The re-invention of Belgrade’s oldest square appears to be costing the youth their nightly hangout venue. But the local youth is not willing to let go.
Belgrade, Serbia – In a small park in central Belgrade, on Friday the 4th of April, a few small groups of people are gathered. Some are simply enjoying their evening but others are there with a purpose. In the outskirts of the park, a police van is parked, with some officers standing outside. It’s 11.45 pm.
The park is Studentski Trg, or Student’s park, and has been renovated throughout the spring, in order to display the old buildings and cultural centres surrounding it, in a more delicate way. It is however about to be closed at night, taking away a nightly hangout space for the Belgradian youth.
While some of the young Serbs are there simply to enjoy themselves, others are there to protest that closure, and it appears the police is there to prevent them. Three of the young men arranging the protest are Vasko Kelić, Miroslav Krstić and Mihajlo Jovičić, all of them are 18 years old.
Euroviews met up with them before the protest, and according to them, their protest is a principled one. They don’t use the park often, but they believe it should be possible.
“People should have the freedom to choose, and in this way people can only spend their nights in cafe’s and bar, and not all Serbs have the money to do that,” says Miroslav, who is seconded by Vasko:
“I don’t want to anyone to disrupt their place, and their right for assembly,” he explains.
Different views – same consequence
According to local officials, quoted in local media, the re-invention of the park, that’s roughly the size of a football field and filled with pathways and benches, was decided upon after complaints from local residents. Throughout the night they experienced noise and they often woke up to, what the city officials describe as, “devastation”.
The protesters don’t argue that the park was always treated gently by the youth, but they don’t believe the closure has to do with people complaining. With very few residential buildings nearby, it is more about keeping the alternative youth out of sight, they argue:
“Most of the people who come there are metal listeners, and the city feels, that they aren’t a good influence on the area. that they are drunk and so on,” Miroslav explains and continues:
“The student’s park have been there for a long time without changes. Then all of a sudden they start cutting down the trees, with an excuse, that they want to build an underground park,” he says referring to a story circulating, that the park is being changed to build an underneath garage beneath.
The City has explained, that the changes are unrelated to the establishment of a new parking lot. And even within the group, they differ on the relevance of the parking lot. But they agree on protesting the closure:
“This is a liberal country, and it’s the first time in Serbia, that a public park is closing. It has never happened before”, Mihajlo explains, giving the reasoning behind their organisation’s decision to protest the closure.
Different opinions – similar goals
The small protest is arranged by the group Mlada Opozicija Srbije – Young Opposition Serbia – a group that the youth recently founded. The purpose for them was clear.
“We wanted to assemble very different people. We have a friend who’s a communist who admires Tito, and even Stalin in some cases. We wanted to assemble him as well to discuss different issues, and just to agree on one thing. We are not willing just to obey to the government just to further our careers,” Vasko says.
A similar protest took place just a week earlier, when the gates were supposed to be locked for the first time. A group called “Thank You Municipal Police” had arranged it, but it was washed away by torrential rain.
This time, on Friday the 4th, the weather was clear and mood was tense, as the clock moved towards 12, where the protesters expected the police to move in and close the park.
A small win for the youth
A few minutes before midnight, the protesters counted their numbers, and realized, that roughly about 20 people had gathered. Less than they had hoped for – with more than 300 pledging their support on Facebook – but still a statement.
But then something unexpected happened. The police left. The protesters were surprised, but unsure how to interpret the situation. The police left quietly, and most of the young men believed they did so, because they assessed that the protest was small, and didn’t really pose a threat.
Whether to count the open gates as win, or the relatively small number of protesters as a loss, the gathering was unsure. But one thing that is certain is this: The park remained open on Friday night. And the youth stayed in it.