To Build Dubai of the Balkans, Serbia Deploys Bulldozers and Baseball Bats

BELGRADE, Serbia — remvBojan Bjelobaba, the owner of a carwash and auto-repair shop in Belgrade, says he has been threatened for refusing to vacate his 38-year-old business so that it could be razed to make way for a park.

It’s part of a development, with an investment of 3 billion euros, or about $3.6 billion, that is taking shape in Serbia’s capital along the east bank of the Sava River. An extravagant and controversial project known as the Belgrade Waterfront, it is at the heart of a plan by Serbia’s governing elite to transform this aging European metropolis into the Dubai of the Balkans.

A married couple, Ivan and Vida Timotijevic, who live smack in the middle of the development, have had their electricity and water cut off because they refuse to budge. If the government has its way, a boulevard will run through the site where their house sits.

They are among the last of the holdouts staring down the development.

The project of luxury skyscrapers and sprawling shopping malls has become a symbol of the plan of Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, to give the city “a new identity,” removed from the country’s militant past and international isolation.

Mr. Vucic — an ultranationalist during the Balkan wars of the 1990s who turned into a pro-European reformer as he gained more political power — aims to achieve his goal with borrowed money and revenue from the sale of state land to wealthy bidders from Russia, China and the Gulf States.

Critics say the Serbian government is letting nothing stand in the way.

Rubble of a former Federal Interior Ministry building, pounded by NATO warplanes in 1999, has been swept away to make way for three towers, built by an Israeli-owned company, AFI Europe Group. And about a mile away, at the waterfront construction, residents have been moved out of their homes.

“They are determined to take us into the future, bulldozing their way there so we can reach the kind of future they have in mind for us,” said Dobrica Veselinovic, the leader of the opposition movement, known as Let’s Not Drown Belgrade, which has held street protests against the project.

In the view of officials, the protesters miss the broader goals of the waterfront’s redevelopment. “We want to restore Belgrade to its former glory and make it a great, respectable city again after years of shame that came with wars and unrest,” said the mayor of Belgrade, Sinisa Mali.

But it isn’t only the residents directly affected by the project, and complaining of strong-arm tactics, who object to the way the development is being carried out.

Before construction began, two years ago, 231 families were moved from state-owned property for the project, but some refused to leave. One night, about 30 masked men with baseball bats and heavy equipment appeared at the site. By dawn, several residential and business buildings had been razed to allow construction to start.

The raid, in 2016, shocked Serbs, who took their anger to the streets, denouncing what they said were the elite’s corrupt practices. The protests morphed into the largest antigovernment demonstrations since a popular uprising toppled the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Opponents of the project have accused Mr. Mali, the mayor, of being behind the raid, an accusation he vehemently denied in an interview. Many Serbs have accused the mayor and the president of not consulting with the public on plans to develop public land.

The financial backing for the development has also raised concerns about a lack of transparency and excessive foreign influence. The Belgrade Waterfront project is being funded by an Abu Dhabi-based investment firm, Eagle Hills Properties, which signed a contract with the Serbian government in 2015.

The multibillion-dollar investment is just part of a flood of money from the United Arab Emirates that has been flowing into Serbia.

Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, has identified Serbia as the main destination in the western Balkans for his country’s efforts to diversify its economy before oil runs out.

It started in 2013, when Mr. Mali brokered a deal with Etihad, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, to buy a 49 percent stake in Serbia’s state-owned and near-bankrupt Jat Airways, restructuring it under the name Air Serbia and turning the Belgrade airport into a regional hub.

The Emirates also signed an agreement with Serbia’s government to invest in developing farmland and to purchase state-owned agricultural companies. And they are pouring money into Serbia’s defense industry, including aerospace manufacturing.

Many Serbs have questioned the way the deals between Serbia and the United Arab Emirates have been worked out behind closed doors. But the Emirati leader likes the top-down decision making, analysts say, and Serbia’s president likes to see cash flow into the country without the regulations and safeguards Western investors expect.

“Their political cultures are in many ways compatible — it’s U.A.E. sultanisim meets the Balkans’ authoritarianism,” said Tena Prelec, a researcher on southeastern Europe at the London School of Economics and the co-author of a paper on Emirati investments in Serbia.

But the Belgrade Waterfront project has been the most contested undertaking using money from the Gulf.

At the waterfront, two residential buildings shaped like a wave are nearly complete. The first owners of the most expensive address in Belgrade, a city of two million people, will pay as much as €7,000 euros per square meter, or about $8,500, in a country with an average monthly salary of €375 euros, or about $455.

In all, 5,700 homes and eight hotels will be built in the development between the river and the railway tracks running to the city’s 19th-century Central Train Station.

About a mile of cement tiles has been laid along the river to form a brand-new boardwalk, dotted with children’s slides, a boat landing, a restaurant, a bike lane and a fence of giant posters depicting buildings to be constructed in the next 30 years. Those include the largest shopping mall in the Balkans.

“We are trying to do everything anew without breaking the city’s bond to its past,” Mr. Mali insisted. “What’s important for us now is to have fast trains, sprawling highways and beautiful buildings to live and work in. That’s the measure of our success these days — not how much territory we’ve conquered in a war with our neighbors.”

But Bojan Kovacevic, president of Serbia’s Academy of Architects, called the Belgrade Waterfront development a “crime against urban planning.” He says the Dubai-like skyscrapers and walled-off neighborhood modeled on the Persian Gulf’s gated communities have no place in a city like Belgrade.

“He’s building a Forbidden City in the heart of Belgrade,” Mr. Kovacevic said of the president. “He keeps saying it’s a new identity and he’s the one shaping it. But did he ask us if we want a new identity? Have we debated it? Have the experts been consulted?”

Some residents continue to resist. Mr. Bjelobaba, the owner the auto-repair business, said that a construction explosion went off recently while he was working in the shop and a wall collapsed.

“It was not a coincidence. It was not an accident,” he said, adding that it was a sign that the authorities were stepping up pressure to make him leave the property.

The Timotijevics, who live on their pensions, refuse to move into temporary accommodations before receiving what they call adequate compensation.

“I am waiting for the bulldozers to come,” Mr. Timotijevic said. “I am not leaving my property. I won’t let them pocket the profit from my house without a fight in court. I have my rights, and I am not giving them up.”