Psychopathology of Urban Space

Aleksandar Vučić and the changes in Belgrade's urban space

The politics of the former Secretary of the Serbian Radical Party, Aleksandar Vučić, today the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party and a great partisan of Euro-integration, enjoys significant suport from Brussels, Berlin and Washington. The critics of Vučić's regime have problems finding anybody to listen to them abroad: in Germany for instance, any affirmative text in FAZ will be given more credit than a testimony coming from the spot, trying to convey the view of what Vučić's politics looks like from within. The only ones who can understand the situation of the critical alternative in Serbia are those who today rally against the politics of Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia, or citizens of Croatia, who demand the demise of the minister of culture, and protest against the blocking of the curricular reform. We could expand the list, since this invisible (ex)Yugoslav community includes all those in the region who oppose the ruling policies, which devastate industries, social programs, educational systems, health protection, as well as public wealth. After a prolongued period of the local national elites in power, the cities in the region can be hardly recognized: maybe today Skopje is the most fascinating example – but the other cities in the region are not far behind. The urban culture is perceived as the polygon of identitarian politics, revision of the past, but also as a paravent for the laundering of suspicious capital. Regarding all that, Belgrade is just about to become the regional leader, thanks to its devastating policy of managing public space and memorial places.

Two years ago, Vučić decided to move the anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade in 1944, in order to adapt to the weekly agenda of Vladimir Putin, who at that time was travelling through, on his way to Italy. Thus the military parade was held on the 16th and not the 20th of October. Two streets in Belgrade had to change the name for the occasion: Zagreb Street (in the city center) became Koča Popović street, and a part of Kumodraška Street became Peka Dapčević Boulevard (these are the names of two famous partisan military leaders form the World War II). The change was put through without any democratic procedure, public debate or any kind of involvement of the local community. The command was issued by the PM's cabinet, as in so many other cases, such as the siege of the city of Šabac, in Western Serbia, to protect it from the floods, the erection of new monuments or the demolition of whole parts of the city in Belgrade... As a rule, decisions regarding interventions that change the memory of the city are taken in a non-transparent way, they are often put through by night, without permit, with the use of force, both legal and physical.

In order to better understand Aleksandar Vučić' psychopatology of the urban space, one has to search for the motivations behind the interventions he has undertaken or is about to undertake in the near future. The changes in the urban landscape of Belgrade are neither based on some agreed document on the policies of urban planning, nor do they result from meaningful managing of the urban space and its memory. While being a clear sign of democratic deficit, they figure as important reference points for the deconstruction of the politics of the PM and his party. The new memorial policy in Belgrade is motivated by the need to invent the tradition of the personal democratic engagement of Aleksandar Vučić, while the grand architectural project of “Belgrade-on-Water“ is a nesting place for corruption and political propaganda, in fact an implosion of outdated political projects, such as the one by the Serbian Radicals for a Great Serbia.

Since the Serbian Radicals never waived this idea, the Progressists, who sprang from the Radicals, launched a new myth of the greatest leader-nation of the Balkans, by promoting the megalomaniac project of a utopian Belgrade-on-Water, which by its sheer dimension should surpass everything in its vicinity. Currently the project, which was the central narrative of the 2014 election campaign, melts to a billboard blocking the view of a substantial part of the main railway station building. Recently, part of Hercegovačka Street lies in ruins, because some masked “unknown individuals“ destroyed, overnight, some thousand square meters of office space. This event caused a huge scandal, because police refused to intervene following several eyewitness calls: the attitude of the communal police was no different, and the city authorities remaind silent on questions raised by citizens and the wider public. In an attempt to justify this criminal deed, the PM Vučić said that “only complete idiots“ could have undertaken the demolition overnight - and that everthing would have been different if they had done it in daylight... There is, however, something truly “idiotic“ about how this state, the city and its urban space are governed, because there is no communication and no respect for democratic procedure. The consequences of such an attitude are always catastrophic and often tragic: a night guard who was there in Hercegovačka Street, and was tied up and harrassed by the masked men during the action, died the following day. We could also label “idiotic“ the treatment of media in Vučić's Serbia: they are expected to serve as government propaganda, by no means as a corrective of the work of the government, and especially not as a critique of the PM's work. Thus the first mass demonstrations, organized by the citizens' initiative “Ne da(vi)mo Belgrade“ (“Let us not yield/suffocate Belgrade“) were presented in the media as a rally of a few thousand activists of opposition parties (except for Vojislav Šešelj's Radicals and Čedomir Jovanović's Liberals), bussed to Belgrade from all parts of the country...

Authoritarian rulers like Vučić do not differ much from each other. They promote their personal interest as state interest, and perceive the needs and the rights of common individuals as a serious threat to the system they control, by joining political and state functions, public and secret services. One of the main critics of such an attitude to power in the recent past (under Slobodan Milošević) was Borislav Pekić, the famous writer and a co-founder of the Democratic Party (1989), who became MP shortly before the end of his life: he had confronted Vojislav Šešelj at the elections at the beginning of the 90s, and lost 1:6. Such was the mood of the people at that time, when nobody in the Radical Party, not even the Secretary General Vučić, understood that the Berlin Wall had indeed fallen...

A quarter of century later, Vučić proudly inaugurated the monument to Borislav Pekić at Flower Square in Belgrade, in the presence of Pekić's family and a group of retired party members with flowers in their hands. In a patriotic speech ornate with EU rhetoric, he presented this gesture as Sebia's tribute to its great writer and political activist. In fact, he mocked the Democratic Party, which had long been in power in this part of Belgrade (Vračar), for never caring to erect a monument to its distinguished founder. Instead, it was Serbia – meaning himself, Aleksandar Vučić, who now did it. It would appear that Borislav Pekić, the writer whom he, Vučić, “loved and appreciated,“ had nothing to do with the Democratic Party...which the PM deeply hated. The PM intended to instrumentalize Pekić to falsify his own personal “democratic tradition,“ which in fact he had been building from Serbian army positions above Sarajevo, in independent Serbian zones in Slavonia and in the city of Knin. People were applauding, and the widow expressed her gratitude to the PM, saying that this was a slap in the face for the party her late husband had founded. Well, she somehow forgot to mention that a high school in Belgrade bears the name of the writer, as so does the street in Vračar, where she currently lives... But these details are not useful for the PM's campaign, while the monument is multifunctional – both for the family and for the politician who symbolicaly identifies himself with the historical figure presented in bronze on the public square.

The next step in this direction is the newest plan by Vućić, conceived overnight, to erect a monument to the assasinated PM, Zoran Đinđić (2001-2003). This idea came to him at the peak of the scandal triggered by the destruction of buildings in Hercegovačka Street. In blatant absence of democratic procedure, and by abuse of public services, the PM decided to cover the affair by erecting a monument to the first democratic PM of Serbia. The irony there is that in May 2007, Vučić personally, accompanied by members of the Radical Party and by the “Family“ football mob, covered the street signs with the name Boulevard of Zoran Đinđić with posters inscribed “Boulevard of Ratko Mladić.“ He then stated that Zoran Đinđić could have a street named after him only in Zemun (the township across from Belgrade, on the other bank of the river Danube), in Šiler Street, the headquarters of the criminal gang assumed to have murdered Đinđić, acting as the operational wing of the Secret Service. By saying that, Vučić intended to insinuate that the whole democratic opposition in Serbia led by the assassinated PM, was in fact criminal. The criminal links of Đinđić' Democratic Party continued to figure as the most important narrative circulated by this former Radical, while the figure of Zoran Đinđić came to be connotated differently in his public speeches eventually. At the first shift in his politics in 2008, Vučić attemped to overtake Đinđić as his personal role-model, and sought the support for this new orientation from the public. By that time, he had simply bought some former Đinđić' partners and friends, while others were won over by other methods. The culmination of hypocrisy was the declaration by Đinđić's widow that “Vučić was the same as my Zoran.“ So now the monument to “Vučić's“ Zoran will ornament Student Square, and the inauguration is scheduled for 2018.

The psychopathology of urban space works by its own rules. Politicians never act alone in “planning“ the chaos: they are assisted by social groups and institutions that see, in such boosting, an opportunity to put through some of their own ideas. The Serbian Orthodox Church emerges there as the prime partner of the Progressists in reshaping the collective memory and the topography of the city. Under Milošević, the church achieved a major intervention by building the huge Temple of Saint Sava at Vračar: this enormous church reshaped not only the physical site of Belgrade, emerging as an aggressive new landmark, but also the symbolic, political and psychological profile of the community. Vučić's Belgrade-on-Water should represent yet another “temple“ at the other side of the city – a symbol of the lasting inachievement of this state, and just another paravent to extract money from the state budget. To make the cohesion complete, the Serbian Orthodox Church, in cooperation with the political elite, took the initiative to take possession of the urn with the ashes of the great scientist, Nikola Tesla, now deposited in the museum that bears his name. The head of the Serbian Church, Patriarch Irinej, signed an agreement with the Ministry of Energy of the Serbian government to transfer Tesla's urn to the yard of the Temple of Saint Sava. The idea was to give the Vračar plateau a new dimension, by uniting state, church and science – namely the existing monument to the leader of the Serbian uprising in 1804, Karađorđe, the ashes of Tesla, and Saint Sava. Luckily, the citizens' uproar against such deplacement of Tesla's urn then prevented the realization of the plan. However, a new move to appropriate Tesla was initiated this year after parliamentary elections, which re-installed Vučić in power. It seems that the only corrective to such damaging politics is a public protest, like that currently organized by the “Ne da(vi)mo Belgrade“ civil initiative, or that started by the Facebook group “Leave Tesla alone!“ two years ago. All institutional control of Vučić's authoritarian rule has been suspended long ago, and since his coming to power, the media have lost their most important function – objective information and critique. The only two surviving institutions are the Ombudsman for the Protection of Citizens' Rights, and the Comissioner for Information of Public Interest. The street rallies are an option, like in the 90s. The difference, however, is that looking to Europe offered a different scenery then. Not today – the PM Vučić appears today to be forged out of the noblest alloy used by Europe in forming local leaders. He enjoys full European support, and all those who have something to say against his politics are condemned to either isolation, or side with the rest of the miserable and despised in the Europe of today.