Train in Vain: Waiting for the Metro in Belgrade

Who will Belgrade’s long-awaited metro serve?


 

On scorching summer afternoons in Belgrade, when the humidity rising from the Danube and the Sava settles over the city like a wool blanket doused in bog water, the Old Sava Bridge is choked by traffic in both directions. Trams whiz by on tracks embedded within the asphalt, intercity and local buses rattle the bridge’s frame as they pass, and personal vehicles bake in the unforgiving sun. Belgrade is famous for its unforgiving traffic, a problem compounded by the seemingly haphazard nature of its urban fabric. At least being stuck in traffic atop the Old Sava Bridge affords commuters a chance to appreciate this impression, thanks to a sweeping view which embraces all stages of Belgrade’s long history. To the north stands Kalemegdan, its ancient fortress bearing witness to the empires who once coveted the city’s strategic location. To the east lies Stari Grad, the old town, that is, the entirety of what composed Belgrade up until the mid-twentieth century. To the west extends Novi Beograd (New Belgrade), the concrete culmination of socialist utopian urban planning under Tito. To the south, however, stands the newest and perhaps most ostentatious addition to Belgrade’s cityscape: Beograd Na Vodi—literally Belgrade-on-the-Water but branded in English as “Belgrade Waterfront.”

The embryonic nature of Belgrade Waterfront is evident from any perspective—the vast stretch of land abutting the Sava remains an active construction site. The swath is punctuated by skeletal skyscrapers which dwarf almost every other structure on the otherwise low-slung right bank. The only substantial structure which appears near completion is the spectacular Kula Beograd (Belgrade Tower), a glass behemoth which vaguely resembles a flashlight placed on its end. Most of the terrain is understandably closed off, encircled by high fences plastered with artistic mock-ups of stylish 1960s-looking urbanites shopping, sipping coffee, looking over balconies, or doing nothing in particular. There is little which ties these images to Belgrade’s physical reality. It seems that what Belgrade Waterfront is offering, more than a neighborhood or even a hot slice of real estate, is a lifestyle, and one that is utterly alien to the chaotic and crowded but above all vital urbanity which the city already possesses.

The rhetoric of Belgrade Waterfront is clear: it hopes to reorient the entire city, to pars pro toto turn Serbia’s capital into a place among many, a dumping ground for wealth and power. In that sense it hopes to achieve what Novi Beograd never could—to do away with the collected detritus which composes the city’s identity and supplant its traditional physiognomy with something completely new and (hopefully) marketable. But will it find success?

Belgrade’s municipal government seems to think so. Plans released last year for the city’s long-awaited metro system certainly place a significant amount of eggs in the project’s basket. The first phase of the new system will consist of a single line that stretches from Karaburma in the heavily industrial northeast, cuts across the traditional center of the city, and then traces the Sava before terminating at a yard in Makiš on the metropolis’s distant southwest edge. At the heart of this trajectory lies Belgrade Waterfront, which will host multiple stations along its boundary. The list of conspicuously snubbed landmarks, however, includes some of Belgrade’s most important amenities: the Clinical Center, the central railway station at Prokop, the business district along Kralj Aleksandar Boulevard, several dense residential neighborhoods, and the entirety of the left bank of the Sava.

Enter Po Meri Metro, a small but passionate group of enthusiasts and experts dedicated, almost single-mindedly, to the redemption of Belgrade’s metro. According to Davor Stupar, president of Po Meri Metro, “for the first time,…they [planning authorities] decided that it was a priority to connect the new Belgrade Waterfront area, and that is actually the point of contest, and where everything starts.” For the past year, Po Meri Metro has been collecting signatures, appearing in the media, and doing just about anything possible to further the goal of ensuring that public as opposed to propertied interests are the foremost consideration in the metro’s planning and execution. As Po Meri Metro sees it, the plan’s problems derive from the ways in which it departs from early directions in Belgrade’s development. As Stupar notes, “You have five or six plans through the decades which are basically the same with some tweaks…and then we have this plan which changes everything.”

Most previous incarnations of the plan emphasized the primacy of an east-west line that would connect New and Old Belgrade, followed by subsequent lines serving other corridors. This made sense: spend any time atop the bridges which cross the Sava and the importance of facilitating travel between the city’s two nuclei becomes obvious. A landmark 1977 report issued by the Administration for the Building and Reconstruction of Belgrade (Direkcija za Izgradnju i Rekonstrukciju Beograda) on the prospects of a metro notes that “It is anticipated that the development of local centers such as Zemun [on the east side of the Sava]…has a special place in the coming period of development. New Belgrade…would represent a portion of the central zone and, across the Sava riverside, be connected with parts of the central zones of a two-million-strong Belgrade on the right bank.” Accordingly, planning during the socialist period emphasized the redistribution of various land uses along broadly linear axes radiating outwards from the city center. This style of development was to be enabled by the creation of a layered transportation system based first and foremost on a high-capacity and rapid metro system complemented by a commuter rail in addition to trams and buses to fill in the gaps.

Metro plans from 1977
Belgrade metro plans from 1977, projected to be completed by 2000

The success of Belgrade’s evolution hinged on the continued ability of local and federal authorities to direct the city’s development from the top-down. Free from the burden of having to justify themselves at every phase, the various pieces of the puzzle would be allowed to manifest according to their own timelines. Eventually, it was expected, the benevolent eye of centralized planning would weave them together into a coherent whole. Miloš Vučković, a member of Po Meri Metro, describes the Yugoslav urban development strategy as a bargain struck between citizens and planning authorities: “Maybe you are living a little bit far from downtown,” authorities would argue after constructing vast, high-rise residential areas on the periphery, “but you will have a metro in like four years.”

Actual history was not so kind to Yugoslavia. Soon after the report was published, Josip Broz Tito would die, the economy would crumble under the weight of inflation, and the country itself would break apart, leaving Belgrade the center of a much smaller and less ambitious nation. Accordingly, the city’s development strategy backfired. The more expedient projects, including the construction of outlying residential areas and even the beginnings of a regional rail system (BG Voz), were front-loaded while the metro was postponed into oblivion. Modern-day Belgrade thus features large swaths of urban terrain literally stranded on the periphery, waiting for a train which will never come. Belgrade’s central station, in addition to various underground BG Voz stops, were constructed with the metro in mind and therefore remain underused and woefully inconvenient for many. The consequence is that traffic from across the region has been forced onto lower-capacity modes such as buses, decaying trams, and most problematically, personal cars.

From the perspective of a contemporary reader, one of the most striking aspects of the 1977 report is the continued references to the year 2000 as a magical date when the ambitious plans enclosed would all have come to fruition. By the new millennium, it argues, the GDP per capita of the still-existing Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will have more than quintupled, Belgrade will boast more than two million inhabitants, and consequently, five metro lines as well as four commuter rail lines will criss-cross the booming federal capital. Po Meri Metro admits that generations of failed promises have engendered an atmosphere of apathy, whereby most of the population sees the metro as just another one of the government’s distractions and that nothing will ever materialize. As Vučković relates, “We talk to old ladies who say ‘When I was seventeen they told me you’ll live here, you’ll take the metro. Fifty years later, I’m still here, and now you’re saying sign a petition to bring a metro to my place?’”

Plans from 1977 for Belgrade’s metro, projected to be completed by 2000

The reason why Po Meri Metro believes that the residents of Belgrade should take this attempt seriously, however, is the fact that this time powerful actors are invested in making it a reality. Hundreds of millions of euros, in addition to technical support, are pouring into Belgrade from the French and Chinese governments; meanwhile, Russia is on deck to facilitate improvements to the BG Voz that will complement the metro. During the Cold War, Yugoslavia leveraged its non-aligned status to obtain favors or preferential treatment from both the East and West at different points in its history. In a renewed era of geopolitical rivalry, Serbia has resurrected its predecessor’s strategy. Warm relations with China have resulted in the bankrolling of a new high-speed rail corridor that will eventually stretch from Budapest to the Aegean. Similarly, Serbia’s reluctance to place sanctions on Russia speaks to a hope that the country will reap material benefits from its neutrality in the face of the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the European Union continues to dump billions of euros in the form of “pre-accession assistance” on Serbia.

While Serbia’s carefully crafted ambivalence could result in unintended consequences, such as the alienation of one or more global powers, it seems to have paid off at least somewhat in the case of the Belgrade Metro. The city has never been so close to its long-held aspiration. Po Meri Metro, however, worries that the imminence of construction increases the danger of rendering the plan’s blunders irreversible.

The presence of foreign governments, however, further complicates the mystery behind the first phase’s trajectory. Why would France or China sign off on a plan which preferentially serves speculative interests if their intention is to curry favor among the Serbian public, who will receive little benefit from the current plan? In the earlier part of the past decade, when negotiations with France were initiated, Egis, a French civil engineering firm, was contracted to help design the metro. Egis proposed an east-west corridor roughly in line with previous generations of plans. After a few years, however, metro planning again entered a brief period of dormancy that only ended recently. And while Serbia’s government has drifted over the course of the past decade into the hands of a new dominant party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Egis has retained its key planning role. Nevertheless, Egis’s approach has been completely overhauled, repudiating its earlier recommendations.

Why would a well-esteemed civil engineering firm with significant experience around the world sign off on a deeply flawed plan, especially having drafted a completely different and significantly more sensible set of plans less than a decade earlier? The main investment interest behind Belgrade Waterfront, at least ostensibly, is Eagle Hills, an Emirati property development firm headed by Mohamed Alabar, a seasoned developer whose previous projects have included the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall. There is no obvious link between Eagle Hills and the foreign firms and governments that are being tasked with the metro. Nevertheless, the fact that Belgrade Waterfront has inexplicably become the system’s main priority implies unseen relationships between the various forces at play.

Stupar speculates that property developers, Eagle Hills among them, have taken advantage of a rare period of alignment between international capital and the various levels of government in Serbia. Historically, he says, a certain level of antagonism between Belgrade and the national government had held the metro back. Now, however, “This is the first time that government interests, the city interests, the private interests…everything is the same at this point.”

Taking into account the very likely possibility of a collaborative relationship between Belgrade property developers and Serbia’s political élite, a sobering conclusion comes to the fore: the various domains of geopolitical competition—the kind that is fawned over by media outlets both inside Serbia and abroad—are a mere sideshow to the machinations of international capital. This is not to say that France or China are taking orders from Eagle Hills or any other individual concentrations of capital, but rather that the metro is the product of a new clientelism whereby political power is readily exchanged for material wealth, national interest be damned.

A possible scenario plays out like this: Egis’s job is to please their client—the government of Serbia. Meanwhile, the government is invested in Belgrade Waterfront. Local and national authorities can provide whatever information to Egis to ensure that they will conclude that routing the metro through Belgrade Waterfront is a good idea. Foreign governments are happy to shell out money as long as it gives the impression that Serbia is being drawn towards their respective spheres of influence. The media attracts attention by suggesting that every great power is bending over backwards for Serbia. Everybody wins. That is, except the public, which is left with subpar goods.

Aleksandar Vučić, the president of Serbia, wants to appear as a new Tito, leveraging his country’s neutrality to the public’s benefit. But since Tito’s time the complicated web of wealth and power has become exponentially more complex. International borders no longer mean what they used to, even with resurgence of nationalism across Europe and the world. The result is that geopolitical finagling becomes a distraction (“Look what the Chinese are doing now!”) while the relevant details of how critical infrastructure will be executed are left to the knowing hands of transnational élites.

For Po Meri Metro and other groups advocating for a redressal of the metro plans, however, there is at least one inkling of hope, or at least opportunity, in the form of a benign dealignment between public and private interests. In March, high-speed rail service between Belgrade and Novi Sad commenced, the first fruits of the aforementioned Chinese-financed efforts to connect Budapest and points south. The link, which places the two cities within half an hour of each other, has become an immediate hit with the public. Vučić, realizing its potential as a political boon, off-handedly commented earlier this summer that failing to connect the metro to the central train station would be a “catastrophic mistake,” repudiating his government’s otherwise seemingly unqualified support of the project. While the president’s words may amount to nothing, it speaks to the difficulties of balancing the various interests at play in Belgrade. If the government is forced to choose between high-speed rail (and its Chinese backers) and Belgrade Waterfront, who knows what will become of the metro? The developing crises and opportunities afforded by the fluid state of international politics and economics might once again bring planners back to the drawing board.

In the meantime, Po Meri Metro will continue advocating for effective transportation, a fight they describe as an existential struggle. Their hope is that, despite the polarization and corruption which runs rampant in Serbia as well the Balkans as a whole, highly targeted action on the part of the public is still effective in engendering change. “If I’m going to be able to look myself in the mirror in ten years,” Stupar says, “I have to do something, so at least we can say we tried.”

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Archer Thomas

Archer Thomas is a writer and 2021 Thomas J. Watson Fellow interested in urbanism, transportation, and politics in the Balkans, Turkey, and the Caucasus.