The Government caters to corporations, violently cracking down on ecological protests in Novi Sad

Plans of a new bridge over the Danube river in the second-largest city in Serbia, Novi Sad, are faulty in the political, financial and legal aspect. This is the message the local activists, independent urban planners and a part of the parliamentary opposition which grew from grassroots movements have been trying to convey to the local and state authorities and the general public for months.

Their struggle escalated into clashes with SWAT teams and the gendarmerie sent to guard the construction site of the supporting infrastructure for the bridge. The clashes have been going on since October 17th with various intensity. There have been two organised protests, one of which took place on Sunday, October 23rd, and included several hundred protesters on the one side, and several hundred police officers on the other. At least 15 protesters have been brought in so far, including an MP, and several will probably face criminal charges. The police exerted excessive force towards the peaceful protesters. The exact number of injured is so far unknown.

If the supporting infrastructure gets to be built in the way the authorities want it, it will destroy the last indigenous forest in the capital od the province of Vojvodina, together with the natural habitat of some 200 endangered species. A legal process in front of the Committee of the Bern Convention has been launched to prevent this, on September 15th, but the authorities turned a blind eye to the legally binding international act and the EU body.

Activists have been guarding the forest and the wetlands at risk, called Šodroš, with their bodies for four months. Namely, they formed an activist camp where citizens have been present day in day out in July, after a part of the woods has been illegally cut down to make way for the constructions site.

There is a long list of irregularities surrounding the dubious infrastructural development, that the activists from the so-called Šodroš Survivor camp and the local activist organisations (including the Ecological front of Novi Sad, Dunavac-Šodroš, Eco guard Novi Sad and other) have been pointing out. For instance, the Spatial plan of the Republic of Serbia defines other locations as primary for building bridges, but the authorities seem to care more for the bridge that will probably cater for a luxurious housing dubbed the Novi Sad Waterfront (after the controversial Belgrade Waterfront project in the state capital).

Before taking to the woods, activists invested their hearts and minds into an institutional fight against the changes in the planning documents that were made by the local authorities in order to allow for the project and the luxurious settlement to be built. The authorities first answered with silence, and then with violence. More precisely, when a protest was held against the adoption of a new Master plan of Novi Sad in July, private security has attacked peaceful protesters, even “pulling a George Floyd” and nearly suffocating a citizen to death. The attackers still haven’t faced charges.

The plan was adopted, but there are still many holes in the whole process. The activists, supported by the opposition in the face of the Moramo parliamentary coalition, claim that they won’t back down.

Activists at Šodroš, Novi Sad; Source: Ekološki front Novi Sad / Facebook

Policemen, “You betrayed the people!”: gendarmerie sent at demonstrators in Novi Sad

Arrest of demonstrators, including an MP, strangulation marks, noses cut by police shields, intentional dragging of demonstrators into the cordon so that they would get beaten by the police, hundreds and hundreds of members of the gendarmerie sent to attack unarmed people: this is what once again defined the protest against illegal construction and destruction of Šodroš, the biggest so far.

Over a thousand citizens gathered on Sunday, October 23, Novi Sad’s Liberation from Fascist Occupation Day, at a protest called “Liberate Novi Sad”. Between them and the fence of the disputed construction site stood several hundred members of the gendarmerie, who periodically pushed and beat the crowd, as in previous days. Demonstrators mostly held their hands in the air, occasionally sang, and shouted in front of the police: “We will not give Šodroš!”, “You betrayed the people!”, “Cowards!”.

Four activists were detained and released late in the evening. Among those detained was MP Đorđe Miketić, who was released immediately due to parliamentary immunity. During the night, the entire forest was once again filled with members of the police force.

“Several members of the gendarmerie pulled me out of the third row. I was nowhere near them. They spotted me and started dragging me to them. The citizens came to my protection and defended me, so I somehow pulled myself through the crowd with my arms and legs and got out. Look what they did,” Mladen Cvijetić, secretary of the Zajedno-Moramo Novi Sad City Committee, with a neck red from strangulation and a torn T-shirt, told the media.

“The message of this action of theirs is that they will keep an eye on people who have been bothering them here for six days, not letting them defend the dirty Chinese capital. I’ve been here for six days with this police, with these high-and-mighty commanders. They use force, display their sadism, and harass citizens who want to remove the illegal fence.”

The protest at Šodroš started at four o’clock in the afternoon and formally lasted until eight o’clock in the evening when the demonstrators left the location they were defending and blocked several roads in the city. After that, the activists continued to stand guard in the Šodroš Survivor camp, surrounded by the police.

During the protest, the demonstrators raised their hands in the air repeatedly to show that they are non-violent and that they don’t want conflicts with the police. In the previous days, civic associations that gathered in the Šodroš Survivor camp sent the same message to the public: they do not want a conflict with the representatives of law enforcement and they call on the police to stand on the side of the people.

“Today we had another battle for Novi Sad. Such a large number of police forces have never been seen at protests in Novi Sad,” said Brajan Brković, one of the most active members of the Šodroš Survivor camp, in a post on social networks. Brković was taken into custody during the previous protest, and the president of the country also spoke out against him.

“Ten were arrested in the aftermath.” One girl’s nose was broken by a shield, another’s finger was broken; hits below the belt, red marks around people’s necks, you can’t trample on people’s dignity, that’s your lesson for today,” the activist commented on yesterday’s protest.

Support for the Novi Sad activists was provided by the presence of numerous civic associations, MPs of the Moramo coalition, and the Democratic Party, who stayed at the Novi Sad police department after the protest until the activists were released from custody. As we wrote earlier, just two weeks ago, the detained activists in Majdanpek were verbally harassed and beaten for hours by the police.

The former Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, Rodoljub Šabić, spoke about the protest in a news article, stating the following:

“By refusing the request to publish the entire legally prescribed documentation required for the construction of the bridge, the authorities have reinforced suspicions that the start of work at Šodros is illegal. Doubts were not removed by the fact that after several months of silence, the competent ministry hastily carried out some kind of inspection, after which it stated that everything was fine and that ‘it’s not construction, but only preparatory work’.

A complementary problem is that this whole business is unacceptably non-transparent. In addition to circumventing the Law on Public Procurement, it was all arranged in a secret, direct deal with the Chinese firm CRBC, which also adds to suspicions that the whole business here is corrupt.”

Šabić notes that there is nothing controversial in the citizens’ request to remove suspicions about the illegality of the contract and construction works. In an article entitled “It’s not normal”, the former commissioner wonders whether it’s normal for the government not to be able or simply not want to remove the suspicions, and whether it’s normal for citizens who physically oppose activities that are legally controversial to be met by brutal force. In the article, he reminds us of the fact that over the past year citizens have exhausted all possible institutional methods of cooperation with the authorities, where instead of openness to dialogue, they were met with disrespectful ignoring.

As we wrote earlier, citizens founded the Šodroš Survivor camp four months ago, in order to prevent illegal logging of the forest with their own bodies. On Tuesday, October 18, several construction workers, without a permit or a construction board, began to install panels and fence off the site for preparatory work on the construction of the bridge in the continuation of Evropa Boulevard in Novi Sad. The activists called the police, who, instead of stopping the illegal works, entered the site in large numbers and prevented citizens from accessing the part of the public space where the construction site is located. On Thursday, machines for allegedly demining the terrain appeared at Kamenička ada, a part of the disputed location, also moving outside the location marked by the fences. Although some members of the police claimed that they were denying access to the activists to protect them from dangerous construction work, children were rowing peacefully next to the construction site, and there were people peacefully fishing nearby.

Police and activists at Šodroš, Novi Sad; Source: Ekološki front Novi Sad / Facebook

In the meantime, the contractor obtained a permit, but it was dated after the start of the work, according to the Environmental Front of Novi Sad. It is unclear how a permit for the supporting infrastructure can exist if there has been no public insight into the basic infrastructure project, doubting there is any.

The Ecological Front of Novi Sad and sister organizations have pointed out countless times that they are not against the construction of a bridge over the Danube in general. This was repeated at the very beginning of the protest.

“We are not even against a bridge, or bridges, as in the case of the two temporary bridges that should be next to this real one. But bridges, wherever they are built, must be built in accordance with the law and priorities. We don’t have a single bridge from Novi Sad up to the border with Croatia inBačka Palanka. According to the Spatial Plan of the Republic of Serbia, it is a priority to have at least one bridge there before we have five bridges in Novi Sad”, biologist Marko Šćiban, one of the members of the Šodroš Survivor camp, reminded the public at the beginning of the protest,.

On Friday, the Ecological Front of Novi Sad published proposals for potential locations and directions for the bridge, or bridges, which they believe would “regionally be far more significant bypasses and affect the reduction of traffic in the city (red lines) than the variant with viaducts, which are 2 times longer than the bridge (blue line) over Šodroš and Kamenička ada”. The Ecological Front of NS reiterates that the bridges in the locations they proposed would actually represent bypasses, unlike the existing construction location, which only brings more traffic into the city center.

On October 24, Ana Brnabić, the future Prime minister, stated that she could not understand that someone was protesting against something that signifies “progress and a better quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people”, as reported by Radio 021, and she also stated that it the debated construction is ecologically justified because it would relieve the traffic. Brnabić labeled the demonstrations as “ugly”. However, as Marko Šćiban said in yesterday’s address to the crowd:

“It was not us who started the construction of the bridge without an architectural plan and building permit. It was not us who cut down the state forest illegally. It was not us who made a contract with CRBC without a public competition, then kept it secret and provided no arguments in favour of it, and it is not us who refuses to submit it for inspection. Citizens won’t pay off the loan for our dreams, but for the dreams of those who occupied the institutions to work for their benefit and that of their collaborators.”

“It’s not normal that the police, protecting actions that should bring huge profits to investors close to the government, act excessively zealously and entirely exceed their authority, while on the other hand, the authorities turn a blind eye to obvious, legally punishable violations of the law to the detriment of citizens. It’s hypocritical, leaves a sickening impression, and causes well-founded indignation. What is additionally worrisome is that, along with the police, force is increasingly being used by various private security forces, actually para-police units that act as if they have equal or greater authority than the police. Sooner or later, this will lead to even more violent clashes between the citizens, police, and para-police, with consequences that are difficult to foresee,” concludes Šabić.

In the meantime, Miloš Vučević, the mayor of Novi Sad since 2012, was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense of the Republic of Serbia.


Translation from Serbian: Anastazija Govedarica Antanasijević


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