Can Europe Make It?

Belgrade Waterfront - the dark side of 'urban renewal'

The development project known as the "Belgrade Waterfront" vividly illustrates the mechanisms of dispossession and exclusion in the Serbian 'transition progress'.

Marko Aksentijević
26 November 2015

A protest against the Belgrade Waterfront. Source: Used with permission of author.If you come to Belgrade by train, it is going to be a long and slow ride. As slow as the Serbian "transition" to whatever it was once supposed to become, leaving along the way a deindustrialized county, a dysfunctional railway and citizens impoverished and betrayed by promises of a better life.

Once you do arrive at Belgrade Central Station you will be welcomed by the huge billboard which announces yet "a new era of prosperity for the Serbian capital." But this time it is not a promise to the citizens of Belgrade or Serbia, to those who still use trains or anyone else who might actually see advertisements on the streets of Belgrade. At its essence, the promotional image of Belgrade’s newest development is a cynical reminder of someone else's prosperity and better life, created out of public resources.

If you come to Belgrade by train, you will arrive directly at "the biggest construction site in Serbia," the plot of land which will in the future hold almost two million square meters of exclusive residential and commercial properties at the very heart of the city. This development, simply entitled Belgrade Waterfront, is supposed to completely displace the main train station further out of the centre and take "urban renewal to new heights."

And while the need for redevelopment of this area on the riverbank of the Sava river is not disputed, its current scope, content and mechanisms are highly controversial. In fact, there have been hundreds of different proposals as to how the new city centre should emerge on both shores of the Sava. So when in 2012, the then mayoral-candidate (and now prime minister of Serbia) Aleksandar Vucic presented his vision, the most surprising part was not a new plan but the presence of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani who came to endorse the idea.

The first sign of the election campaign plans coming to fruition emerged some year a half later with the presentation of the investor – Mohamed Alabbar, a real estate developer from the United Arab Emirates whose newly-formed company Eagle Hills was introduced as a strategic partner in this “deal of the century.”

The deal foresaw that Serbia will equip and invest the land, while the partner will put 3.5 billion dollars into the construction of luxurious residential units, hotels, the tallest commercial tower and the biggest shopping mall in the region as well as attract clients who will buy all this space. Apart from the share of the profit, the rationale behind giving away the city centre was justified with a renaissance of the economy: re-igniting the spark of the collapsed construction industry, the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs and stimulating commerce and tourism.

Putting aside the lack of need for all these square meters, the capabilities of the Serbian construction industry to actually construct high-rises as well as how touristically viable they could ever be, one is left wondering how could an economic rebirth be achieved through short-term, low-paid construction jobs and an increase in trade of imported goods.

Has political imagination shrunk so much that the best we can produce is a shopping mall in the city centre? The Belgrade Waterfront zealots are not leaving much space for critique. Whoever dares to question any aspect of the plans is forced into a false dialectics between “progress” and not doing anything, between shiny buildings and train and ship wrecks.

In its most ironic manifestation, opponents of the project are compared by the prime minister with those who opposed the construction of the railways in the nineteenth century. What he fails to notice is that this “progress” is in fact removing that very railway from the city, replacing the achievements of modernism with “new cultural jewels [created] from historic buildings”.

And perhaps jewels are forever, but progress cannot wait. The speed and the arrogance with which everything related to the project is conducted is unprecedented. Belgrade Waterfront received its weekly promo show on the city's TV station before the deal was even made. Urban plans are being changed in advance of the passing of laws which would allow for such changes. Construction works on the riverbank are being done without the necessary permits.

Cafes and food stands are put up without any legal grounds. A “healthy investment climate” is not asking the price! And the most vivid illustration of how cheap Serbian legislation is, came with the adoption of a special law (applicable only to this project) that allows expropriation of the land due to the commercial nature of the project. In a very rare occasion of the prime minister standing up to defend a law in parliament, Vucic proclaimed that anyone who intends to invest 100 million Euros would get a special deal.

Only after the contract was finally signed (with an even newer company called “Belgrade Waterfront Capital Investment LLC”), we learned how special this deal can be. Amongst other things, Serbia has committed to making all changes in the legislation “which are necessary or desirable, to give full effect to the provisions of this Agreement,” basically surrendering its sovereignty to a single investment programme. And the investment itself turned out to be much smaller: 150 million Euros provided by the “strategic partner”, while Serbia is taking out loans (from the same strategic partner) to invest a billion Euros worth of infrastructure (in addition to offering land and the existing buildings). All that, so that the profit from the real estate could be divided into a ratio of 68:32 in favour of the “strategic partner.”

And if that was not enough, the same profit ratio is guaranteed from selling the land to third parties, in case the strategic partner fails to meet deadlines (the first one being in 20 years). This means that there are no real incentives for the investor to even bother to build much, let alone reinvest in the project. And the fact that money for the first building is being raised through the selling of still non-existing apartments suggests that there is actually no investor. Whatever lies beneath and whoever profits in the end, one thing is certain – there is no benefit for the citizens of Serbia who will lose both land and at least a billion Euros worth of debt they cannot afford.

So, if you come to Belgrade by train, you will arrive at the epicentre of “a new era” in Serbia – one in which only bare natural resources like land and water are left to be privatised. And the only promises of a good life are redirected to those who can already afford them. It is a logical closure to the "transition," at the end of which you will not be able to reach the centre by train but could sail in on a yacht, if you can afford one.

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