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History of the Present: Belgrade

Žaklina Gligorijević meets us at a point where the city disappears. A ribbon of jogging path runs past a Brutalist pavilion boasting a triangular cantilever with views over the wide Danube and beyond, to the enduringly untenanted forest on the opposite bank. It could be a thousand years ago or this afternoon. The timeless spectacle has a way of calling to mind that this land has been contested since it was first settled, by Celts, Romans, Huns, Goths, Byzantines, Avars, Slavs, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Ottomans, Hapsburgs, Fascists, and Communists. Lately, by tribes of foreign investors. The restaurant on the pavilion’s ground floor is called Panta Rei — all things change — an aphorism attributed to the man who also said you can’t step into the same river twice.

As the former director of Belgrade’s urban planning institute, Gligorijević knows that truth as well as she knows her city. She leads us east along the waterfront, past battered 1980s residential towers, cheery pennants of laundry fluttering from their terraces, in the direction of the candy-striped smokestack of a decommissioned and now ruined power plant. An iron trestle bridge hovers in the air, cut off from the embankment where we stand by thick brush and the ruins of a collapsed ramp: a scene from the underground imagination of the post-industrial sublime. Our approach is blocked by orange mesh fencing and a much-weathered billboard, in English: Marina Dorćol, New Riverfront Coming Up Soon .

Arranging her face in one of those stoic/ironic expressions that are the special defenses of so many of the world’s much put-upon peoples, Žaklina explains that the sign has stood there for a decade, ever since the power station was sold to an Israeli developer. Inspired by guerrilla theater groups that held performances among the ruins, Gligorijević tried to reclaim the power station and transform it into a public event space, a test case for “urban recycling,” but the city rebuffed her proposal. For now, in this space that is neither commercial, nor cultural, nor industrial, another marina has already sprung into existence. A motley collection of river craft — cruising, fishing, or houseboat class — tie up at the inlet, in the power station’s shadow. The shore is cluttered with huts and tarp shelters filled with spare engine parts and tackle.

This stretch of riverfront, isolated from downtown by an overgrown band of rail track, feels marginal in every sense. Yet it is being shaped by the same power struggles that are transforming other areas of the city, as Belgrade’s million-plus residents try to figure out where they belong in the new global order. Modern Yugoslavia was formed out of the ashes of World War II, its six republics united by the (mostly benevolent) dictator Josip Broz Tito in a political alliance that peacefully opposed the Eastern and Western Blocs. For a generation or two, Belgrade was one of Europe’s great cities, the same size as Brussels or Prague yet more dynamic than either; the capital of a multi-ethnic, polyglot, rapidly industrialized nation of 22 million that stretched from the Slovenian Alps to the mountains of Macedonia, along more than two thousand kilometers of stunning Adriatic coastline. The Non-Aligned Movement was founded here, in 1961, and eventually grew to include half the world. Belgrade’s avenues were named after Tito’s buddies, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Yugoslavs lived at the crossroads of the world, and they had it all — beaches, mountains, rock festivals, Olympiads, grandmaster chess matches — as they waited out the end of the Cold War.

Serbians are once again adjusting to an uneasy position on the fluid frontiers of Europe’s borderlands and ideologies.

In the 1980s, Tito’s death and the rise of nationalists like Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević exposed deep divisions in a country that had never fully healed the wounds of empire and occupation. Slovenia’s secession in 1991 kicked off a decade that Serbs are still trying to forget, even as they constantly revisit its lessons. There were the brutal wars with Croatia and Bosnia, the genocide Serbs perpetrated at Srebrenica. The hyperinflation that peaked at more than 300 million percent monthly, when you could write a check in the morning for a thousand times your life savings and hope to cover it by the end of the day. The stolen elections and streetprotests that repeatedly shut down Belgrade. Then the final war in Kosovo, and the NATO bombing. Đorđe Balašević, the beloved dissident songwriter, named an entire album after the decade, which is mostly remembered for the line, Well, fuck you, Nineties. When the last republic finally seceded in 2006, Belgrade was reduced to the capital of a small, landlocked, mainly agricultural state, a third the size of the former Yugoslavia. Its people — mostly Serbs, but with significant Hungarian and Roma minorities — are once again adjusting to an uneasy position on the fluid frontiers of Europe’s borderlands and ideologies.

Who Builds the City?

Today the corporations and oligarchs vying for land and influence are as likely to be from Dubai, Israel, China, or the United States as the more traditional Balkan powerbrokers — Russia, Turkey, and the former Central Powers of Europe. But shifting geopolitics do not change the essential dynamics between national autonomy and foreign influence that have shaped the city since the Berlin Congress of 1878 officially declared it the capital of the first modern, independent Serbian state. Now a new generation of urban activists raises the perennial question, Ko Gradi Grad? Who builds the city? Will it be a corrupt alliance of organized crime bosses, authoritarian bureaucrats, and foreign developers? Or a laissez-faire horde of individual builders, acting outside the formal housing market? Or coalitions of organized communities working with local experts and officials under a stable set of laws?

Today the corporations and oligarchs vying for land and influence are as likely to be from Dubai, Israel, China, or the United States as the more traditional Balkan powerbrokers.

No one has the answer to the question, in part because power to build the city is complicated by murky legacies and inheritances. Communist Yugoslavia died intestate, and laws regulating property rights, zoning, and the fate of government industries and infrastructures are caught in a perpetual fog of renegotiation. Serbia must find a way to navigate the belated shift from socialism to hypercapitalism while also recovering from international sanctions that crippled the state during the Milošević era. What goes by the soft-sounding name of “Serbia’s Transition” hides a sharper-edged reality. Each new building, official or spontaneous, each rooftop addition, each act of preservation or appropriation is part of an argument about who builds the city, one small move in a series of diagonal power plays whose meaning is not always clear.