Several thousand people protested in front of the Belgrade city assembly on May 25 against the controversial demolition of buildings in the Savamala district of the Serbian capital.
Part of the historic district is being knocked down to make way for the Belgrade Waterfront development, a joint project of Serbia’s government and the United Arab Emirates’ Eagle Hills, that will be the largest real estate development in the country. However, the project, which has a cost of €3.2bn, has met with resistance from residents as it will require the demolition of parts of downtown Belgrade. Questions have also been raised about the transparency of the project.
On the night of April 24-25, immediately after the general election, a group of masked men is reported to have 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 protest took place the day after one of the witnesses to the controversial demolitions, security worker Slobodan Tanaskovic, died at the Military Medical Academy in Belgrade. Local media reported that Tanaskovic was hospitalised for a heart condition but later treated for digestive problems.
Shortly after the news about Tanaskovic’s death went viral on May 25, Serbia's Commissioner for Information of Public Interest Rodoljub Sabic wrote in his blog on the B92 website that he had received disturbing information that Tanaskovic had been restrained in his hospital bed because of “mental problems”. Sabic underlined that he had no confirmation of the information.
However, Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar denied there was any connection between Tanaskovic’s death and the events of April 24-25. Loncar said he had received documentation which did not indicate that “anything bad had been done to the man”, B92 reported.
Serbian officials deny any links to the demolitions, saying that they do not know who the masked people were. A police investigation has been launched, but a month later, the Serbian public still don’t know who was responsible for demolishing the district.
Activists from the initiative Don't Drown Belgrade organised the May 25 protest. 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 to realisation of the controversial Belgrade Waterfront project.
“This is not the fight for individuals, this is the fight for our town! Whose town? Our town,” protesters chanted as they marched through Belgrade’s main streets. The demonstration took place in a friendly and calm atmosphere.
Protesters also sang a newly written song with the lyrics “for what masks, why are you hiding when we know everything”.
Among the banners carried by protestors were those with the message “Belgrade is not Mali” referring to the last name of the capital’s mayor Sinisa Mali, which means “small” in Serbian.
Let's not Drown Belgrade activists previously organised a protest on May 11, with the slogans "the masks have fallen”, "for freedom", "Today Savamala, tomorrow your home", and "The streets belong to us".
Both protests had the same symbol, a yellow duck, which is also the symbol of the Don't Drown Belgrade initiative.
Prominent people from Belgrade, including journalists, artists, actors and opposition party members took part in the protests. They demanded the resignations of Mali, Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic, Belgrade assembly president Nikola Nikodijevic, acting police director Vladimir Rebic and municipal police chief Nikola Ristic.
Construction of the Belgrade Waterfront development started on September 27, the Serbian government announced on its website. During the launch, around 500 people turned out to protest against the project which envisages the reconstruction of a large area near Belgrade fortress and the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers where Savamala district is located.
Savamala has become a cultural hub in recent years. 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.
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 the investor, Eagle Hills.
The project is s 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.