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Murky waters – Participation, transparency and real estate on the Belgrade Waterfront

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Don't let Belgrade D(r)own (Courtesy of Ne Davimo Beograd)

Murky waters – Participation, transparency and real estate on the Belgrade Waterfront

27-06-2018

The Serbian initiative “Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own” (Serbian: Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd (NDB)) is changing the way Serbians think about transparency and the role of citizens in urban development projects. The initiative was triggered by the controversial 2014 “Belgrade Waterfront”, the biggest development project in Serbia’s history, which was announced to be financed by an Abu Dhabi-based billionaire. The Waterfront project aims to reconstruct Belgrade’s cityscape into luxury apartments, skyscrapers and five-star hotels.

Strong criticism against how the project was being planned arose when details of the multi-billion-dollar project were kept secret from the public and an unusual nighttime demolition took place at the site of the proposed project. Ever since, a growing number of Belgradians have been demanding that citizens be consulted and heard on major urban development projects. Crowds of up 20,000 have taken the street with the famous duck logo to challenge the process of how citizens are left out in major investment and development schemes.

Democracy International interviewed Dobrica Veselinovic, organizer of Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own (NDB).

DI: Tell us about the background of the initiative, and what were the motivating factors behind it.

NDB: The site of the proposed project is in Savamala, a part of Belgrade that is centrally based behind the rail and bus stations and one of the unused parts of the city with the most promising potential for developments.

In 2012, our current president Aleksandar Vucic, at the time candidate for mayor of Belgrade, took a cruise on the Sava River with ex-mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani and presented for the first time ideas for the Waterfront project. But no additional information about the project was released to the public. That was one of the first indicators that something big will happen in our city.

In 2014, Vucic succeeded in coming to power at the federal level as Prime Minister of Serbia. The government took advantage of the opportunity that Belgrade had temporary city authorities at the time, and declared that they would begin the development of the Waterfront project. It started with changes to the general urban development plan of Belgrade with no consultation of the public. It was classified as a project of national significance so that it could bypass bureaucratic hurdles. There was no standard bidding process for the tender or mandatory competition of the architectural design. That was the first signal for us to organize and involve citizens in the struggle against the non-transparent process. We started with the basic steps: filing an official complaint about changes to the urban development plans, putting pressure on the institutional level, requesting public hearings. We invited the citizens of Belgrade to collectively write complaints for the plan. We filed more than 2,000 complaints, but all of them were rejected. 

Moreover, when it became clear that the Serbian government was violating its own laws and building codes, their main strategy was to extensively change the laws and procedures to accommodate the wishes of the project. That was another signal to us that this project was already taking place behind closed doors. At that point, we didn’t have any concrete financial analysis that was connected to the Waterfront project. We only had vague promises of big investors, for example an individual from [AM3] the United Arab Emirates that will invest 2-3.5 billion euros.

We then organized small performances, such as singing at the public hearing of the plan. In 2015, the government introduced a special law for expropriating land in that area, and as a result we organized the first protest with the big yellow duck. Gradually our movement also became an example to others because this project showed how cities should not be developed: without any consultation of the public or calculation of social benefits. It’s an example of how local communities lose their grip on their neighborhoods to institutions that hold financial power over them. Preparation on the ground was fully operational by 2015. The city began to remove the railway tracks and evicted about 200 families who were living there. All this without a contract!

In 2015, a contract was signed. However, it was only revealed 6 months later and on the day of the Belgrade Gay Pride. Unfortunately, the pride event usually becomes a situation with hooligans trying to stop the parade, so it would be the perfect distraction. Our analysis of the contract revealed that the government was providing 100 hectares of land for free, that an unknown investor was putting up about 150 million euros and that the majority of the overall investment was coming from some newly-formed company in Abu Dhabi. The contract also revealed that the government was obliged not to change any laws and procedures that would harm the project. Essentially, it would give the governance of that land to a newly-formed foreign company.

DI: How did NDB react and what was the response of the government to your reactions?

NDB:  We grew the initiative to a core group of organizers of about 20-30 people, but our wider circle included volunteers of about 200-300 people. We protested the day the contract was signed. We protested when the first groundbreaking ceremony took place. What those protests revealed is that the government is extensively using the police to prevent any resistance to the project. Our largest protests saw about 20,000 people. On the day of the contract signing, they stopped two fully operating trains to physically block the view of the mayor, ministers, and other officials that were signing the contract to the people who were protesting on the opposite side of the street. In later stages it was very evident that they want to prevent any visible opposition to the project.

A turning point that inspired a real revolt was what happened on the night of parliamentary elections on April 24th2016. While everyone was watching the election results, a group of about 30 masked men began demolishing a block of the proposed project in the Savamala neighborhood.

Residents began calling the police to report the midnight demolition, but the police did not react in the slightest. This triggered more than 10 massive protests in Belgrade demanding the resignation of city officials and the head of the police. People wanted to see political accountability, they wanted prosecution of the people who took part in the nighttime demolition, and they wanted the transparent story of what happened that night.

The demolition of the Savamala is still one of the themes in the public sphere that we regularly address. After realizing that our actions via our institutional fight with complaints and court cases don’t work and that our tactic with mass protests don’t lead to results, we decided to run for elections for the city assembly of Belgrade. We organized ourselves as an independent citizen list for the elections that took place March 2018. We received 3.5% of the vote (30,000 people), unfortunately under the 5% threshold, but we still consider it a success given the limited media coverage on our initiative.

DI: Why do you think people in Belgrade were so willing to join the movement? Why was it so easy to get people interested?

NDB: People joined us because this is not something new in Belgrade. It’s a crisis of the traditional political parties and the representation of the people in them. We also developed a new approach in Belgrade to a bottom-up democracy where citizens let their voice be heard. It basically produced the new themes that are hot topics in Belgrade now. We listen to what people say to us, and we develop different methodologies of how we organize local groups in the municipalities. From there we crowdsource the different ideas and then work on specific issues. We introduced what an upgraded model of the functioning of local communities can look like. The decision-making process should start from the lowest level and go up to the municipality and to the city, and not opposite.

How politics function in a problem throughout the Balkans. But, if the government wouldn’t consult with citizens, then we did, and this was important for the people.

DI: The Waterfront Project is now fully underway, despite organizing huge public opposition. What is the plan next for NDB?

NDB: Before 2012, the core group of organizers were involved in various smaller initiatives about Belgrade’s independent culture scene, public clubs, as well as the protection of green areas in the city. We started with creating a coalition with like-minded people and initiatives to advocate for more sustainable urban mobility, more public spaces for people to meet and gather, and more cultural hubs. We also connected with different initiatives and groups which were working in the field of housing, like fighting against the eviction of people from their homes because of housing debt.

We now continue widening the spectrum of issues that we cover. We started with the Waterfront project, but gradually it became an issue of transparency and citizen involvement in urban development. Waterfront was just one case to show people how our city could be developed in the future. We are exploring the topics of what the different models of how a city should function and grow are.

We are entering a period of future development of our internal structure to see how we can widen our topics but also widen territoriality. We are now in the situation in Belgrade where we project in the next year a continuation of privatization of basically everything from communal utilities to city services. In this sense there will be plenty of topics to cover, but for me it’s very important to stress that this is also a process of education and emancipation of the people for the years to come.

We’re not just talking about the next year, but we’re fighting for the next 10 or 15 years in order to build a new group of citizens who will become active, questioning members of their communities. What interests me now is to present a plan which might not be so oriented towards the current situation or even the next few years. But instead we want to present a vision for what the situation of citizen inclusion can look like 50-100 years in the future. I want us to become more visionary, instead of reactive to what is just happening right now.

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