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Belgrade: From necessity to aimlessness, or who for whom and what kind of city

Note from the LeftEast editors: This article originally appeared in the Serbian publication Masina on 10.06.2016. It was composed in the months following a series of nocturnal demolitions in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Savamala. The demolitions, conducted by unidentified workers in balaclavas, are widely perceived to be the vanguard actions of Belgrade on the Water, a controversial ‘urban renewal’ project that has been the focus of continuous protests led by the civic initiative Ne da(vi)mo Beograd (a name that simultaneously means: ‘Let’s not give Belgrade away’ and ‘Let’s not drown Belgrade.’)

Belgrade, 25. May 2016 - "Ne da(vi)mo Beograd" before the Parliament (Skupstina) in Belgrade. Image: TANJUG / TANJA VALIC / bb
Belgrade, 25. May 2016 – “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd” before the Parliament (Skupstina) in Belgrade. Image: TANJUG / TANJA VALIC / bb

After the state of emergency that was produced on Hercegovačka Street in the Savamala neighbourhood on election night, the initiative Ne da(vi)mo Beograd mobilized with its protests a large number of people who were dissatisfied with the functioning of the governing structures. A well-known mobilizing matrix whose platform was the “responsible citizen” had been put into action. For the time being the citizen had abandoned his position of passivity and comfort, and hit the streets where through massive protests the carnival expressed his disdain with the violent and arrogant behaviour of the authorities.

As a response to this call, at the demonstrations slogans could be heard criticizing the work of the government and the Premier. There were shouts invoking justice and prison sentences. Some chanted “Vučić you faggot[1],” and “Ustaše”[2]. The picture of Luka Ćelović was paraded around, he who was a wholesaler, rentier, and pre-war philanthropist. The attempt of articulating a more serious critique of the system was lost in the vivaciousness of the slogans and the signs. There were the representatives of the creative classes, labourers in culture, those in opposition to the politicians, feminists, leftists, members of Otpor, liberals, businessmen, professors, anarchists, and an assortment of retirees, but also children. All were present, for the most part, as citizens under the citizens’ banner demanding a greater participatory role, institutional order, and the enforcement of laws. Confronting everything concerning the instant-history of the megalomanical-dilettante project Belgrade on the water, and especially addressing the case of the organized and anonymous destruction on Hercegovačka Street[3], an event that was ignored and belittled with the full collaboration from the ones who broke the laws and those that were supposed to protect and implement those very laws.

In the days following the protests, there were a couple of articles published about its potential, future steps, and direction. In these writings there was a consensus around the main slogan asserting the demand to the right of the city (‘Whose city? Our city!’). However, the resulting demands for politicizing these loose (locally-patriotic) slogans rest on drastically different projections of the future. These projections range from: the revitalization of the republic’s ideals through the establishment of an active and autonomous citizen, the defence of private property against the destructive potential of the state’s establishment of stronger free-market mechanisms, the hopes of connecting existing workers’ struggles, and a defence of the public good. Everyone was in agreement that this long-awaited movement is necessary. But what can such an urban movement with such possibilities of historical perceiving, thinking and speaking have to offer a city like Belgrade? Or firstly, what kind of city do we have in mind when we say ‘our city’?

Belgrade is just one of the many urban structures across the world caught in the net of the brutal consequences of the antisocial, neo-liberal, urban rule conceived through privatization (in this instance, by expropriating from public ownership). Other consequences are the introduction of market mechanisms, deregulatory legislation in the hopes of suffocating public interest, along with the deregulation of the labor market, and the withdrawal of the state from the domain of social care and security, all the while with a planned a priori and a posteori dispossession of the population of basic access to decision-making concerning these processes. The significant outcome to this sort of governance is a class cleansing of the city, and the establishment of elitist urban zones. Consequent to this cleansing, large numbers of areas have sprouted up in peripheries designated for the impoverished and the urban poor. This new urban regime has created a war among the poor who are driven to compete for the dramatically limited “humanitarian” resources, including those targeting housing insecurities. This has become a reality for many owing to the growing and unaffordable cost of housing. The financially-led regeneration of the attractive parts of town are completely transforming the spatial-social configuration. In the meantime, there is a war for the few remaining resources in the city’s centre zones between the more or less wealthy, and the more or less affluent.

The financially-driven, momentous pilot project to regenerate Belgrade’s centre is Belgrade on the water, a private profiteering endeavour which has declared itself of national interest in a brutal, primitive acclamation campaign. This project has revealed itself to be an excellent case study showing the different aspects of the disastrous consequence of today’s approach to urban politics as dictated by the so-called urban investment. For the sake of Belgrade on the water, planning documents have been deregulated, a new special law on expropriation was adopted, the symbols of the pre-war civic and entrepreneurial society were reaffirmed and regenerated (in which a large part of the cultural and political elite have been participating for decades). All of this was done in the name of an irresponsible and bizarre promise of overcoming the recession, and the promise of a general social bloom.

Since the very beginning of 2014, the initiative Ne da(vi)mo Beograd has been justifiably concentrated on revealing the irregularities of this project. It has been gathering information important for public knowledge, analyzing the project, attempting to use the existing mechanisms of participation, publishing the initiative’s bulletin, organizing street actions and protests. The thing that is undisputable is that the contribution of the initiative and its campaign has certainly influenced a gradual shift in the public’s mood regarding the project from an overall media-driven enthusiasm and roused false hopes, to somewhat more of a critical perspective and more cautious reception of the process. The initiative has precisely and openly detected many of the institutional and non-institutional deceptions and thievery of those in authority, whose usurping arrogance and aggressiveness has astounded a large part of the public.

In every analysis, especially in that of activists and those that concern themselves with the strategic goals of a particular initiative or movement, what is in focus remains equally important to that which has been lost from focus. That which has been obscured or gets mentioned only sporadically, with that which has not been analyzed and which remains misunderstood. In this instance, the initiative has overlooked some of the very important socio-political-economic-spatial aspects of the problem, which has tactically, but also unavoidably from a strategic perspective, enabled them to maintain the support of the population, or at least of the large part of it currently active at the protests.

On the one hand, there remains the question of the relation of the initiative towards the very procedure of expropriation of homes, which included the eviction of the populations of the Bara Venecija, and Savamala neighbourhoods in preparation for the project. This process has revealed the regulative apparatus in which a conflict between specific vulnerable groups is generated by artificially creating difference within their legal status, and in doing so preventing their solidarity. The city has divided the population into “legal” (those who own property, and also those who in a process of “transition” have been left in status of users because their homes are not purchasable), and the “illegal” (those who because of various reasons do not have the proper documents). The divide is between those who in the expropriation process will be granted an unequal compensation, and those who won’t be compensated at all. Within the “legal” category, because of negotiations with the city, a small number of tenants have ended up with three-year access to temporary apartments, while those who owned apartments have been compensated with ones owned by the city. The “illegals” have been left to their own devices on the threshold of homelessness.

Even though the initiative has attempted to make contact with the tenants, it did not recognize the mutual interest between them. The struggle of these people is seen as one of “individual interest,” while the goals of the initiative are seen as “general,” in their attempt to halt the project. The inability to recognize the shared interest with the tenants of the zones that have been encompassed by the project have led to the conclusion that the interest of the campaign was not one shared with all of the residents of Belgrade, and that those who are fighting for their most basic rights – a roof over their head – have a place neither in Belgrade on the water, nor, apparently, in the alternative.

The territory intended for the development Belgrade on the water had for months been the temporary residence of migrants who were passing through Belgrade using the Balkan route on their way to Western countries. Many of them have squatted the half demolished houses along Sava’s banks, which have only some months prior been homes of the people evicted. In an attempt to maintain “focus” on the “urbanization” dilemma and the arrogant actions of the authorities, the repression of the migrants in the vicious circle of illegality has been omitted by the initiative[4]. On the day following the balaclava-masked demolitions that took place on election night, among the objects found destroyed was the No Border Hostel. This hostel has served for some time now as a home for those who, for whatever reason, were stuck on Serbia’s territory after border closures, a result of an agreement on (essentially) human trafficking between the E.U. and Turkey. Even so, the initiative did not show any direct solidarity with either the hostel residents who have had to withstand so much police harassment, nor with the practice which has put into action the mechanisms of a mutual support and solidarity. This is a missed opportunity for a radicalization and a re-articulation of the ossified structures of the “responsible citizen” status.

On the other hand, what is evident is the initiative’s praxis of cultivating a homogeneity among the residents of Belgrade by representing them all as victims of destructive investor urbanism, intentionally obscuring the deep class divisions among residents, as well as the distribution of power within society. The slogan “Whose city? – Our city!” within the politically heterogeneous and weakly articulated  protesting mass comes dangerously close to the solidarity of identity-politics, for it is easy to assume that the uniting denominator of the larger part of the protesters is that they have been urbanely sanctified as (Beo)građani[5] and because of which, naturally, the city is theirs.

The significant part of the problem is in the very organizational structure of the initiative, which consists of an exclusive group of professional activists and cultural workers, who have assumed the right to determine, and filter through the (post-political) operation. The result of this approach, and of such a group dynamic is the founding of new authority on this subject, and an accumulation of cultural capital by the middle class experts who then establish for themselves the exclusive role as bearers and interpreters of any potential social (urban) change. One of the causes of the apparent depoliticization of the initiative is the persistent focus on “policy”; that is, a concern with what measures have or have not been implemented, and not the addressing of such problems on a systematic, political level. There may also be a possibility of too strong a tie between the experts of the group and foundations that have been strictly forbidden to finance any sort of political activity[6].

As long as there are those who have been excluded from the right to the demand of the city – be it through silencing, or a lack of solidarity, or the exclusion from decision making –  and as long as there is a lack of clear political demands in the direction of a society conceived on equality for all, including in the articulation of the alternative, movements with this agenda will hardly be able to accomplish the transformative potential which some activists and theorists have optimistically, and with justification, invoked in their writings. Until we confront the problem as a whole, including the new regime of urban redistribution, which has turned our homes into currency, as a new vision of savings (or debt) intended to compensate for the absence of a social security system and thus to act as security in the case of life’s misfortunes – the system and the related problem will not be touched “where it hurts the most.”

Perhaps the right to the city as a political-theoretical platform has, through turmoil, the potential to mobilize the demands and the aspirations of all the disadvantaged, but to this day there has been no success on this front. Even if the initiative was to wake up from its mass induced ecstasy, the problem cannot be resolved at the level of a campaign that, if perceived by the standard (East European NGO) activist measures, is very joyous and successful, but also, by the most modest of political critiques, is also very limited and unambitious. The problems that we face have gone far beyond the possibilities of one civil protest with some partial demands. Even though the anonymous violence of capital, that all-encompassing agent of intimidation, discipline, and deprivation, in the case of (its vulgar embodiment at) Herzegovacka Street seemed like a convenient, unerring target, the injustice of it cannot be adequately addressed by a protesting carnival and ‘showing what we got’ (pokazivanjem patke)5 to the violators. The problems that we are confronted with cannot be resolved with a minimal “left” politicization of the demands proposed by the initiative, as some have suggested these last couple of days. That politicization will have to be a maximal one, for there are no other options. Furthermore, it is very important to create a terminological distinction and to hold ourselves in the realm of understanding what the initiative represents – this is an urban movement particular to the demands tied in with the project of reshaping the CENTRE of the city, and not a social movement with the necessary demands for more social security in society.

Indeed, the complex problems of urban rule, and conceptions of public rights to public space demand a systematic approach. This initiative has from the very beginning been locked up in a social contradiction, partly imposed, partly accepted; but perhaps it neither has the appetite nor capacity for any kind of re-approach because it could simply destroy it. The initiative is perhaps just an innocent outcome of historically-constructed possibilities and capacities which have been currently stirred only to continue to fight for the unrealized dream of a (prevalingly middle class and liberal) civic Serbia. The initiative is definitely needed, for it appeals to more than the necessary shift in urban politics, and yet, it will be without positive effects as long as it remains in the constant defence of a sort of raising of monuments to its own defeats, without any suggestions for a better future for all, and for a city as a city for everyone.

The intention of this article is to propose a more precise articulation and mobilization through analyzing the existing problems in the conceptual confusion and the politically questionable morale of the initiative. Taking into account the general delight among the bourgeois classes in the festive character of the demonstrations, it is evident that such a suggestion will not be virally shared and supported, but rather that it would cause some disappointment. However, a disappointment in an inadequately articulated politics is always unavoidable, and better if it happen sooner than later. Data and discourse analysis is not intended to hamper enthusiasm and the desire for further engagement in this movement. Rather, it hopes to contribute to the debate of the initiative’s potentials by arguing that it could and should not advocate for yet another conformist subversion or correction of the regime, but rather for a radical shift beyond the contemporary production and distribution of space that currently favours the repressive, discriminatory, exploitative regimes. Having in view the media-declared “civil front”[7] by initiatives stemming from Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš, Kraljevo, perhaps this is the first and last time to appeal to clearly delineate a politics, with adequate orientation and stability in the front lines of a society based on class and colonial domination, so that the struggle is not left afloat in the ideological limbo of the current protests.

Note 1:

This article is written from the perspective of someone who was involved in the development and work of the initiative and who is still interested in its work. These arguments have been formed through long-term consultation and discussion with many actresses and actors who are concerned with this topic. I am making these insights public as an encouragement to us all as we face the inevitable facts and aspects of the consequence to the strangling of the city and its residents, and not just to those who pander to the middle class objectives, with its vanity and prestige (in the aforementioned fight for the remaining resources of the central city zone).

Note 2:

The first part of the title is a paraphrase of comments made by Dragomir Olujić at the presentation of Aleksandra Sekulović book”Rehabilitation of Draža Mihajlović: Political violence against truth and justice”: “… this book is certainly necessary but also meaningless”…

[1] These sort of exclamations have been relatively reduced at other protest (which may be a result of Zoe Gudović’s address and the organizers who have called upon her to speak).

[2] These impassioned shouts could mostly be heard coming from the front rows. Even though they were not picked up and supported on mass, they did add to the general confusion.

[3] For which it is openly known that they were organized by the highest officials in the city government.

[4] Loosely translated to showing them what we got, implying private parts, but also referencing the name of a protest.

[5] Beograđani means those living in Belgrade, but the way in which the writer plays with the word, there are implications of a race dynamic present in the city. (Beo)-meaning white, and građani, meaning residents

[6] It is clear that an organization’s capacity is limited in regards to resources and people power at their disposal. NGOs do not intend to change the world, but rather to adapt and improve in favour of the existing regime, but not saying that that is all that they do. At times, the only progressive and emancipatory ideas and actions stem from this activist-opportunist space and public functioning. In any case, the state as a regime of capitalist austerity measures(so called outsourcing) leaves this sector in the care of very important questions giving off the illusion that there is an existence of attention and focus on important social , political, and cultural issues. It is very important to understand the dilemmas and the limitations in the use and promotion of these modest organizational resources,and to consider whether or not they are just a paraphrase of a method and style of the ruling hierarchy of the organization and the management, or the embryo of another political philosophy and practice. The fact being that the right wing, and the right wing NGO’s (unlike the ones that we speak of, often times have a very cryptic source of funding) attacking the initiative Ne da(vi)mo Beograd  on this basis is not a reason for concealment of the problem but on the contrary,NGO sectors have access usually to funds only for the articulation and reflection on very acute social problems, and so it is of utmost importance to scrutinize the impact of these funds on the  activities and the ideologies of organizations of groups that directly rely on them.

[7] The question on the nature of this front remain open

Translated from the Serbian by Dobrila Tomic

VilenicaAna Vilenica writes about urban politics, social and urban movements, urban regeneration and the role of art and culture, art and housing, politics of care, politics of motherhood. Her edited books include On the ruins of creative city (with and Becoming a mother in neoliberal capitalism. She just moved from Belgrade to London and is searching for a flat. (If you have any tips please let her know; the circumstances are quite brutal!)

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