Article by Peter Maass

Mittel Hizzoner

The New York Times Magazine  |  October 22, 2000
The former opposition leader and new mayor of Belgrade, Milan Protic, explains one of his postrevolution mandates: clean up the streets already.

Peter Maass: There was a revolution here in Belgrade on Oct. 5. Protesters stormed the federal Parliament, stormed the main television station, stormed the main police station, and then the next day you started as mayor of the city. What was your first day on the job like?

Milan Protic: It was a nut house. No one really knew what was going on. We still had in the back of our minds that something might happen to undermine what we had done the previous day. It was a combination of hope and fear and to some extent confusion, but hope was prevailing.

Q: The night before, you put yourself between the police and the protesters at the main police station when there was the possibility of some very serious bloodshed. That couldn’t have been a very comfortable position to be in.

A: Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I found myself in a situation where the individual responsibility just popped at me. Since that police station is literally 50 feet away from where I live, I felt that it was my duty to go down there and intervene.

Q: On your first day you asked that people clean up their streets. How is that campaign going?

A: I wanted people to do something to ease all those emotions that exploded on Oct. 5. So the first thing I could think of was to call on them in the morning, because the city was so dirty—I mean, we had a revolution here—just to come out in the streets and do something absolutely normal and everyday, and the response was tremendous. I believe it helped relax the atmosphere in the city.

Q: You’ve also asked the citizens of Belgrade to return items they took when they stormed the Parliament and the television station and the police headquarters. Have you gotten things back?

A: Just this morning, five youngsters brought me an old clock from the federal Parliament. They called me last night and told me, “Well, you are the only person that we really trust, and we want you to take it back.” The other day I went to Studio B, the local Belgrade TV station, for an interview, and when I got there, two guys were standing there with a machine gun. A machine gun! They told me, “Well, we took this from the local police station, but we want to return it to you.”

Q: Why was one of your first mayoral orders to forbid parking in front of city hall?

A: This is a royal palace that became city hall. It is my duty to give that image back to this building. Having all these cars parked in front was really an ugly picture.

Q: You sound like Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York. Is it fair to say that you wouldn’t mind becoming known as the Rudy Giuliani of Belgrade?

A: I believe that I’ve got a long way to go, but it would be very nice. You have to admit, Rudy Giuliani is an institution. The general public, not only the citizens of New York, but the American public in general, when you say Giuliani, there’s no other Giuliani. That’s probably the top of a public career, that you’re identified as a person, as an individual.

Q: One of your individual constituents is a guy named Slobodan Milosevic, although it’s not clear whether he is here now. If he calls up to complain about garbage collection or low water pressure, is he going to get a helpful response from city hall?

A: Well, Slobodan Milosevic is a pretty common name in Serbia. There are many Slobodan Milosevices in the city. We should help each and every one of them, including the one that you’ve been referring to. I don’t know what his destiny is, but if he remains a free citizen of this city, he’s going to be treated like everyone else.

Q: You were a student and then taught history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Is there anything you learned there that could possibly be of use in a place like Belgrade, in the position of mayor?

A: Two major things. The first one is how to be tolerant. How to listen to another guy yet keep my own opinion. And No. 2 is to be able to take personal responsibility. Something that we, living in Communism for so long, never learned.

Q: Are you a surfer?

A: No. I was going from Stanford to L.A., trying to find a school where I could study. I took Greyhound and I stopped in Santa Barbara, and just by chance I got the best offer.

Q: Are those cowboy boots that you’re wearing?

A: Yeah, sure. I’ve worn 501’s and cowboy boots since I was 16. I don’t want to change my image. Since I’m almost 6-foot-6 and I weigh something like 240 pounds, I can’t wear designer clothes.

—Peter Maass