Serbian government's takeover of Nis airport sparks local fury

Serbian government's takeover of Nis airport sparks local fury
By bne IntelliNews April 11, 2018

About 1,000 citizens of Nis, the largest town in southern Serbia, staged a one-hour protest against the transfer of the ownership of Konstantin Veliki Airport from the local government to the central government on April 10. 

Nis’s airport was famous until 2015 as an airport without travellers. However, 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. The government now says it wants to further develop the airport, but its decision to take it over has proved controversial. 

The protest was held on the day when the local assembly was supposed to back the March 30 decision of the Nis government to make the transfer. However, the rally, as well as loud resistance and criticisms from some of the local population, forced the assembly to postpone the vote for a undefined period of time, regional broadcaster N1 reported.

The number of protesters is small compared to the total population of the city, which numbers about 200,000 people. Most of them (like most Serbian citizens) do not know what kind of change the transfer of the ownership to the central government would bring about in practice. However, for some of them it is a matter of decentralisation and “not giving anything else to Belgrade”.

Representatives and sympathisers of the National Coalition for Decentralisation also participated in the April 10 protest. Speaking at the rally, representative of the coalition Milan Jovanovic said that Nis has been fighting against centralisation and for the town’s airport since 1986.

“When the town took over the airport in 2000 ... a tree was growing in the middle of the runway because the airport was bombed and destroyed [in the Nato bombing in 1999]. Nis’ priorities are to get donations and renew the airport,” Jovanovic told gathered citizens, N1 reported.

However, 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 general 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.

Despite officials’ efforts to explain their decision, some Nis citizens announced at the April 10 protest that they don’t plan to give up their resistance to the transfer of the airport’s property.

“Today’s protest is not an end but the beginning of fight for Nis’s airport… They will try to take the airport but we have to be ready to get out to the streets every moment,” a protestor, Rastislav Dinic, said, N1 reported.

The protest was initiated by an individual, Milos Boskovic, whose main message to the rally was that only citizens of Nis can decide the airport’s destiny — not central government officials or even the president of the country. 

While the council vote was postponed, protesters “voted” by hanging up pieces of blue paper with the word “against” written on them, N1 reported.

“They decided to not to vote when saw that their party’s dictate is not in accordance with decisions of the citizens of Nis,” Boskovic said, holding up a blue paper.

The issue has also become an emotive one on the other side of the debate. The Nis assembly told N1 it had canceled its session that day "because of the large amount of misinformation which has been told to the public by individuals and various interest groups, the credibility of the town of Nis has been destroyed”.