Protests persist over Belgrade Waterfront demolitions

Protests persist over Belgrade Waterfront demolitions
By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade July 14, 2016

Around 10,000 people gathered in Serbia’s capital on July 13 in the fifth protest against the controversial demolition of buildings in Belgrade's Savamala district, an area designated for the €3.2bn Belgrade Waterfront project. Belgrade residents have been angered by the demolition and the government's failure to sack the officials responsible.

Numbers were down slightly at the latest protest, which took place on a weekday during the summer holiday season. The protests have also remained focussed on the issue of the demolitions despite earlier speculation they could become a broader-based protest against Aleksandar Vucic’s rule as he prepares to form a new government after the April general election. However, protesters seem determined to continue until those responsible are punished, making it likely that Vucic will pick a scapegoat at some point.

On the night of April 24-25, immediately after the general election, a group of masked men demolished several sites in Hercegovacka and Mostarska streets in Savamala. Citizens who witnessed the demolition claim they were treated violently by the masked men and that the police did not respond to their calls for help. The area demolished was where part of Belgrade Waterfront, a joint project of Serbia’s government and the United Arab Emirates’ Eagle Hills, is due to be built.

This was the fifth protest organised by the Don't Drown Belgrade initiative, set up in response to the demolition. According to the organiser, the rally and protest walk afterwards brought some 10,000 people onto Belgrade’s streets, down from 15,000 at the last protest on June 25. They gathered in front of the Belgrade city assembly and walked to Hercegovacka street about a mile away. Previous protests took place on June 11, May 25 and May 11.

On July 13, as well as in the previous four rallies, the protesters called on Belgrade mayor Sinisa Mali and acting Belgrade police chief Vladimir Rebic as well as Minister of Interior Affairs Nebojsa Stefanovic to resign.

“We do not allow police to protect masked thugs or to conduct violence legally nor illegally. If we do not set our faces against them, bullies will show us their entire arbitrary resources! If we do not resist, national and town governments will continue robbing our public land and resources, and money for public health, education, infrastructure and transport in will be put in their lucrative venture called Belgrade Waterfront!” the initiative Don’t Drown Belgrade said.

All the protests have been carried out with the slogan “Resignations!”. The July 13 protest also had the slogan “Belgrade is not Mali” which has a dual meaning as Mali, the mayor’s last name, means “small” in Serbian.

Protesters also held banners saying “Vucic thief!”, “The town for all of us!” and “Crime scene”.

The symbol of the protests is a yellow duck, which is also the symbol of the Don't Drown Belgrade initiative. The group’s aim is to prevent the “adjustment of effective laws regarding the spatial organisation of the city performed by the government officials” in order to enable the realisation of the Belgrade Waterfront project. The organiser announced that the fight will continue.

On June 8, Serbian Progressive Party leader Vucic, who has been mandated to form the new government, accused top Belgrade officials of being behind the demolition of the buildings and said those responsible would be brought to justice. However, no further action appears to have been taken. In addition, Vucic said the construction of Belgrade Waterfront would move forward and that he personally will fight for it.

Daily Vecernje Novosti reported on July 6, quoting several unnamed sources close to the local government that Mali was ready to resign in the next few days. According to Vecernje Novosti, Mali was to step down after Serbia's new government had been formed, but this process has been delayed.