Activists from the initiative “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd“, who oppose the controversial architectural mega-project Belgrade on the Water (or Belgrade Waterfront), planned by the Serbian government and the United Arab Emirates, were detained by police on Thursday, March 19th, for handing out newspapers printed with information critical of the colossal plan — even though they had a permit to distribute them. We spoke with activists Iva Čukić, Radomir Lazovic and Dobrica Veselinović to hear more about what happened when several members of the group were taken into custody by the police, as well as their many concerns about the project and the silencing of those who criticize it.
You guys published a newspaper, and had permits to hand it out on the streets. Where did you have to get those permits? From the police? I seem to remember you had to tell the police if you were having a protest in Serbia, but I didn’t know you had to have a permit to hand out newspapers. Ok, so you got the permit, but the communal police gave members of the group a ticket anyway? Did they give a reason?
Last week, our initiative called “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd” published a newspaper of the same name. After monitoring the nontransparent procedures around project Belgrade on water, we have gathered so much information that we were able to publish a 16-page magazine out of it.
After the launching press conference, that we held together with the Academy of Architecture of Serbia, we started with the distribution of the magazine to the citizens of Belgrade. We chose the entrance to the city government offices on purpose, so we could also spread the magazine to those responsible for the chaos the project will bring to the city.
We contacted the Municipality of Palilula in order to get the necessary permission, and since we were not doing any advertising, and are not a company but an informal group, they directed us to the regular police. They said that since we are not advertising, we should register a citizens’ gathering. So we made a formal document informing the police about our intentions to meet other citizens and distribute the informative magazine.
When we started our action, the regular police checked on us and said that all was fine. After some time, the communal police came and started with the pressure. We showed them the permit we got from the police, but they just said that we were advertising and that we didn’t have a permit for that. They asked us for our documents, and asked us to come with them to their offices. We said that we wouldn’t come, and I started calling the regular police on the phone.
They started walking away with our documents and didn’t want to listen to us, even when we said that one of the people there was just a passerby, and that one was a journalist. They just continued walking. I got the impression that they wanted to go before the regular police arrived. Our activists followed them since they took our documents. I stayed on the plateau to wait for the police officers but eventually, since they were late, I ended up going to the communal police office too. It was there that they wrote us the fine for advertising — to the passerby and journalist as well. A funny thing happened since one of the inspectors didn’t want to write a ticket to the guy who was just passing by. The inspectors got in to an argument about it. They came out and one of them was swearing. They let us go soon after that, giving us the documents back. After that the regular police came and could not explain to us why the communal police would bother with us if we had a permit.
“Ne da(vi)mo Beograd” magazine is about the many aspects of the controversy surrounding the project Belgrade on the Water. We wrote about the high risks of the project, about possible corruption, the shady dealings of the investor, the sociological and urbanistic problems associated with the project, traffic problems, broken laws and procedures…
What kind of information was in your newspaper?
Lazovic & Čukić
The newspaper actually put together everything that has happened up to now with the respect to the project and the action of the initiative “Don’t drown Belgrade” Ne da(vi)mo Beograd. It comments on different aspects of the project: urban, social, economic and regulative. Experts and Initiative members with different backgrounds in these fields contributed to the newspaper, as well as some public figures.
How far along is the Belgrade on the Water project? What has the city already managed to do?
Lazovic & Čukić
This investor-led urbanism is taking place on both a small and large scale in Belgrade, and in the past 15 years, we have witnessed the announcement of several flagship projects. After many failed attempts to push urban renewal through different mega-projects combining shiny pictures, big names, high promises of overall general benefit, striking media attention, and a change of urban legislation, the newest manifestation of this formula is the Belgrade Waterfront project. The latest incarnation of this practice is more grandiose than any of its ancestors in numbers and scale: in its costs for taxpayers, potential risks, numerous violated regulations and laws and the frightening social consensus. For the first time, the Serbian government has become not only enabler of the project, but also its instigator.
The first public presentation of the Belgrade Waterfront project came with the campaign for the municipal elections in Belgrade in 2012. Then the project reappeared during the 2014 parliamentary election campaign as the trump card of the current prime minister and ruling party in promoting a “better future”. Images were there to convince the electorate that a three billion euro investment (which in time grew to five billion) was already in the bag. Planning a better future through the construction of luxurious flats when hundreds of thousands of people are without permanent housing solutions; construction of the largest shopping mall in the Balkans when each day the number of people living below the poverty line is increasing; construction of new retail and office spaces while fading “for rent” signs on the same buildings have been an everyday sight for years — all of this seems questionable, at very least. With the addition of luxurious hotels that would transform Belgrade overnight into a tourist destination of the Dubai type, the relocation of the main train and bus stations from the centre of the city, and the creation of a marina for private yachts, the plan starts to resemble a bad joke. At the same time, the project was presented as the solution to unemployment and a jump starter of the economy, by offering precarious temporary jobs in construction and low paid jobs in the service sector. Since the project was given the status of “national priority and importance”, the state is investing large amounts of public money and regulations are being changed to speed up the start of the project. The project was hailed as one of “salvation”, while all important information was kept in the dark. It is still not clear if the Gulf money is an investment or credit, what the legal relationship between Eagle Hills and the government of Serbia is, which studies and documents were the basis for the model (master plan), who its authors are, why there was no competition or tender, what the role of the municipality is, and the list goes on.
In order to create conditions for the realization of the megalomaniac project at such short notice, planning documents are being deregulated at breakneck speed and gargantuan costs to the public budget and passed, against the law, following an undemocratic procedure with the simulation citizen participation. The processes that have led to the Belgrade Waterfront project are nontransparent, the designated roles and potential risks for public actors involved unclear, and legislative mechanisms have been bended and bypassed, setting a (bended) course for planning and development of the city in the future.
The changes to the General Plan, which were brought about by the new legal framework, have enabled the occupation and privatization of public space owned by the city, erased the obligatory architectural competition as a format of expert and public involvement, fragmented planning of the city, and made it possible to ignore impacts on social aspects of life in the city. During the public review, the Planning Commission rejected most of these complaints, accepting just a few symbolic ones, in a vain attempt to keep up the appearance of a democratic procedure.
The next step in the creation of a new legal framework involved the Spatial Plan of the economically “most valuable” part of Belgrade, which transferred the investor’s model into the planning documentation– in contrary to the regulations of the Republic of Serbia. Project plans include the construction of 6,178 housing units of an average size of 135 m2. Anticipated revenue from the sales of these apartments is approximately 2.5 billion euros, making the price of an apartment just over 400,000 euros. In a country where the real average monthly earnings are around 300 euros, the analysis shows that it would take a little over 84 average annual salaries to pay for an apartment.
Meanwhile in situ, the optimistic vision of the promised better future started materializing in the promotional campaign and the preparatory work for the removal of unwanted buildings and people from the site. Branding started in March of 2014 with the reconstruction of the dilapidated building of the former Geological Institute, which became the Belgrade Waterfront’s promotional hub, with a permanent exhibition of the model of the project, and a “typical” apartment and elite restaurant. The choice of building was not random; as a heritage building constructed in 1907 as the seat of the Belgrade Cooperative with the intention to make it the first stock exchange, it represents a symbolic continuity with the pre-socialist development of Serbia and prosperity of the neighbourhood, while the socialist period is seen as the period of decline. Investment into the building’s reconstruction gave the investor 6000 m2 of commercial space rent-free for the next three years.
The next step was the unveiling of a huge promotional billboard adorned with the same 3D rendering of the project with the caption “Celebrate Belgrade” on the façade of the main train station to symbolically mark its relocation as the largest infrastructural operation of the project. The billboard is under constant police protection. On the eve of the opening of the promotional centre, a few hundred masts with the flags of Eagle Hills and Belgrade Waterfront logos were placed along Karađorđeva Street and the Sava river promenade, mostly on bicycle lanes and in parking places. For most of the interventions listed above, the permission and paperwork were obtained a posteriori, showing how much the priority of officials is catering to the investors’ wishes and not the wellbeing of the city. The peak of the promotional campaign is the construction of the first (temporary) object officially registered as the promotional stand — in reality a private restaurant built on the green area of the river Sava quay, in the no-construction zone.
Even property owners in Savamala are unprotected from intimidation from the city government. In the last few days, the government made a Lex Specialis on expropriation and building regulations, which will be voted on at the end of March. The “new law” defines particular and private as public.
At the beginning of March, the Mayor of Belgrade presented the model for two housing towers at the MIPIM event in Cannes. On Monday, March 16th, the state company “Belgrade on Water” and the city announced the sale of the apartments in those two towers through their website, even though there is no plan, no signed contract, no price…
Have you received any other pressure from the authorities or Serbian government?
Lazovic & Čukić
As a reaction to the processes around this project, the initiative Don’t drown Belgrade was formed with the goal to stop the further degradation and plunder of the city in the name of colossal urban and architectural projects. The first public actions the group organized with an attempt to use existing democratic participatory tools, which proved to be a mere simulation without any real effective power.
The changes to the General Plan brought about the new legal framework enabling the occupation and privatization of public space owned by the city, erasing the obligatory architectural competition as a format of expert and public involvement, initiating the fragmentary planning of the city, as well as the possibility of ignoring social aspects of life in the city. Around 100 citizens, activists and experts wrote complaints together, and filed over 2,000 of them in collective actions. During the public review, the Planning Commission rejected most of those complaints, accepting just a few symbolic ones, once again in an attempt to keep up the appearance of democratic procedure.
The next step in creation of the new legal framework, the Spatial Plan of the economically “most valuable” part of Belgrade, transferred the investor’s model into the planning documentation – which contradicts the regulations of the Republic of Serbia. Again the initiative responded with collective complaints but this time with only one goal in mind – the complete rejection of the dubious Plan and the creation of a new one. Complaints focused on the expected outcomes of this kind of plan, specifically spatial and social segregation, the collapse of traffic and the disappearance of the small economies.
During a public session the initiative organized a performance called “Operation Lifebelt” (Operacija šlauf), distributing swimming essentials, such as balls and swim rings, singing songs in celebration of Belgrade and producing noise. The commission members’ behavior proved once more that public sessions of this kind are just a simulation of citizen participation and that the profession in such processes serves the mere satisfaction of forms.
We have confronted the city government and decision makers through protests and comments about changing the plans, but we’ve never had any threats.
You see these mega-projects paid for by the UAE in several countries. What do you think BGH20 will do to Belgrade if it is actually built? How will it transform the city?
Lazovic & Čukić
The project hit the fast lane with the appearance of the investor, the Eagle Hills Company, from Abu Dhabi, UAE, which is financing the Master plan and the entire Waterfront renewal. The legitimacy of this company was never questioned, even though its leadership has been involved in projects that have led to state debt (Abuja, Nigeria), continuous postponement of construction (Erbil Downtown, Kurdistan), realization of only a small part of the project (Crescent Bay, Karachi, Pakistan), and selling, with the knowledge of the local government, land that the company does not own (Mohali, India).
There are several scenarios that we can expect, but whatever happens this is economic suicide. In a year when the government deficit has reached a historic high and radical cuts in public spending have been ordered, the state undertakes a dramatic debt in order to fulfil obligations from a business deal (the contract has never appeared, but the government announced that they will sign it in the next couple of weeks).
Dobrica Veselinović, another activist from Ne da(vi)mo Beograd, also passed on the group’s statement about their encounter with the police on March 19th:
Communal police officers filed reports on Thursday against activists of the Initiative against Drowning Belgrade (“Ne da(vi)mo Beograd”) for public distribution of printed materials on questionable issues related to the project Belgrade Waterfront.
Local authorities in the Belgrade municipality of Palilula claimed they did not have jurisdiction over the issuing of permits for distribution of the materials, and the police permitted the gathering. Still the communal inspection took into custody three activists who were handing out papers, as well as one journalist on assignment and a passerby who stopped to greet a friend.
Reports were filed for the “distribution of newspapers” and we were told that citizens are not entitled to express their opinion in such a way.
While the state illegally puts up banners, billboards and even promotional hubs for a private commercial project, citizens have no right to publicly express their opinion. Soon the state will start closing down public parks to move citizens off the streets. Citizens are obviously in the way of the state authorities. The national and public interest have nothing in common with the needs and desires of citizens, but are instead a product of shady deals and the private interests of political and economic elites.
This will not prevent us from further distribution of the materials and from insisting that there should be a public debate on development of the city and society. We are encouraged by the citizens’ response. Try as they might, the authorities cannot forbid people to think!
Cover photo: Iva Čukić and Dobrica Veselinović (center) from the initiative Don’t Drown Belgrade, speak at a press conference earlier this month (credit: Ne davimo Beograd Facebook page)