Central and Eastern Europe

The Fight Against the Belgrade Waterfront Project [Interview with Dobrica Veselinović]

Investors from the United Arab Emirates are taking great interest in a project to privatize the Belgrade Waterfront. Protests have manifested in opposition, gathering large number of Serbian citizens together.

We talked with Dobrica Veselinović  in a nice Belgrade cafe, “Idiot,” in the midst of the ongoing tense political situation in Serbia. Dobrica Veselinović is a political analyst and activist, and is engaged in a collective effort called “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd“/“Don’t let Belgrade d(r)own.” This collective actively opposes the Belgrade Waterfront project, the redevelopment of the Savamala district in Belgrade (financed by United Arab Emirates investors, known for corruption scandals and non-transparent procedures). We discussed this project, the reasons for why they are protesting it, and how they have managed to gather so many people to take to the streets of Belgrade in protest.

Mislav Marjanović: Can you give us a short overview of the history of the Belgrade Waterfront project? How did it start?

Dobrica Veselinović: Everything basically started in 2012 when Aleksandar Vučić was running as a candidate for a mayor of Belgrade. In the last days of the campaign, he invited the former mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, to Serbia for a visit. They took a boat ride on the Sava River and devised a kind of “master plan” in that area. This area of the Sava amphitheater has been well known for years as a type of wet dream of architects, and so there were already plenty of official plans for that area. The area itself is located in the background of the railway station, and so is pretty unused. Vučić lost that election in 2012, but when he won the next Parliamentary elections, he started to make a combination in the city hall, so they changed the mayor; in Serbia, a mayor is elected by the City Assembly and not directly through elections.

Until 2014 the project was placed on a backburner – until an investor was found to finance it. The investor was a friend of Vučić at the time, a sheik from the UAE. He came to and promised to invest 3.5 billion euro into the Waterfront Project. And that’s how everything started.

What is the biggest problem for you with the Belgrade Waterfront Project? Why did you start to protest against this project?

We started to organize resistance against the project in its earliest stages. We began resisting by complaining at public hearings and other public gatherings. But this did not work. This is because of the pillars of governmental strategy – the first pillar is heavy media and PR presence over the story, and the story of the project was being depicted as a promise of creating jobs and creating a new identity for the city. The second pillar – changing regulations and plans under a legal framework to accommodate the wishes of investors – and the third pillar – heavy use of police and systemic force to combat opposition to the project – also played into our inability at this early stage to really gain support for combatting the project. This is because as regards changing the general urban plan of Belgrade, despite our putting in over 2,000 complaints, all oppositional concerns were rejected. For example,
we complained about the plan to construct a small pedestrian bridge across the Sava River, stating pretty much: “Come on, you cannot do this because this is an international river path – you are crazy!” But this was rejected of course.

After that we started to organize different actions, protests, demonstrations, blockades. I don’t know how many of them we did.

In protests organized by the collective, “Don’t let Belgrade d(r)own,” tens of thousands people took part. How did you manage to get such a massive involvement of people?

One of the first protests we organized was on the day when the contract for the Waterfront was signed. It is important to mention that they signed it just after they did the whole preparation of legal framework: they changed laws, the urban plans of Belgrade, and also removed around 20 families that were living in that area. They also did the infrastructural work in sense – the cleaning, removing of the railway tracks, and at the end they signed the contract.

A visual presentation of protest should be normal in a democratic society.

One of the first protests we organized was on that day, and what happened is very crucial. From the moment when the people who were in the Geozavod building (headquarters of the company of the project), they blocked people with trams. Protesters were on the other side of the street, so the police blocked the view of people who were exiting the building, namely celebrities who signed the contract and ministers. I am highlighting this because it is important to show how extensively police force is used. I mean, a visual presentation of protest should be normal in a democratic society, and this fact became a trigger for people to become more actively involved in the protest campaign.

After that we continued to protest on every occasion possible. For example,  we protested in September 2015 during the foundation stone laying ceremony. But another trigger that occurred was due to an incident that took place in April of last year, when we had Parliamentary elections again. A group of around 30 masked man with heavy machinery demolished one part of the neighborhood Sava Mala, which is connected to the Waterfront Project. That refers to the second pillar, namely that the legal framework, which is accommodating the wishes of the investor, doesn’t fulfill these wishes fast enough. So, basically people who had businesses, restaurants, storages, etc., were involved in the process with the Serbian government for expropriating that land. But that could not have happened because the  legal system is not fast enough; the guys from the government decided to demolish it during the night. And that triggered another wave of protest.

Does Vučić now accuse Siniša Mali, the mayor of Belgrade, for the demolition?

No, he has never said that. He said that a complete idiot from the top of the city government ordered that. And only after the wave of protests did he finally say something about it. This is because first, nobody reacted to what was happening, and the ruling establishment ignored what was happening there. After the pressure of media and citizens taking to the streets, he simply had to say something. But nevertheless, even after one year later, not even one case has been opened in connection to the night of the demolition.

It is now April 2017. What is the current state of the project? Is it still being attempted to implement, and if not, how successful you were in stopping this project?

I would say that we have not been successful at stopping this project, for the fact that stopping it was and is not the main idea. The main idea is to get people more involved in the politics of city life. During the last 25 years we haven’t seen any real development of Belgrade in the sense of needs and wishes of the citizens. So this was one of the triggers to show the a bizarre dimension of the project.

We also aim to achieve bringing a little bit of hope to the people.

Could you compare the Belgrade Waterfront development with the Skopje 2014 idea? There seems to be a crazy identity idea, and here is this “Serbia is open for business!” idea, like the great thing you can put the flag on and say that was we who built it.

After the privatization of everything began, the only thing left is the city’s lands – and now the idea here is to privatize those.

It is similar on one hand, and on the other hand not so much. Because here we don’t have an identity question at the core of this issue as in Skopje. The main idea here is to make land a valuable resource for privatization. After the privatization of everything began – industry, companies, etc. – the only thing left is the city’s lands. And that is now the most precious resource of the city and the only resource left.  And now the idea here is to privatize that.

The idea of foreign investment is to form a smoke flare and protect investors. They are using Abu Dhabi as some kind of offshore company and just as a visual representation.

Do you want to turn this movement  into some kind of political party? This was the case with similar protest movements in Zagreb, where activists decided to form a party, after a long period of activism and protest over common goods.

We don’t know right now, but we are facing this dilemma. We are seeing now that there is very little success in this kind of civil society/citizen organizing, so we have to figure out this dilemma very soon. Everything is very open for the future of the collective.

We have plenty of personal problems the movement turning into a political party. For example, we have the problem of financing. And we even now have serious security threats.

What kind of threats?

We were followed by the police, our telephones were tapped, our intern communication is interfered. We also had a very big media campaign trashing us on the yellow press. They always have their front-pages support Vučić. What will be the consequences of this choice?

Can you explain how this kind of propaganda works?

We are portrayed as traitors of Serbia. I guess it’s a mantra from the 90s. Its function is very simple: someone wants to interfere with the will of citizens of Serbia, someone with plenty of money and resources who wants to achieve some interests. And then you combine that with the usual suspects –  like with Soros or some domestic tycoon. And the problem lies with this being only a partial truth. This is a norm of how global politics functions; everyone has an interest. So it is very difficult. And they are connecting us with the duck case.

What do you mean by “the duck case?”

The duck is one of the symbols of our movement.

Our laws do not allow the expropriation of the Sava amphitheater area for non-public interest. And this project is about building an exclusive residential area with a shopping mall. So they made a special law, the new law for that area. On the day when the “lex specialis”  was voted on, we brought the big yellow duck in front of the National Assembly, because it’s a play of the words in Serbian: it means fraud, and it also means penis. So it means, “Show them the duck (penis), and this is the duck (fraud).”

In 2015 and last year there were protests in Brazil against President Dilma Rousseff, and they too used the symbol of the duck. And before us there was a Dutch artist, who had a floating duck, but that was not political. And recently, there was a case in Russia with duck, because Medvedev has a duck house. So Vučić was referring to that also: “Come on, isn’t it so obvious that in three different countries protesters use the same symbol of duck. It’s all connected and somebody on much higher level organizes that.”
Do you have any alternative plan or prospect of how this area should look like?

We just wanted to show that it’s a totally non-transparent project, highly corrupted, and in that sense we aren’t promoting some different solution.

At this moment no, because that area was a wet dream of architects and urban planners. As I mentioned, there are more than 50 official plans for development of that area, so we didn’t go in that direction. We just wanted to show that it is a totally non-transparent project, highly corrupted, and that the citizens of Belgrade haven’t had any chance to say what they would like to see put in this area. In that sense we are not promoting some different solution, because then the answer would be: Do you have money to realize that?

After Prime Minister Vučić won the Presidential elections by a landslide, a series of anti-government protests launched across Serbia. They were and are pretty big, having lasted now for more than three weeks. How important of a role do you think protests have played in the fight against the Belgrade Waterfront Project, in the sense of getting people more involved and active?

It seems to me that the protests organized by the initiative was a model and inspiration for a new wave of protests. It makes me happy and shows that there is a healthy reservoir of young people who believe that another world is possible, and who are not afraid of the requirements of the public and protesting loudly on the streets.

Have members of the collective “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd“ faced some kind of special treatment from the “repressive state apparatus“ during these latest protests?

Special treatment has been going on for some time, and it is reflected in the monitoring, eavesdropping, and other forms of soft pressure on one side, while a large number of charges and penalties have arrived from the other side.

Bio

Mislav Marjanovic

Mislav Marjanović is an editor of PoliticalCritique.org.