of Novi Sad, a city in the north of the country, now houses a McDonald’s. They are equally accepting of the Golden Arches above the magnificent city hall building in Subotica. In Belgrade, the landmark and former home of Jovan Jovanic, one of Serbia’s most famous poets, now also houses a McDonalds.
However, in other cases, the demand for these Western goods is not representative of the people’s desires. With weak and unresponsive state institutions, Serbians often feel that their political leaders respond more to foreign money than their constituent’s wishes. In all three cities mentioned above, locals have expressed disappointment and anger over the demolition of old, historic buildings to make room for luxurious, modern projects. Just last week, 20,000 Belgradians protested the demolition of large portions of the Savamala riverfront to make way for the uber-luxurious Belgrade Waterfront Project. The buildings destroyed included bars, restaurants, homes, and even a shelter for Belgrade’s migrant refugee population. Almost every young Serbian I spoke to attended: from my home stay brother, to coworkers, and even our program coordinator.
Over three and a half billion dollars from Arab Gulf investors have pushed through what many locals claim will be a blatantly inaccessible collection of ritzy hotels, offices, and retail space. As is often the case, local government broke ground on the Belgrade Waterfront, which will redefine the skyline and soul of the city, without ever consulting the local community. Furthermore, activists often assert that they circumvented laws demanding appropriate building permits, demolished historical structures, and have even evicted residents with little warning.
Smart investments will take into account the needs of the target community, as these people do take note of the source behind the money. Years ago, Japan donated a system of buses to Belgrade public transit. Despite otherwise having a relatively small aid package to Serbia, a huge number of Belgradians perceive Japan to be Serbia’s most supportive donor. After the wars of the 1990s, China built a new bridge across the Sava River, and this has opened the door for the next stage of Chinese business in Serbia: a high-speed highway dubbed “the Silk Road”.
Whether coming from private businesses or public government sources, an investment in another country is not merely an investment in business, but also in the goodwill of that community. In order to establish a legacy for future exchange, the mandate for investment must stem from the people’s authentic needs, or risk provoking a people with a long communal memory.