Repression backfires in Serbia, fueling anti-corruption movement

    Opposition to a waterfront project has swelled into a mass movement denouncing corruption and state-sanctioned crime, following nighttime attacks and demolitions.

    On Wednesday, July 13, over 10,000 protesters in Serbia filled the streets of Belgrade, marching as part of a growing popular movement against political corruption and criminal acts surrounding the Belgrade Waterfront Project.

    The march was the fifth so far in an ongoing movement that has gained momentum since April. Dubbed “Beograd NIJE MALI” or “Belgrade is not small,” the name of the march also carried a direct message to Belgrade mayor and project supporter Sinisa Mali that “Belgrade is not Mali.”

    Opposition to the waterfront project began with a small group called Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd, or Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own. It has since swelled to a mass movement denouncing government corruption and calling for the mayor’s resignation after a series of illegal demolitions were undertaken in late April to clear land along the Sava River for the new development.

    Citizens in Wednesday’s march chanted “Whose city? Our city!” and carried banners with slogans like “Vucic you thief!” — in reference to Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic — and “Facts and responsibility instead of never-ending press conferences.”

    The crowd sang a Serbian translation of the song “Ay Carmela,” an iconic resistance song from the Spanish Civil War, according to Jovana Prusina, the coordinator of the activist network My Initiative, which was formed by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia.

    Protesters in the Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd movement marched behind a giant, inflatable yellow duck, now a symbolic image of the movement. The word for duck in Serbian, patka, also means fraud; so the cartoon denounces the Belgrade Waterfront Project as a “Belgrade Water-Fraud.”

    Thousands of protesters marched through Belgrade on Wednesday, July 14. (Facebook / Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd)
    Thousands of protesters marched through Belgrade on Wednesday, July 14. (Facebook / Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd)

    The waterfront project, unveiled in the spring of 2012, is a plan to develop luxury hotels and apartments, a shopping mall and a new opera house along the Sava River, which runs through Belgrade. The project will take decades to complete and is expected to cost over $3.8 billion.

    Protesters say it is unclear where the government will get the funds to complete the project, claiming that it is part of a dangerous trend of unregulated urban planning, gentrification of public space and the exclusion of public opinion — all while the government’s deficit peaks and public financing is cut from the budget.

    According to Luka Knežević Strika, one of the protest’s organizers, the movement’s goal is to “stop the degradation and plunder of Belgrade on behalf of megalomaniacal urban and architectural projects.” The group aims to fight the city’s development by non-transparent private interests and to oppose the government’s disregard for the voices of ordinary citizens affected by the development.

    “This city is our home,” Knežević Strika said. “We are responsible for each of its parts, processes and problems — both for the present and for the future.”

    Organizers have mostly been employing social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to disseminate information about upcoming protests and to ask supporters for donations. “One of the main challenges has been drawing the attention of the public,” Knežević Strika said. “The Belgrade Waterfront Project is being promoted as a big investment and chance to change the economic destiny of the city. All the officials of the country and the city are acting as its PR team.”

    Opposition has been growing since the development project was unveiled four years ago, in part due to the opaque process of selecting Eagle Hills, a developer from Abu Dhabi, to design the waterfront plan. The project would also lead to the destruction of important cultural hubs in the Savamala district, including art galleries and nightlife.

    The Belgrade Waterfront Project has drawn harsh criticism from the opposition leader of Belgrade’s city assembly, Balša Božović, who calls the project a “scam” and alleges that Eagle Hills will only invest a fraction of the $3.8 billion necessary to complete development, leaving taxpayers to make up the deficit.

    The waterfront project has also wreaked havoc on one of Belgrade’s newest and most vulnerable communities — the refugees fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and transiting through Serbia in an attempt to reach Western Europe.

    On April 27, the Miksalište refugee center in Savamala was demolished to make room for waterfront development. According to Miksalište volunteer coordinator Alberto Grain, the staff did not know the building was going to be destroyed until the day before it happened.

    “The stupid thing is we had already planned and informed of our plans to move to a new place on June 1,” Grain explained. “They demolished us in mid-May. They only had to wait three weeks and we would have moved anyways.”

    Grain said the volunteers were able to move most of the equipment before the demolition, but the center lost over $5,000 in stock and infrastructure. The government provided no compensation and made false public statements that it had provided assistance for Miksalište to move to the new facility by supplying vans.

    Neighboring buildings around Miksalište were also destroyed in secret the night before the refugee center was torn down. A group of roughly 30 unknown masked men, armed with baseball bats and daggers, destroyed buildings along the riverside and beat up residents. Police refused to respond to the locals’ calls, according to Serbian Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic.

    The protests in Belgrade have swelled in the wake of these violent and illegal actions, and the movement now symbolizes a larger struggle against corruption and state-sanctioned crime.

    Protesters threw watermelons on the steps of the Municipal Police Department to protest the arrest of a watermelon vendor. (Facebook / Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd)
    Protesters threw watermelons on the steps of the Municipal Police Department to protest the arrest of a watermelon vendor. (Facebook / Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd)

    On July 1, members of Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd threw watermelons on the steps of the Municipal Police Department in a symbolic act against recent arrests, including one woman who was arrested selling watermelons without a permit. The movement has thus grown beyond opposing the Belgrade Waterfront Project into expressing general unrest and opposition to unjust policing measures, corrupt political leadership and lack of transparency.

    Although the organizers of Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd have been acting for two years, Knežević Strika said the state-sanctioned violence and lack of accountability for top political leaders has created pressure behind the movement. “We are now trying to channel this pressure into political and criminal responsibility for the organizers and perpetrators,” he explained.

    While Serbian Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic has admitted that the “highest city officials” were behind the nighttime demolitions, he maintains that their “motives were pure.”

    Nevertheless, the one eyewitness to the destruction in Savamala, Slobodan Tanaskovic, died mysteriously after a series of disturbing events. Tied up and robbed by the masked men, Tanaskovic was supposedly hospitalized for a heart condition, then treated for digestive issues and ultimately restrained in his hospital bed for “mental problems.”

    The extreme nature of these circumstances has only caused support for the resistance movement to swell, as public outrage has increased over the failure to prosecute politicians who ordered these attacks and demolitions.

    Until this week, the protests occurred once every two weeks. Now activists plan to escalate their demands by presenting Mayor Sinisa Mali with his letter of resignation during a rally outside the City Assembly on July 18.

    “The only one giving statements is the prime minister,” activist Jovana Prusina explained. “Not the mayor, not the chief of police. The mayor has gone on several trips for business or pleasure in the past two months, watching tennis matches on the other side of the world. He’s not here, not giving any statements.”

    Prusina said it was important for the movement to develop long-term goals for institutional change, instead of focusing solely on ousting corrupt political officials from office.

    “That’s the main goal of the protest: to find the people who are responsible [for the demolitions in Savamala], to persecute who’s responsible, to ensure criminal and political responsibility,” Prusina said. “But if the only thing that happens is to switch him with another guy, that won’t solve the problem.”

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