Eastern Europe March 28, 2007, 12:37PM EST

Rocky Inspires Success in Serbia

Identifying with the need to fight for upward mobility, the village of Zitiste is building a statue of the fictional boxer

Odd things sometimes happen in northern Serbia.

The small village of Zitiste recently made international headlines when officials announced plans to build a statue to honor the fictional boxing hero, Rocky Balboa, immortalized by the Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone.

"When I saw the latest Rocky film, I felt as if Rocky came from our village," Bojan Marceta, the village resident who came up with the idea, told Radio B92. "He had to fight to win his place in society � This area has been economically isolated for a long time, and the villagers identify with the guts this movie character shows as he confronts miserable starting circumstances."

Village leaders soon embraced Marceta's vision, hoping to reverse Zitiste's fortunes. Some believe the place is jinxed.

"This is the chance to give a more positive image to Zitiste, which for years suffered a high unemployment rate, accompanied with serious damage from floods," local councilman Zoran Babic told Radio B92.

Village residents contacted the sculptor who built the original Rocky statue in Philadelphia, the hometown of the iconic character. But they soon after settled on a local sculptor, Boris Staparac, who unveiled plans for the five-meter-high monument.

That such an offbeat initiative and likely future tourist attraction would emerge from northern Serbia is no surprise. While Serbia itself was knee-deep in the nationalist ravings that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, this fertile corner of the former Austro-Hungarian empire - known as the Banat - has long enjoyed a history of tolerant multiculturalism. More than a dozen ethnic groups live side-by-side, unburdened with ideological concerns to pursue common commercial interests.

That, and a somewhat Machiavellian belief that even quirky news is good news, are attracting needed attention to the region.

Overall, Serbia reportedly attracted $4 billion of foreign direct investment in 2006, a goodly share of that from the sale of state-owned mobile-telephone operator Mobi 63 to the Norwegian Telenor for more than 1.5 billion euros. In relative terms, Serbia's performance is comparable to the level of foreign investment attracted by new European Union members and neighbors Romania and Bulgaria.

The Serbian economy, though, has seen 6 percent growth the past three years, which analysts say is among the fastest rates in Eastern Europe.

But the Banat thirsts for more. Indeed, Zitiste is not the only statue-builder.

Drawing inspiration from the Rocky-related news, Medja, a tiny hamlet near the Romanian border, garnered the media spotlight itself when it announced plans to commemorate perhaps its most famous son: Johnny Weissmuller, the five-time Olympic swimming gold medalist and longtime actor who played Tarzan a remarkable 12 times.

Weissmuller himself reflected the ethnic mosaic here.

Born Johann Weissm�ller in 1904 to German-speaking parents of Jewish and Roman-Catholic background, he was registered with the Hungarian name Janos in the baptismal records of the times. He left his native village at just seven months old, when his parents emigrated to the United States. Raised in the States, he would later falsify his place of birth, reportedly to secure his participation for the U.S. Olympic swimming team.

"The Weissm�ller family is one of the oldest in these parts, and I personally knew some of the actor's close relatives," says Nebojsa Kosnic, a Medja native who leads the citizen's initiative to build a statue. The monument, he said, would "simply mark the almost-forgotten fact that a great sportsman and artist was born as our fellow citizen."

Meanwhile, the major city of the Serbian side of the Banat, Zrenjanin, is going a more typical route to attract investment: offering infrastructure, land, and labor.

As a result, Zrenjanin has recently won some of the largest greenfield foreign investments in southeastern Europe.

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