Battle for Belgrade: why activists are pushing back against Serbia’s loss of cultural space

Since the fall of Yugoslavia, many formerly state-funded cultural institutions have fallen foul of privatisation, but some activists in Serbia are pushing back against the loss of public space

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Map of Belgrade from the 1980s, showing planned urban developments
Map of Belgrade from the 1980s, showing planned urban developments / © Ministarstvo Prostora

We often think of cities in infrastructural terms, but a city is more than just a dense metropolitan mass where large numbers of people work and live – it’s an ideological construct that reflects its creators’ attitude towards people, society and how life is meant to be lived.

Bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen are built to a human scale with the needs and wants of their citizens in mind. The ruthless gentrification of inner London, on the other hand, is a monument to Thatcher’s callous legacy. Urbanism is explicitly political, but rarely is it as explicit as it is in Belgrade: over the last two decades or so, as the Serbian capital has transitioned from socialism to the sort of crooked crony capitalism that dominates so much of eastern Europe, this ideological shift has begun to be reflected in the city itself.

Much like in Russia and the rest of the old Eastern Bloc, successive Serbian governments have had to find ways of transferring formerly state-owned assets into private hands – a process that has often been marred by flagrant corruption. While the initial smash-and-grab typically centred around highly lucrative heavy industries and natural resources, in recent years Serbia’s Yugoslav-era “cultural heritage” (to use official jargon) has been opened up to the cruel indifference of the free market.

Back in the Tito-era heyday of Yugoslavia, the booming social welfare state invested heavily in the enlightenment of its citizens. By the 1960s, literacy across the six constituent republics had risen from 10-30 per cent in some regions to 91 per cent as a whole and university education was, and remains to this day, free to all. […]