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To Build Dubai of the Balkans, Serbia Deploys Bulldozers and Baseball Bats

April 28, 2018

Critics say the Serbian government is letting nothing stand in the way.

Rubble of a former Federal Interior Ministry building, pounded by NATO warplanes in 1999, has been swept away to make way for three towers, built by an Israeli-owned company, AFI Europe Group. And about a mile away, at the waterfront construction, residents have been moved out of their homes.

“They are determined to take us into the future, bulldozing their way there so we can reach the kind of future they have in mind for us,” said Dobrica Veselinovic, the leader of the opposition movement, known as Let’s Not Drown Belgrade, which has held street protests against the project.

To Build Dubai of the Balkans, Serbia Deploys Bulldozers and Baseball BatsTo Build Dubai of the Balkans, Serbia Deploys Bulldozers and Baseball Bats

In the view of officials, the protesters miss the broader goals of the waterfront’s redevelopment. “We want to restore Belgrade to its former glory and make it a great, respectable city again after years of shame that came with wars and unrest,” said the mayor of Belgrade, Sinisa Mali.

But it isn’t only the residents directly affected by the project, and complaining of strong-arm tactics, who object to the way the development is being carried out.

Before construction began, two years ago, 231 families were moved from state-owned property for the project, but some refused to leave. One night, about 30 masked men with baseball bats and heavy equipment appeared at the site. By dawn, several residential and business buildings had been razed to allow construction to start.

The raid, in 2016, shocked Serbs, who took their anger to the streets, denouncing what they said were the elite’s corrupt practices. The protests morphed into the largest antigovernment demonstrations since a popular uprising toppled the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Opponents of the project have accused Mr. Mali, the mayor, of being behind the raid, an accusation he vehemently denied in an interview. Many Serbs have accused the mayor and the president of not consulting with the public on plans to develop public land.

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The financial backing for the development has also raised concerns about a lack of transparency and excessive foreign influence. The Belgrade Waterfront project is being funded by an Abu Dhabi-based investment firm, Eagle Hills Properties, which signed a contract with the Serbian government in 2015.

The multibillion-dollar investment is just part of a flood of money from the United Arab Emirates that has been flowing into Serbia.

Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, has identified Serbia as the main destination in the western Balkans for his country’s efforts to diversify its economy before oil runs out.

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