Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has admitted that top city officials were behind the events of late April, when a group armed with baseball bats tore up multiple buildings in Belgrade using diggers, allegedly mistreating several locals.
As the votes in Serbia’s snap Parliamentary elections were being counted during the night of April 25, several black cars with tinted windows arrived at the riverbank neighborhood of Savamala, Hercegovacka Street.
At a Wednesday press conference, Prime Minister Vucic said that the “highest city officials” are behind the destruction of the neighborhood.
However, Vucic also added, “I am certain that their motive was pure. I am certain they wanted to create something much nicer there,” adding that the perpetrators wanted to “clean up” the area – which he said “criminals” had been “misusing” for their own financial gains.
Critics speculated that the neighborhood was demolished to make way for a massive government project, the controversial Belgrade Waterfront. The Belgrade Waterfront is a project the government signed with a United Arab Emirates-based company – the construction of a massive residential and office space complex, signed with a United Arab Emirates-based company, would be including the largest shopping mall in the Balkans, part of which is to be built in the area that was demolished during the event.
Vucic said that earlier reports, which state the group tied up witnesses, were false.
According to Balkan Insight, one of the witnesses who said he was tied up, Slobodan Tanaskovic, died last month from a heart attack.
Initial reports stated that about 30 masked men arrived in the neighborhood and used heavy machinery to demolish the buildings of several private businesses on the street. According to the Serbian Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), which published exclusive footage of the event, the group also mistreated passersby, taking away their mobile phones and threatening potential witnesses to refrain from reporting the activities.
Balkan Insight reported that one of the witnesses who said he was tied up, Slobodan Tanaskovic, died last month from a heart attack.
According to a report on the event by ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, some witnesses managed to call the police, who turned down their pleas for help.
Witnesses said the officers then directed the distraught citizens towards the communal police, which does not have competencies to deal with such an issue. According to Jankovic’s report, recordings of telephone conversations indicate police refused to arrive at the scene because such an order came from “the top”.
Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic, however, denied those allegations. He assured police officers were not ordered to stand down that night.
As authorities were not providing any information regarding the mysterious event for weeks, distraught citizens staged protests. Thousands of citizens gathered in front of the Belgrade Assembly to protest what they saw as an inadequate reaction by authorities, asking for resignations of several top city officials, including mayor Sinisa Mali.
Both Vucic and Mali denied any involvement of city or state institutions in the destruction of the neighborhood, and stated that they have no information on who might be responsible.
Meanwhile, Vucic stated the perpetrators should be brought to justice because of the way the operation was conducted, but expressed his support for the buildings being destroyed, saying he would like to see something much nicer built in their place. He also said the demolished buildings lacked construction permits – which, according to KRIK, the owner of some of the property destroyed that night denies.
Regarding the exact identity of the perpetrators, Vucic did not name anyone in particular, saying that prosecutors and police would reveal more details. He also assured the perpetrators will face legal consequences, but said he does not intend to urge the relevant authorities to speed up the process.
According to KRIK, when asked if mayor Sinisa Mali has lost his trust, Vucic expressed his support for Mali, calling him one of the best mayors Belgrade ever had.