Article
Culture
War & peace
4 min read

Letter from the Balkans

An audience with a crown prince tells the story of troubled lands and resilient inhabitants.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

An orthodox cathedral, with prominent roof domes.
St Sava Cathedral, Belgrade.
Ben Asyö on Unsplash.

It’s only halfway through our supper by Stone Gate, the most ancient entrance to the old citadel of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, that we realise votive candles are burning in the archway outside. Closer inspection reveals three or four simple pews before a niche shrine to Our Lady and the stone walls covered with inscriptions to the local deceased. 

Families, young and old but mostly young, gather in the gloaming for their dear departed. This is a profoundly Catholic site and the little restaurant, brightly lit and jolly, nevertheless feels reverential and on holy ground. Some 80 per cent of the population of Croatia is Roman Catholic, while just 3.3 per cent are Serbian Orthodox. 

A five-and-a-half-hour bus ride east and we’re in Belgrade, capital of Serbia. Here, the proportions of the faithful are almost exactly reversed – 81 per cent are Orthodox and a little under four per cent Catholic. 

These statistics serve as a grim reminder of the phrase that entered our political lexicon in the first half of the 1990s: Ethnic cleansing. In that civil war, as the former Yugoslavia broke up into its constituent republics, Croatian Serbs and Serbian Catholics – those who survived, that is – were displaced. 

So we’re less likely to see the kind of Marian devotion that we witnessed in Zagreb being honoured in Belgrade. This is essentially a technical, creedal difference between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, in how the incarnation of the Son proceeds from the Holy Spirit. It’s no big deal theologically and shouldn’t detain us. But it quietly points to the fragility of peace, not to say democracy, in the Balkans. 

A fresco of the Christ in its dome has a bullet hole through the forehead, not so much crucified as assassinated. 

 A mural depicts an icon of Christ with a bullet hole in his forehead.

HRH Crown Prince Alexander, head of the Royal family Karadjorjdevic, which ruled the kingdoms of Serbia and (later) Yugoslavia until the Second World War, carefully refers to it as “democracy at midnight” over coffee in the Blue Room of Belgrade’s Royal Palace. He returned to his ancestral home when Slobodan Milosevic was deposed at the millennium.  

The Crown Prince helped his country return to democracy by uniting the opposition which defeated Milosevic in the elections of 2000. Even today, he calmly states that western democratic leaders often fail to understand how the mindset of eastern autocracy works and agrees that it is “work in progress”. Eternal vigilance is key.  

In this context, the Serbian Orthodox Church is doing well, but it’s also still work in progress. Under communism, a substantial number of Serbian bishops were appointed by the Soviet regime, for purposes of control and information gathering. That culture wasn’t cleansed overnight, nor has the communist legacy been entirely expunged from the Church. 

“You’ll see what I mean when you visit our family chapel in a moment,” the Crown Prince tells me. Sure enough, a fresco of the Christ in its dome has a bullet hole through the forehead, not so much crucified as assassinated. Prince Alexander will not restore it, so its serves as a constant reminder of what can be. His guiding principle is that “only dictators alter history.”  

Elsewhere, our guide points to desecrated icons and the ghostly shadows of Soviet insignia on marble pillars. Alexander is an unassuming and modest man, referring to the 18 Serbian parties he convened at a conference in 2000 as “the democracy by email”.  

When we’re joined by his wife, Crown Princess Katherine, she corrects this, proudly stating that her husband returned democracy to the region. There is probably some truth in both their versions of events. The consequence of that could be a restoration of a constitutional parliamentary monarchy in Serbia – we’ll see, or perhaps our successors will. 

From the Palace, we visit St Sava, called a temple but really the Serbian Orthodox cathedral consecrated to the memory of the founder of the national Church. This, again, is work in progress. Started in 1935 and only now approaching completion, it’s a paradigm of the troubled contemporary history of Serbia. Communists have razed it and Nazis have parked their trucks and tanks in it. 

It is unashamedly modern, though it honours ancient Byzantine mural and fresco methodologies. Its biblical stories in gold leaf use the traditional crafts, linking Belgrade to its ancient past, whatever despots may have done to interrupt its devotional history. We’re linked to the palace we’ve just left by enormous doors, inscribed with multi-lingual prayers of welcome, donated by the royal family. 

Perhaps the allegory it offers is best illustrated by the image of Christ – no bullet hole now – in the dome, which was built and raised, centimetre by centimetre, from the ground. All 4,000 tonnes of it. The metaphor of rising from the ashes of war writes itself. 

And that’s the takeaway from Belgrade. Serbia – and the wider Balkans – suffered a 20th-century of unfathomable bleakness. Its people have endured and their spirit isn’t broken, a moral exemplar for western Europe. Belgrade resonates to its folk music and young laughter over broken bread and wine outpoured (gosh, do they eat and drink – for who knows what tomorrow holds?). 

The phoenix, which naturally shares Greek roots with Serbian royalty, would be the go-to cliché for the cyclical regeneration of Belgrade. But as this city approaches Easter, there is of course something else more fundamental going on. 

Belgrade has faith in itself, as well as the God who has delivered it. It’s a resurrection story really.   

 

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.