Watergate at Belgrade’s Sava Riverbank
Today, Belgrade is a city in which Aleksandar Vučić's ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has an absolute majority and bases its rule on the authoritarianism of a deep state, one that provides chances to its citizens or withholds them, at its own discretion.
In the election night, with still ongoing discussions on how the various attempts at intimidation, electoral fraud and media control during the election campaign of the previous weeks and months resembled Slobodan Milošević‘s 1990s, armed and masked men have stormed several houses on the riverbank of the Sava, at the Savamala district, which are supposed to give way to the highly controversial megalomaniacal new construction project of a new Dubai on the Sava. They kidnapped its inhabitants, threatened them and then destroyed the houses. This project – entitled “Belgrade Waterfront“ – is a key propaganda symbol of the ruling party and head of government, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić. In just a few hours‘ time, the masked thugs have violated fundamental human rights and property rights. The residents of the houses were completely defenseless as, despite of cries for help, the police did not show up. This raid, obviously agreed upon with the city administration and/or the national government, evokes the darkest period of the 1990s when masked paramilitary formations of various criminal gangs did whatever they pleased, while the police did nothing to prevent it.
This was an organized violation of citizens’ rights, coordinated at various levels and between several state and non-state entities. While most of the media ignored the scandal altogether, Ombudsman Saša Janković and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection Rodoljub Šabić, were initially the only state bodies fighting for citizens’ rights, the former stating later in his report that the Belgrade city administration has grossly violated citizens’ rights as guaranteed by the Constitution and the law. Thereby, as stated in the report, citizens were denied the possibility of using regular legal means in order to protect their rights. According to the Ombudsman’s report, misconduct in the work by city authorities was "so grave and so evident that they create the impression of an intentional mistake, rather than accidental omission".
Subsequently, thousands of Belgrade citizens have repeatedly protested in front of the City Hall against this authoritarianism and a looming return of open intimidation and violence. In a span of two months, the number of protesters at bi-weekly rallies that are still ongoing, has been steadily increasing, reaching up to 20,000. Their sole demand is that those who ordered the late-April nocturnal suspension of rule of law in downtown Belgrade are held responsible.
As blatantly evident from each of the Serbian Progressive Party's press releases in the wake of the Savamala scandal and, especially, the ensuing public outrage and protests, the 1990s rhetoric is alive and well: protesters are depicted as traitors, foreign mercenaries, financed from abroad in order to destabilize the country and its advancement towards the EU.
The heavily controlled media’s strategy in handling scandals such as this one is familiar, as well – one controversy and the accompanying public outrage swiftly replaced by another, as if the media landscape represented a conveyor belt of issues serving to further numb citizens’ tolerance for inexplicable and inexcusable deeds by the authorities.
With the public outcry intensifying and the weekly protests gaining momentum, Mr. Vučić and his associates have maneuvered around this issue in a manner that, judging by a whole range of public controversies caused by government officials during the past two years, has become business-as-usual: from outright denial, relativization, to media spins and diverting of public attention eerily similar to Vučić's first brush with the executive branch as Slobodan Milošević’s Information Minister (1998-2000).
In an attempt to create a distraction from the popular demand for explanations on who did the demolishing in the Savamala district and following whose orders, Vučić resorted to an odd parallel: namely, he relaunched public discussion on the nature of Milošević’s 2001 arrest – namely, by masked men of suspicious backgrounds, commissioned to perform this task by the Government led by then Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić. Amidst a barrage of questions on who was behind the masks in late April in downtown Belgrade, the Prime Minister announced an investigation about the events surrounding Milošević’s arrest 15 years ago.
"As much progress as Serbia has made from no one being murdered by masked men and presidents and vice presidents not being arrested by masked men but, instead, illegal structures being torn down, Serbia has to make further progress in the future so that those masks are never used by anyone in the future, for any unlawful or illegal purpose", Vučić stated.
This statement by the Prime Minister conveniently coincided with an interview with Milorad Ulemek – sentenced to 40 years for the assassinations of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić and former Serbian President Ivan Stambolić – published by tabloids loyal to the Government. In it, Ulemek claims that Slobodan Milošević’s arrest was funded with a $5 million reward, collected by “someone from the former government”.
Apart from questioning Đinđić's legacy once more by speaking in a context set by the very man convicted of his murder, of all people, this was also a convenient way for the Prime Minister to intimidate political opponents who were once part of this former government and are now lining up as potential partners in the new one.
Seen by many as a step further towards sweeping the unpleasant questions under the rug, Vučić then announced the erection of a monument dedicated to Zoran Đinđić, scheduled to be revealed in 2018, the 15th anniversary of Đinđić's murder. He reiterated that the Democratic Party failed to build such a monument despite the fact that it had been in power all until 2012. It was another cheap shot at diverting public attention from the Savamala scandal, as well as an additional step toward destroying what’s left of the Democratic Party, which has been one of SNS’s priorities, after already having assumed DS's pro-EU orientation in 2008 en route to acquiring absolute majority in parliament and power in the country. It must be noted, however, that SNS has not been alone in this undertaking: ever since losing power in 2012, the Democratic Party has demonstrated an utter inability to function and act as an opposition party in the political landscape of Serbia.
Clearly, Vučić aims to establish himself as both Đinđić's successor, one who will build a monument dedicated to the fallen reformist politician, but who at the same time does not refrain from reaching deep into his pre-enlightenment bag of tricks when dealing with his political adversaries, many of whom were Đinđić's allies and associates. It is a matter of killing two birds with one stone: both identifying with Đinđić and underlining the fact that reformists have always been misunderstood by the Serbian public, perishing as a result thereof, but without alienating the considerable part of the electorate who still believe that Đinđić was a traitor and foreign agent.
Speaking of the process of naming monuments and streets, and public controversies that accompany such initiatives in a Serbia increasingly prone to historical revisionism (ranging all the way back to WWII and constant reevaluation of the antifascist movement), one cannot ignore one from a not-so-distant past:
In a public stunt organized by the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) back in 2007 – one year prior to Vučić’s and current Serbian President Nikolić’s exit from SRS and formation of the Serbian Progressive Party – around 200 SRS members, joined by right-wing extremist group Obraz and a football fans' organization, put up fake street signs, renaming a New Belgrade boulevard after ICTY indictee Ratko Mladić, after the boulevard had previously been officially renamed in tribute of late Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić.
"This is our way of showing that they cannot intimidate us and that freedom has always been the most important thing in Serbia and remains to be. So, let them come and arrest us. We’ll welcome them with enthusiasm and we have no problem with that", the then SRS Secretary General Vučić said at the time.
"Our today’s action was carried out because there is no freedom in Serbia today and because children and youth have no right to think differently than the anti-Serb regime of Boris Tadić and Vojislav Koštunica", he added.
On that occasion, Aleksandar Vučić extended an invitation to the Democratic Party youth wing to come and tear up the posters, "if they dare".
Violence-inducing public discourse, dealings by the authorities which condone it or their failure or unwillingness to put an end to violence as means of implementing policies is nothing new in Serbia’s public life, including the post-Milošević period. We have witnessed this repeatedly, and most notably during a February 2008 Belgrade protest against Kosovo's declaration of independence when a protest rally turned into a violent demolition spree leaving one person dead, 200 injured and embassies of several countries which had recognized Kosovo's independence damaged, only for such actions to be defended by the then Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica who subsequently stated: "Those people, hooligans as you refer to them, have only reacted against the violation of international law".
The Aleksandar Vučić of today may use such rhetoric sparingly and aim to position himself as a strong, consistent and modern pro-European leader. Nevertheless, even when discussing matters as apparently illegal as the demolition in Savamala, he displays a glaring lack of consistency: in a span of just a couple of weeks, after completely denying any wrongdoing, he went on to dub those responsible “idiots”, before ultimately conceding that the top city officials were responsible, only to belittle such statement and add even more confusion by adding that no mayor has done more for Belgrade than current one Siniša Mali.
Vučić also said that he was certain of the fact that the culprits' objectives were not criminal, but that they would be held responsible nonetheless, adding that he believes their intentions were best for the city and the state and that they have done this without personal gain in mind.
For a brief moment at least, it seemed as though Vučić's inability to handle this recent situation would perhaps become a turning point of sorts in his rule – not least because of the deterioration of Serbia's relations with its western partners which became apparent during a closed-door meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Serbia and the head of the EU delegation in Belgrade, after which he declined to inform the media on the contents of the talks. On the same day, it was reported that Vučić had cancelled his June 21 trip to Brussels, as well as previously scheduled meetings with US officials, only reaffirming speculations that the talks had been difficult. Therefore, one is inclined to assume that this presumable end of a love affair, i.e. unconditional western support to the Serbian Prime Minister, could be linked with the April 25 events in Savamala or, at least, with Vučić's manner of handling the fallout caused by them.
On the eve of the formation of Serbia's new government, the third one in four years, one can only hope that those truly responsible of unlawful activities during the election night – at all levels – will be held accountable, not because of their idiocy, but the illegality of their actions.
Belgrade Waterfront facts:
- The “Belgrade Waterfront” project was first publicly displayed, in form of digital rendering and scale models, in January 2014, when it was announced that the entire project would be completed in 5-7 years.
- At that time, it was announced as a €3.1 billion investment by the Abu Dhabi-based Eagle Hills company.
- In June 2014, the Prime Minister announced that the 180m Belgrade Tower, a large shopping mall and several residential and business structures would be completed until late 2016.
- After much delay and public pressure, the contract on “Belgrade Waterfront” was published in September 2015.
- According to the contract, the UAE-based strategic partner shall provide a cash investment up to €150 million, as well as give a loan valued at up to €150 million to the Serbian Government.
- The contract revealed that the Government of Serbia has a 32% ownership stake in the "Belgrade Waterfront" enterprise, whereas the UAE strategic partner owns 68%.
- Furthermore, the strategic partner's initial investment amounts to €22,000, whereas Serbia has made a 1 million dinar investment.
- It is further stated in the contract that parts of the land would be leased to the "Belgrade Waterfront" enterprise for a period of 99 years, without compensation.
- The contract also stipulates a (loosely formulated) 20-year deadline for completion of 50% of the project, whereas the entire project is scheduled to be completed in the course of 30 years.
- The cornerstone for the first "Belgrade Waterfront" structure was ceremoniously laid in late September 2015, with a building permit that was swiftly issued only a day prior to this event.
 Night of April 25th 2016