MARIJA GAVRILOV & ARSENIJE ĆATIĆ IMPRESSIONABLE KID. SERBIA AMIDST THE POWER SHIFT FROM THE WEST TO THE EAST
Relying on their experience of the long 1990s and the uncertainty that characterised the post-Yugoslav space, Marija Gavrilov & Arsenije Ćatić draw forces as citizens of the periphery in order to deconstruct a contemporary Serbia found at the crossroads between East and West, between technology and all-too-present generational hurdles.
I grew up in Kikinda in the ’90s; a town of barely 38,000 inhabitants, 136km away from Belgrade, 67km away from the Hungarian border. Kikinda was a comfortable town to live in as a child. The streets were wide, flat, quiet.
My family didn’t own a car, yet everything felt close. I walked to school every day, for thirty minutes; even in heavy snow, rain and wind.
Going to the “city” meant going to the town centre. The centre was where my school was; where the theatre was; a shopping centre, with escalators—an amusement for every kid in town; and the best popcorn in the world.
I grew up in Belgrade’s suburbia during the ’90s. A small place where electricity blackouts were a normal phenomenon, the same as water restrictions during summertime. The school would often be closed due to lack of heating and you never knew if your bus was going to be on time.
No wonder the general vibe of the locals was like we were at least 200km away from the city centre, even though the distance is only around 20.
We would go to the city only on special occasions: to the McDonalds, to the movies, to buy something specific or visit some distant relatives.
We both remember meeting the cool city kids for the first time. It’s a collective memory of all the periphery kids.
We felt intimidated. Every kid senses when they’re supposed to follow, when the fixated centre of gravity imposes its bearings on them. And this is a big deal when you are small and unable to properly grasp your feelings and thoughts. It wasn’t that either of us was too shy, dorky or didn’t know what we wanted; rather we felt we were stumbling behind them. They were riding trams, going to the arcades, indoor pools, and movies on a regular basis. All of this because these places were just around the corner for them.
Everything special for us was every day for them.
As we were growing up, our sense of periphery deepened by the way of geopolitics. Listening to our parents reminisce about the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, we came to realise that the previous generation saw itself in the centre, while we and our peers couldn’t help but feel like spectators working for good seats rather than contenders in the ring.
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East—West—East: Ad Infinitum
Due to our recent history, some would think that Serbia was always culturally oriented towards the East, and Russia in particular. But, many forget that just seventy years ago, Tito’s Yugoslavia had broken up with Stalin’s Soviet Union for several years, in an attempt to evince itself as politically independent. This moment was captured by Truman and the United States, who offered generous aid and introduced US-style consumerism in this communist country. By the time the war broke in the early ’90s, three waves of immigration towards the West already tied Serbian families to the Western countries. The fall of Yugoslavia, coupled with the disintegration of the USSR, the rise of globalisation, and the diffusion of the Internet, caught us ingesting more of the Western influences into our inherited socialistic lives.
American culture, in particular, influenced us growing up. We’d soak up undubbed cartoons such as Transformers, Saber Rider, the American family TV drama 7th Heaven—all were aired on Saturday mornings. Watching Rambo, Terminator, or whatever Van Damme movies before bedtime, and playing Mortal Kombat in between. The Sims taught us what American houses looked like, why some people had pools and others didn’t; it taught us that in American capitalism there actually were shortcuts: if you were lucky enough to have a special code, you could add dollars to your account without doing any work.
Fast forward a few years, and the Internet opened new avenues for us to connect with the worlds foreign to older generations, including our parents. We’d practice English on The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter forums, catching the American kids’ slang that helped us stay relevant online: LOL, ROFL, BRB, TTYL. However fleeting, friendships we formed online with anonymous monikers from the West, helped us establish trust at the time when adults around us couldn’t even mention America without swearing at their aggressive politics towards our country.
The troublesome events in the region left behind rickety institutions, shattered economic resilience, and set a tone of indecisiveness to pursuing the path towards liberal democracy. As we were stumbling behind the West and living our peripheral lives, unable to move closer towards it, something else moved towards us.
Sometime in the late ’90s, early 2000s, stores with cheap goods from China started popping up in all major cities and towns across the country. The first thing you’d notice as you walked into one of these stores was the strong smell of plastics; then you noticed the variety of goods. Chinese stores have everything, as we would say: “from a needle to a locomotive.” Kitchenware, clothing, cosmetics, appliances, fake flowers, suitcases, toys. Old Yugoslavs frown upon the tawdry merchandise, remembering the high quality of locally-made items in the heyday. But they still shop Chinese. In this impoverished market, low-quality, potentially cancerous products, shipped from across the globe with a high carbon footprint, are a rare offering of normalcy for shallow pockets.
The Chinese stores were only the beginning of what was emerging to be the era of China’s influence on Serbia—one of the hundred-fifty-two countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, the modern-day Silk Road. Bouncing as a periphery through time, we’re staying motionless in space: hovering over us are Russia, the US, the EU. Now grabbing an invisible hand of China, seemingly without a second thought. It’s precious: they see the potential in our undeveloped market, to patch the holes with much-needed escapism, while extending their influence with physical and digital solutions. If you were to take the trolley number 7 through the Serbian capital city’s main business district, you’d see Huawei’s neon red logo cleaving the skies of New Belgrade; right nearby is the Bank of China; smart cameras with Huawei’s software track the citizens in public spaces. Leaving Belgrade, you might cross the Pupin bridge, also known as the Chinese bridge, built by Chinese labourers, with investment from the Exim Bank of China. This bank is also funding the loan of €317 million towards the reconstruction of 200km of the railway connecting Belgrade with the north of Serbia, and further across the border, with Budapest.
But China’s influence permeates beyond the analog space. Its internet dragons are increasingly shaping Serbia’s digital sphere.
On the back of the Chinese internet giants, the Single’s Day holiday or 11/11 grew into the largest online and offline shopping day in the entire world. Alibaba processed $1 billion in sales in the first 67 seconds of the event in 2019, reaching a total of $38.4 billion in sales within 24 hours. Over the last few years, this day has become important for Serbian consumers who satisfy all petty pleasures purchasing on AliExpress website—the home of everything you (don’t really) need. AliExpress can be credited as the main driver of growth in online shopping in Serbia, which is trending upwards from $291 million in revenues in 2017 to $354 million in 2019.
For a strapped Serbian consumer, shopping is impalpable for the first time in a while: items on AliExpress are such a bargain that an average customer feels potent. Compared to their Chinese counterparts, who are believed to be even more impoverished and deserving of pity, Serbian consumers feel superior. This distorted perception of the periphery’s superiority over the actual centre was well captured in a strange meeting between the former Serbian President and the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2014, when Tomislav Nikolic “illuminated” his peer with a prophecy declared two hundred years ago by a prophet from Western Serbia: “Yellow people from the East will come and rule the world. They will drink the water from the Serbian Morava river. [sic] To this, Keqiang diplomatically responded: “We will drink that water together.”
Alibaba and its affiliate Ant Financial are expected to enter the payments market in Serbia sometimes in 2020, if we’re to trust our politicians. In a country where cash still reigns supreme, such a move could bolster a transformation of retail, driving a mass transition to digital. Seamless integration with AliExpress will drive demand for AliPay among local consumers, forcing other retailers to adopt the system in their processes. Once this happens, Paypal, which exists with several limitations in the local market, will be pushed onto the margins.
Elderly peripheries and their new frontiers
The prism of the generational gap reveals another layer of how our periphery is shaping up with China’s digital lead: on the one hand, one has to acknowledge the parents who understand the analog indications of influence, such as the railroads and highways; and on the other, their kids who understand memes and emerging social networks—a universal language no matter where you are in the world.
Especially when it comes to Tiktok. Each new mega popular social network did something more impressive than its predecessors: more users in shorter time, more content consumed, stickier features to drive addiction. ByteDance’s app has been downloaded more than one billion times around the world since its launch; and it’s currently trending as the second most downloaded app in the app stores in Serbia—the first one from China to top the charts. Tiktok stripped down engagement to the bare essentials: music, gestures, and the sense that the internet exists for our entertainment. Tiktok might be an early indication of how China-native apps will influence our use of the internet in the age of artificial intelligence. If you’ve been on the internet long enough to have spent a good portion of your teens and twenties on Facebook, you’ll be struck by the randomness of the Tiktok feed: it’s not tied to your network of friends and family. The AI algorithm learns about you as you use the app—the data points about how long you watch a certain video, what you like, or comment on, all get blended in a black box to deliver content unique to you. Each piece of content feels everlasting and timely, as there’s no mandatory time and date stamp attached to it. It will learn about your biases, hidden kinks, and your love of bad pop music much better than you will ever care to admit. As a user, you are challenged to perform for a global audience—you never really know who will see you, and what the response will be.
The performative nature of Tiktok is reminiscent of another popular app in China, Douyu; while the app originated as a live streaming platform for gaming primarily, nowadays it features live videos of cooking, singing, whistling, selling products, dancing. Over 400 million Chinese live-stream, and just as many watch and reward the performers, who have their professional career managers and agents. It will be interesting to observe how segments of China’s internet culture spill over into the peripheral internet habitats of Serbia; some of it is already concerning—and hardly unique for Sino-apps. The majority of Tiktok users in our country are unaware of the origins of this app, or how it makes its money, let alone how it uses their data. The same goes for Instagram and WhatsApp, owned by Facebook. Digital education is practically non-existent around here, and parents are super proud when their pre-teen kid harvests thousands of likes on their Tiktok video; that’s what matters. Perks of the peripheral life syndrome? Or, just the general state of the world? Tiktok captured it.
A mirage of autonomy
If you talk to the elders about the state of democracy in our country, they will tell you that the 500-year-long Ottoman rule over the Balkans destroyed our people’s ability to make the right decisions on their own. The truth is more complex than this, but we’re witnessing a decades-long impotence to break the vicious cycle of a lingering periphery. We’re a confused, wandering peripheral kid, continually trying to follow cooler and cooler kids from a promising, shiny future, while losing a perspective of our own.
Being at the periphery means being reactive and waiting for the leader, whoever it is at a moment in time, to show you the way. Not necessarily a negative thing, but in this case it indicates a permanent state of development, as well as constant change and uncertainty. We’re a periphery shapeshifter—always somebody else's periphery and yet never the same.
Some changes may seem to be taking us backwards. Others actually move us forward. At the end of the day, one thing is certain—we’re stumbling onward unguided by our own desires and goals, but by the force of external power shifts. Add technology into the mix, and you get a fertile ground for the rise of dictatorial regimes, strong divisions amidst bulging filter bubbles, and a demise of truth as a virtue. For this reason, the most transformative thing we, as citizens of a periphery, can do is to educate ourselves and the people around us about how our periphery is changing, why, and whether it is in line with what we want. Well, is it?
 Russia's RZD to start overhaul of part of Belgrade-Budapest railway in July. Seenews.com, online here.
 Alibaba’s Singles’ Day sales top $38 billion. Techcrunch.com, online here.
 eCommerce Serbia (Core country: data based on in-depth analysis). Statista.com, online here.
 Toma Nikolic told Chinese PM—Yellow people will drink water from Morava (Toma Nikolić rekao kineskom premijeru—Žuti ljudi će piti vodu sa Morave). Youtube.com, online here.
Arsenije “Archie” Ćatić
Design generalist. A misfit. Always with underdogs. A leader and a follower. I strongly believe in iteration, intuition and hybrid design teams. Honesty, trust, constructive criticism and learning from failures is what keeps me going. Simplist but not minimalist.
I write a monthly newsletter → https://arsenije.me/newsletter
Writing is my way of understanding the world. I run business operations at Exponential View, a totemic newsletter and community focusing on exponential technologies and their impact on the society. I produce the Exponential View podcast, in collaboration with the Harvard Business Review Presents network.
Photo credit: Old phones in Belgrade Central Station, which closed on 30th June 2019, after 137 years of service. Adam Wilson @fourcolourblack / www.unsplash.com