Belgrade's Hercegovačka Street after the illegal demolition. Ne Davimo Beograd

Police in Belgrade colluded in plans to make way for a controversial new waterfront development, says Serbia’s ombudsman.

They came by night in masks, carrying baseball bats. When 20 to 30 men in balaklavas turned up on Hercegovačka Street in Belgrade, Serbia, last month at 2 a.m., hardly anyone was around. The masked group had tied up some night watchmen, but their goal wasn’t anything to do with mass robbery or inter-gang score-settling. Accompanied by three diggers, the men had actually come to raze the entire street to the ground. By dawn—and despite several desperate calls to the police—Hercegovačka Street was a pile of rubble.

Why? The street and its surrounding area stand in the way of a grandiose plan to rebuild Belgrade’s Sava Waterfront. A scrappy but lively area where elegant art nouveau tenements mingle with cheap prefabs, the neighborhood has been earmarked as the site for one of the Balkan Peninsula’s biggest ever development projects, a 6.5 million square-foot quarter that will house the region’s tallest skyscraper.

Citylab reported on this massive development plan a year ago, when it was already attracting negative international attention for its lack of transparency. No competitive bidding process had been held, and renderings created by the Dubai-based developers Eagle Hills (displayed at an international property fair, but not in Belgrade itself) seemed to contradict assertions that historic areas would be left intact. The Serbian parliament even changed the law to sweep through compulsory purchases needed to free up the site.

But remaining mysterious about the procurement process and changing the law apparently still wasn’t enough. The developers faced a period of wrangling in the courts, as property-owners fought the order to leave. How much easier it would be, someone must have wondered, if some sections of the site just turned to rubble overnight?

That such a rapid demolition was possible is due to the type of buildings on the site. As this 2013 Google Street View shows, these were makeshift, unlovely affairs. They weren’t, however, without a social function. One building legally demolished two days after the illegal raid was a refugee reception center.

If the demolition was swift and quiet, the aftermath has been anything but. Anger has been building, and last weekend 4,000 protestors marched through central Belgrade, claiming that the demolition was a stitch-up between city and police officials who may have stood to profit from seeing the development go through. After examining documents and recorded police phone calls, Serbia’s ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic, has confirmed suspicions that police were complicit. Just today, one of the owners of demolished property swore to sue the city.

A Belgrade Waterfront promotional poster doctored by protestors. (Courtesy Ne Davimo Beograd)

So far, the official response has been dismissive, obfuscatory. The interior minister has said the demolitions were wrong, but that they “should also not be the main news in Serbia.” He pointed out that the buildings destroyed were not constructed with official permission in the first place. This may be true, but as an answer to questions about an armed, masked gang knocking down an entire street over night, such a defense hardly inspires confidence that the government cares about the rule of law. Belgrade Waterfront’s construction may be one step closer thanks to the demolitions. Its reputation, and that of those who have promoted it, is also now one shade grubbier.

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