Several thousand citizens of Nis, the largest town in southern Serbia, staged their second protest against the planned transfer of Konstantin Veliki Airport from the local government to the central government on April 25. The protest took place shortly after President Aleksandar Vucic paid a visit to Nis, and said a final decision on the airport's future has not yet been made.
The number of protesters increased from around 1,000 at the April 10 protest. However, most of those who protested on both days (like most Serbian citizens) do not know what kind of change the transfer of the ownership to the central government will bring about in practice.
Government officials argue that the airport in Nis is not able to make any development move or investment on its own yet and badly needs help from the central government’s pocket. So far, it operates mainly thanks to donations from the general government budget. According to Minister of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure Zorana Mihajlovic, Serbia’s government has poured €3.6mn into the airport within the last three years, while Nis’ government invested an additional €2mn through subsidies, thanks to which the airport served 331,000 passengers last year. It also recorded net profit of RSD28.43mn (€263,941) in 2016.
The protesters, on the other hand, say they suspect the government wants to prevent Nis airport growing to rival Nikola Tesla Airport (ANT) near Belgrade, for which a 25-year concession was recently signed with France’s Vinci Airports. They claim the deal with Vinci included a pact to destroy Konstantin the Great airport and reduce the number of low cost flights from Nis.
The arrival of budget airlines saved Nis from being an airport without passengers. Regular air traffic resumed in June 2015 after a 19-month break when Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air started operating flights from Nis to Basel.
One of the most prominent banners during the protest was “Is iz Nis” which means “out from Nis”.
“We are not giving our cheap flights. We don’t want Nis to be paying penalties because of the expensive concession,” representative of the National Coalition for Decentralisation Milan Jovanovic said at the rally.
He added that no one has the right to take what is not theirs, and that Nis knows how to manage its airport which has been profitable for the last three years.
Vucic visited a few hours prior to the protest in Nis’s main square. He told journalists that a final decision on the transfer of Nis airport’s ownership hasn’t been made yet, and that the town could remain its owner but that “people have to have responsibility”. He repeated Mihajlovic’s words that the central government has been financially supporting the airport and thus would be happy if Nis can take care of it completely but it is still an open question whether the town can do it.
“If the town of Nis has it — even better. But, don’t cozen citizens and make an atmosphere that the Serbian government is a foreign body. Everyone has to pay a price for their politics,” Vucic said, adding that the central government can still invest in development in other airports in the country such as Morava near Kraljevo in central Serbia or Ponikve in Uzice, in the western part of the country.
According to Vucic, Nis’s protests are “nothing but a political game” as members of all opposition parties take part in them and support them.
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