Thousands attend third Belgrade rally over controversial demolitions

By bne IntelliNews June 13, 2016

Several thousand people gathered in front of the Belgrade city assembly on June 11 in the third protest against the controversial demolition of buildings in the Savamala district of the Serbian capital, an area designated for the €3.2bn Belgrade Waterfront project.

Belgrade residents were angered by the overnight demolition of buildings at several sites in Savamala in April, and the subsequent lack of action by police. This was the third protest organised by the Don't Drown Belgrade initiative, set up in response to the demolitions. However, the latest protest took on a political edge, with many protesters carrying placards criticial of Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) leader Aleksandar Vucic, who has been mandated to form the new government.

The protest on June 11 as well as two previous protests, on May 11 and May 25, followed the demolition of buildings in Hercegovacka and Mostarska streets in Savamala by a group of masked men on the night of April 24-25, immediately after the general election.

Vucic has sought to distance himself from the demolitions. On June 8, he 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 construction of Belgrade Waterfront would move forward.

Provoked by the demolition, the attitude of the government and Vucic’s statements, thousands of citizens decided to spend the afternoon of Saturday June 11 on the streets of Belgrade, opposing the government in a peaceful and cheerful atmosphere.

The protest was organised under the slogan “Whose town - our town”, which protesters chanted as they marched through Belgrade’s main streets. The march ended in front of the Serbian government building.

As in the previous two protests, the June 11 protest included prominent people from Belgrade, including journalists, artists and actors, as well as opposition members.

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.

Belgade Waterfront is being built on a large area near Belgrade fortress and the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, where Savamala district is located. Savamala has undergone a revival in recent years, becoming a new cultural hub. It is the location of many of Belgrade’s most prominent clubs and bars, and is popular with foreign tourists. Belgrade residents who remember the district as a trading centre before the Second World War are among those opposed to the project. The close ties between the government and the UAE firm have also met with resistance.

Even though the protest was officially organised in order to keep up the pressure on the authorities over the Savamala demolitions, it in fact looked like a protest against the government, judging by the banners and slogans from participants.

Protesters carried banners with slogans including “Resignation”, “Vucic kaput” (finished) and “Vucic - pederu” (a derogatory term for a homosexual).

This was despite a request from the organisers that participants from opposition political parties should not wear their parties' symbols, as the purpose of the protest was not political.

Zoran Ivosevic, a Supreme Court judge, spoke at the rally and called on the government to finally provide citizens with an answer to the question of who the masked people responsible for the demolition were.

“Aleksandar Vucic accused Belgrade’s top authorities but he didn’t name anyone ... Vucic’s admission of someone’s else mistake is not effective because the head of the city authorities keeps quiet,” Ivosevic said.

The SNS hit back, issuing a press statement on June 11 which says that the party congratulated the organisers for “organising one more circus which brought one thousand people less than the previous time”.

Vucic said that those responsible for the demolition would be punished, but he insisted that the Belgrade Waterfront project would go ahead. “Those who would use this case to destabilise Serbia and, in the latest instance, to stop its expected growth, won’t succeed,” Vucic wrote in a column for daily Srpski Telegraf on June 11.

“[Belgrade mayor] Sinisa Mali or any other person from the SNS or the Belgrade government won’t be their problem in doing this. I, personally, will be their toughest opponent and the worst problem they can imagine. And, I won’t give up, I won’t shut up or stop for a moment.”

Construction of Belgrade Waterfront, a joint project between Serbia’s government and the United Arab Emirates’ Eagle Hills, started on September 27. It will be the largest real estate development in the country, and has met with resistance from residents as it requires the demolition of parts of downtown Belgrade. Questions have also been raised about the transparency of the project. At the launch of the project in 2015, around 500 people turned out to protest.

Under the project agreement between Serbia and Eagle Hills, the land on which Belgrade Waterfront will be built is leased for 99 years. The Serbian government has received 32% stake in the Belgrade Waterfront company in lieu of payment for the land. At least 50% of the project has to be finished in the next 20 years, while the deadline for the completion of the entire project is 30 years.

According to Serbian officials, all the risk in the construction of the Belgrade Waterfront has been taken on by Eagle Hills. The project is expected to support the economic recovery by creating new jobs and opportunities for Serbian companies to bid to take part in construction work. Serbia has become the main target for UAE-based investors in Southeast Europe, as Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s friendship with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has brought billions of euros worth of investment and loans to the country.

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