Bubbles Over Belgrade

Rainy Sunday in Belgrade, blocked traffic downtown. The cab driver curses the government and the protesters, practically in the same sentence. We have a long day ahead of us, since we are expecting three major public gatherings, all of them related to the planned Belgrade Waterfront mega-project and the laying of the cornerstone that will mark the official start of construction on the immense development, which will rise from the ashes of the Sava riverbank.

So I found myself there, in the middle of Karađorđeva Street, in the municipality of Savski Venac, which in the pre-socialist period was the city center and home to much of Belgrade’s moneyed elite. The initiative “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd” (a wordplay that refers to both the “giving away” and “sinking” of Belgrade) had organized a protest after a series of attempts to warn the public about the negative consequences of the planned mega-project. Gatherings start early in the afternoon, accompanied by chants from the crowd and activists’ speeches, but also with a significant showing of architects and urban development experts who are all explaining crucial problems and issues with the new government plans for the redevelopment of this part of town.

Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist
Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist

“The majority of what they’re saying sounds reasonable enough,” I thought to myself. Even more reason to understand the government’s anxiety and fear of independent critics, who have been subjected to a near-total media blackout for months now. A few hours later, opposition parties also hold a protest, but fail to meet face-to-face with the third “citizens'” gathering of the day. Yes, you guessed right: a rally of government supporters. Cordons of police officers, in cooperation with local ruling party thugs, prevent citizens without the requisite party membership cards from approaching the future construction site, where Aleksandar Vučić, prime minister of Serbia, is giving a speech. “There is a future that creates itself, and the future that we create,” he says. So, what will that future bring, exactly?

It was April 2012, and the campaign for the May elections in Serbia were up and running throughout the country. Aleksandar Vučić, then the deputy president of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), and a candidate of the Pokrenimo Srbiju (“Let’s get Serbia moving”) coalition for mayor of Belgrade, gathered a group of reporters on the bank of the Sava river, and presented the project “Belgrade on Water” (later referred to in the English translation as the Belgrade Waterfront), which would expand the city to the long-neglected quay.

Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist
Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist

Vučić’s plans weren’t entirely without precedent. If you’ve been to Belgrade, you’ve probably seen the Gazela Bridge or the Terazije Tunnel, two of the city’s major landmarks. These are just two of the projects realized during the mayorship of Branko Pešić, who led the city from 1964 to 1974. One of his ideas was also to “bring the city to the riverbanks” of the Danube and Sava, plans that were kept as drafts for generations. Belgrade on water, you say? Forty years later, is the dream finally coming true, or is this the beginning of a nightmare for the capital of Serbia?

The Future

The main idea of the concept first presented by Vučić in 2012 was to reinvent the space of the abandoned coastal basin in the city center, and to reshape the wider area at the heart of Belgrade’s nightlife, which stretches from Branko’s Bridge to the old railway bridge, transforming the entire area into something resembling the skyline of Dubai. The project also included the relocation of the train and bus stations, and various other important parts of the city. All laid out on one map, it looked good as a short-term publicity stunt. A visit from Rudy Giualiani, the former Republican mayor of New York City, who visited Belgrade in the middle of the election campaign and praised the ‘marvelous’ idea of the SNS candidate, was supposed to provide an extra boost to the public’s enthusiasm for the proposal and the party. Who paid Giualiani to drop by remains a mystery to this day, but what we do know for sure is that he’s not one to spend his free time touring the sites of futuristic mega-projects.

Interestingly enough, the plan itself resembled the “City on Water” idea presented by Daniel Libeskind and Jan Gehl in early 2009, for the Belgrade Port area on the Danube river, but also other megastructure concepts that you’ve probably had the opportunity to see on the Discovery Channel. According to the first projections made back then, Vučić stated that the project would not need loans; costs for the communal infrastructure and ensuing expropriation would not exceed 125 million euros. The planned implementation would take less than eight years, or two mandates, as politicians tend to count periods of time. Great expectations fell apart, as the coalition Izbor za bolji život (“Choice for a Better Life”) led by the incumbent Democratic Party (DS), won the local elections in Belgrade, securing mayor Dragan Đilas a second term in office.

Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist
Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist

Despite SNS’s defeat in the capital in the 2012 elections, Vučić’s party actually won a surprise victory on the national level. The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by Ivica Dačić, entered into coalition with SNS, forming a new majority and taking over leadership of the country. Dačić became prime minister, while Vučić became his first deputy.

Vučić remained committed to his mega-project, even announcing in August 2013 that he would discuss “Belgrade on Water” with Đilas, despite their political differences and fierce enmity. However, this period turned out to be rather short lived. Đilas lost a no-confidence motion in the City Assembly in September 2013, and was summarily dismissed, leaving Belgrade strangely mayorless for a period. The government introduced a temporary body led by Siniša Mali to govern the city. The future mayor was formally non-partisan, yet a close friend of Vučić’s brother Andrej. (An interesting point from Mali’s biography: he was an employee of the Privatization Agency of the Republic of Serbia, as director of the Tender Privatization Center, and a member of the tender commission for the privatization of Beopetrol. After the privatization of Beopetrol, which was sold to Russia’s Lukoil, Mali conveniently became director of the Sector for Investments within Beopetrol-Lukoil. To this day, the question of a conflict of interest on that issue has never been properly investigated by the relevant agencies).

Belgrade was still very much on track to be “on the water” in 2014, following a meeting between Vučić and Mohamed Alabbar, the founder of the newly established private investment company Eagle Hills, based in Abu Dhabi. Journalists immediately began looking into Alabbar’s background, as mainstream Serbian media announced that Alabbar would invest more than three billion dollars in the mega-project. With early elections announced at both the state and local level, a new campaign was about to get going. Just two weeks before the elections in March, Vučić and Mali led a Serbian delegation to the United Arab Emirates, where the master plan “Belgrade on Water” was presented yet again.

Elections took place on March 16, with SNS winning an absolute majority in Belgrade’s City Assembly, where it took 63 out of 110 seats. The wider SNS-led coalition also seized an astonishing 158 seats in the National Assembly. Vučić took the position of prime minister, while Siniša Mali was appointed by the City Assembly as mayor of Belgrade.

Whitewashed by Water

The very next month, decisions on changes to the General Plan “Belgrade 2021” were publicized. In June 2014, the Decision on creation of Spatial plan for the area of special purpose for the benefits of the project “Belgrade on Water” was made. It was the end of June, and a new round of presentations took place. The central focus of the PR campaign for the project was the ostentatious “Belgrade Tower”, which was promoted as the pinnacle of the future redevelopment of the Sava riverbank.

Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist
Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist

Around that time, the Serbian government was already making major preparations for the project’s eventual implementation. Officials registered a new company, Belgrade Waterfron LtD (“Beograd na vodi” d.o.o.). In a somewhat shady arrangement in June 2014, the century-old Geozavod building, which had previously been deemed a cultural monument, was simply given away for promotional purposes of the project. At the end of July, it was announced that work on Savanova would begin, as another flagship component of the Belgrade Waterfront project.

Savanova now includes an upscale bistro, and was opened to the public at the end of April. Chief City planner, Milutin Folić, announced in August that construction on the more than 68,000 square meters of the project’s first residential building was planned to start in September. Meanwhile, the future commencement of construction on other Belgrade Waterfront buildings were advertised in the media.

“In next two and half years, the first phase of the project, including the Belgrade Tower and shopping mall will be finished, with an investment of over one billion euros,” the mainstream press promised in what read as overly optimistic talking points delivered by the government. Vučić also announced that the new train station, Prokop, would be finished within just 18 months.

Only a few days later, DAB (Belgrade Architects’ Society) gathered at the INURA conference, where 100 architects, city planners and urbanists signed an open letter to the citizens of Belgrade offering an incisive criticism the project, emphasizing that “[its] economic risks are huge, and benefits of the project are little”. They also stressed that the city’s residents had not been included in the planning of the project, and that the concept represented an elitist, commercial and corporate model of redevelopment that ignores local needs.

Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist
Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist

Many of those who objected to the project comprised the citizens’ initiative “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd”, which gathered activists, organizations and academics interested in sustainable urban development, and provided comments on the draft of the Spatial plan.

Members of the group argued that the proposed draft was contrary to the law as well as to the public interest. They also alleged that those who had drawn up the draft were knowingly providing poor “solutions” to the redevelopment of the shores of the Sava. In addition to comments specifically questioning the legality of the project, they claimed that it failed to fulfill the basic standards of sound urban planning, and that were an alarming lack of tangible guarantees made by the investor. The initiative concluded that “the plan should be canceled, and a planned organization of the central zone of Belgrade should return to a legal planning procedure, with respect to professional standards of planning and implementation of mechanisms for the protection of public interest”.

In early November, at an open session for citizens concerning the “Belgrade on Water” project, activists publicly called for the resignations of the Director of the Republic Agency for Spatial Planning, Dragan Dunčić, and the Director of the Urban Planning Institute of Belgrade, Nebojša Stefanović (the latter has no relation to the interior minister of the same name). They also demanded that the government “annul the draft spatial plan for the project ‘Belgrade on Water’ as a whole, annul the regulation of the area back to a regular, lawful process of urban planning [that is] the product of a genuine discussion inclusive of the whole society.”

In January, members of Ne da(vi)mo Beograd filed a complaint, specifically questioning the government’s compliance with the provisions of the Planning and Construction Act during the proceedings of the “Belgrade on Water” Spatial plan.

Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist
Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist

The government had already transferred its first funds into the Belgrade Waterfront company and to “Railways of Serbia” back in October, supposedly for actions related to “cleaning up” the area. In late December, the SNS-dominated parliament passed the Law on Planning and Construction. The first terrain visits, meant to determine the “facts and legal issues” at the future site of the sprawling development took place only a week before New Year’s Eve. And on December 31, the final decision on the adoption of the Spatial plan was made: an appropriate date for big decisions and resolutions.

Springtime, year 2015. At this point, there was still no contract between the state and the potential investor, though changes to the spatial plan and other documentation necessary to serve the interests of the international investor had already been made. The public had yet to be presented with any economic analysis of the project. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 square meters of office space sat vacant on the Sava.

Bubbles over Belgrade

In April, parliament passed yet another piece of legislation necessary for the implementation of the project. The new law “established in the public interest” specifically addressed expropriation procedures and the issuance of building permits for the project’s realization — despite fervent protests from activists, urban planners and architects.

This was the real deal, the final drop, and the deal was ready. The contract was signed by the Minister of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, Zorana Mihajlović (one of Vučić’s closest allies in the ruling party and the former Minister of Energy), a representative of Belgrade Waterfront Capital Investment LLC, Mohamed Ali Rashed Alabbar, the acting director of Belgrade on Water Ltd., Aleksandar Trifunović, and a representative of Al Maabar International Investment LLC, Mohamed Ali Rashed Alabbar. The document was finally made available to public around the end of the September — 150 days later — following significant pressure from the public. Interestingly, the final contract was made public on the same day as the Belgrade Pride Parade, when much of the public’s attention was conveniently diverted elsewhere. Even more interestingly, the Serbian language version of the contract presented to the public that day was a bit shorter than the one in English, by no less than 190 pages.

Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist
Photo credit: Julia Druelle/Balkanist

The freshly released document revealed that the investor had been obliged to invest just 150 million euros in the project, rather than the originally stated 3.5 billion euros. Instead, Serbia would bear the burden of paying for the rest of it by taking out a loan in the amount of 150 million euros (plus an additional 40 million euros for restructuring railway lines and 90 million euros for expropriation costs). The real proportion of government and private shares in the project, as well as the rights and obligations of the various parties involved remains shrouded in a great deal of secrecy. Specific problems with the agreement have already been analyzed in depth by experts.

Despite the reality, which points to the conclusion that citizens of Serbia will only get an empty vanity project and expensive loans from “Belgrade on the Water”, the political price of Vučić giving up might be high. Luckily for him, there are no longer any serious political opponents or parties who could stand up to Vučić now, despite the unpopularity of the Belgrade Waterfront project with the public. Stronger and with more power than ever, it seems Vučić would likely survive a potential failure, even one as big as a water bubble over Belgrade.

Cover photo credit: Julia Druelle. Visit her website to see more of her work.

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!
Nedim Jahić

Nedim Jahić (26, Sarajevo) has been engaged in various civic initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mostly related to human rights, political freedoms and war crimes. His articles have been published in Al Jazeera Balkans, NIN, BH Dani, Oslobođenje, Novo vrijeme, Today’s Zaman, Peščanik, Kosovo 2.0, RadioSarajevo.ba, Klix.ba, and various other media, publications and reports throughout the region. Jahić has also been engaged in political campaigns and various successful advocacy initiatives in Bosnia through which he's gained experience in political research and education.