Serbs resume protests over Belgrade Waterfront demolition as govt fails to act

Serbs resume protests over Belgrade Waterfront demolition as govt fails to act
The planned Belgrade Waterfront development.
By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade September 30, 2016

Several thousand protesters gathered in Serbia’s capital on September 29 in the sixth protest against the illegal demolition of buildings in the Savamala district – an area designated for the €3.2bn Belgrade Waterfront project.

The last big protest was held on July 13, when the number of protesters was down on previous ones due the tropical-like weather and summer holiday season. But the start of fresh demontrations shows the continuing public anger at the perceived top-level corruption and cover-ups that dog this controversial flagship government project, which is joint venture between Serbia’s government and the United Arab Emirates’ Eagle Hills.

Activists and citizens are frustrated because the government has failed to sack the officials responsible for the controversial demolition of buildings in the Savamala district on the night of April 24-25. More than five months after the incident, no action has been taken, even though officials claim that the prosecution service has been investigating the case.

However, even though the protests had stopped for almost three months, at least 2,500 people (according to official sources) or about 10,000 protesters (according to organiser Don't Drown Belgrade) attended the 2km-long protest walk through Belgrade's downtown area. One of the reasons why the protests stopped for a while was an incident that occurred on July 18 when a small group of protesters had gathered in front of the Belgrade Assembly to hand Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali and City Assembly President Nikola Nikodijevic symbolic letters of dismissal because of delays in resolving the case. According to news agency Tanjug, an unidentified object was thrown at the mayor, and a man lunged at him during the protest. One policeman sustained minor injuries.

At 18:00 on the evening of September 29, protesters gathered in front of the Assembly building and headed toward the Prosecutor’s Office in Kataniceva street in Belgrade’s Vracar municipality. The protest ended here at 20:00 when participants set up alarm clocks in order to “wake up the Serbian prosecution service” because it has declared secret the name of the prosecutor who is working on the case of the Savamala night demolition.

The protesters also called again for Mayor Mali and acting Belgrade police chief Vladimir Rebic as well as Minister of Interior Affairs Nebojsa Stefanovic to resign.

Amid the now-common protest symbol of the yellow duck, multiple banners that protesters carried said: “No fear, no surrender” (“Nema straha, nema predaje”), “We are not giving” (“Ne damo”), “Mali is falling, Big will fall too” (Pada Mali pasce I veliki”) was a banner designed for Belgrade’s mayor and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, in which Mali’s last name, which means “small” in Serbian, was used to express him “falling” while the “big”, or Vucic, will fall too.

Messages similar to those of Serbian communists and partisans in WWII were also present: “Better war than pact” (“bolje rat nego pakt”) , “Because of freedom, we are not giving” ("Zbog slobode, ne damo") were also seen on the September 29 evening. The word “giving” was used in order to underline that protesters are not willing to give part of Belgrade to either the government or any Arabic investors.

An incident in the night

On the night of April 24-25, immediately after the election that gave the government of Vucic another majority, 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 a part of Belgrade Waterfront, nicknamed ‘Belgrade Water-fraud’, was due to be built. Belgrade residents were angered by the demolition and the government's failure to sack the officials responsible. Thus began a series of protests from May 11.

Prime Minister Vucic said on June 8 that the people behind the demolitions were top Belgrade officials and it is they who need to take responsibility. “Don’t expect names from me but from the relevant institutions. It is known where responsibility is – at the top of city government! But for the names you will have to wait from the relevant authorities,” Vucic said in response to journalist questions over whether the mayor should have to take responsibility.

The incident has caused big disagreements between Serbia and the international community, with government sources telling bne IntelliNews that Vucic was at one time casting about for scapegoats as high as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Affairs Nebojsa Stefanovic, but appears now to have decided that local officials should have to take the fall. 

On September 27, Maurizio Salustro, a senior adviser to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission in Serbia, said that Serbian citizens should be concerned over the behaviour of the police in this case, which appeared intentional and pre-planned. “Leaving aside what the criminals did that night, the problem is what the police did, that is, did not do,” Salustro was reported as saying. “If you read that (ombudsman’s) report, and if what it says is true, there is irrefutable evidence that the actions of the police were deliberate – not only deliberate but also planned at a very high level, as otherwise it would not have been possible.”

According to a May report from Serbian Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic based on police documents and recordings of police telephone conversations during the demolition, the police didn’t respond, on purpose, to calls from citizens who had seen around 30 masked men armed with baseball bats and equipped with diggers tearing down buildings in Savamala.

Interior Minister Stefanović reacted to Salustro’s words by saying he would seek an answer to why a representative of the OSCE should have “grossly interfered in the internal affairs of Serbia”, national broadcaster B92 reported on September 28.

Stefanovic said he was surprised by the OSCE interfering in a way that “honours neither the prosecutorial investigation nor the court proceedings that have not yet been concluded”. Stefanovic added that once he receives a response from the OSCE, he intends to send an official letter to Vucic concerning the next steps of the interior ministry.

Asked why the interior ministry has failed to submit an internal control report on the Savamala case to Ombudsman Jankovic, Stefanovic said his ministry will forward the report, “and they are free to act as they see fit”.