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HomeBalkansPlan to Demolish Belgrade’s Iconic Sava Bridge Sparks Anger and Suspicion

Plan to Demolish Belgrade’s Iconic Sava Bridge Sparks Anger and Suspicion

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“When I cross the Sava Bridge on my way to work between 7 and 8 in the morning, there is no congestion, but vehicles are moving slowly because of the bridge’s condition,” says Belgrade resident Dragana Zgajbulj.

“There is only one lane in each direction. In the afternoon rush hours, the situation is completely different, with huge crowds and traffic jams on the bridge.”

The 28-year-old lives in the Vozdovac area on one side of the River Sava, and works for a small private company across the river in New Belgrade. She currently takes a tram directly to work, but if the bridge is demolished, she will be forced to change lines and use Branko’s Bridge over the Sava instead, adding an extra 30 minutes to her journey.

In 2020, the Serbian government signed a contract with a Chinese state-owned company, Power China, to demolish the old bridge and build a new one. The project will be financed by an 80-million-euro loan from BNP Paribas, with a guarantee from the China Export and Credit Insurance Corporation.

But the project has raised questions of transparency. BIRN spent months trying to obtain the full documentation from Serbian institutions, but it was never made public. No public discussion period preceded the contract’s signing, nor did the authorities set out how they will manage traffic during the transition period.

Opponents of the project cite the cultural and historical significance of the bridge and the practical problems its demolition would cause. Experts have raised concerns about the project, and Belgraders have organised protests and other campaigning activities in an attempt to save the structure. A recent announcement by Belgrade’s mayor that the project is being slowed down has now given new hope that their campaign might succeed.

From renovation to demolition

The original idea was to renovate the Sava Bridge – a plan that the authorities were talking about for several years. The city of Belgrade’s chief urban planner, Milutin Folic, initiated a tender in 2017. The winner, CIP Transport Institute, proposed demolishing the old bridge and building a new one.

The Serbian Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, at the time headed by Tomislav Momirovic, signed a contractual agreement [1] [2] with Power China in December 2020 and a cooperation agreement the following March. The project is set to cost 94 million euros.

Finance Minister Sinisa Mali signed an 80 million euro loan contract with BNP Paribas. The loan is insured by a Chinese bank, with the rest of the project cost paid directly from the budget. 

However, the authorities have kept the full documentation for the Sava Bridge project under wraps. In November 2022, BIRN submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, the City of Belgrade, the Land Development Agency and CIP Transport Institute. CIP Transport Institute replied that it was responsible for preparing the project documentation but was not obliged to release it as its work had already been completed.

Following a decision by the Commissioner for Information of Public Interest in February 2023, the Ministry provided limited documentation to BIRN. It did not include important elements that were in the contract, including the requirements from the investor, a letter of invitation to tender, an addendum to the tender, special conditions, general conditions and other documents. 

Despite multiple inquiries, these parts of the documentation were never provided to BIRN. After months without responding, the ministry told BIRN to ask the Directorate for Land Development, which then redirected BIRN to the City of Belgrade, which had previously advised BIRN to ask the ministry.

‘The timeframe is not realistic’

The authorities have not organised any public debate about the project. When it became clear that the demolition would happen, activists from all over Belgrade got together in an attempt to stop it. They set up a website, mostaje.com – a portmanteau of the Serbian words for ‘the bridge stays’ – on which details of all the project’s activities were published.

“People have symbolically tied clothes and chains to the bridge, showing how inseparable they are from it,” said activist Srdjan Ilic, describing one protest action to BIRN. “All of this provoked reactions from the media, the public and the city and state authorities.”

The annex to the contract from June 2022 shows that the period in which the project had to start was prolonged from three months to 30 months. This means that the demolition of the bridge should have started in June 2023 at the latest, but then Belgrade’s mayor, Aleksandar Sapic, said it was postponed.

Documents obtained by BIRN show that the project must be completed within three years once it starts.

“The solution of closing the Sava Bridge for three years to build a new and bigger bridge is very problematic, and the timeframe is certainly not realistic,” professor Vladimir Momcilovic of the Faculty of Transport at the University of Belgrade told BIRN in an interview by email.

He explained that similar infrastructure projects take at least four years to complete. In Belgrade, “during this time, tram users would suffer the most”. As trams carry the majority of public transport users in this part of the city, the loss of the tram line would be a blow, as it could acclimatise passengers to not using the tram and lead to a loss of confidence in tram transport in the long term.

“Although this bridge is not very significant in terms of traffic volume, it is one of only four bridges [across the Sava] dedicated to road traffic (and that’s still not enough). Its long-term closure will reduce the number of alternative crossings of the Sava and will lead to even greater congestion on the other three bridges,” explained Momcilovic. 

According to data provided by Mostaje activists, 14 per cent of Belgrade’s traffic uses the Sava Bridge, with more than 30,000 vehicles crossing it daily.

Some Belgrade residents also fear that the bridge’s closure will lead to a gridlock of traffic, which is already a challenge during the busy periods between 7am and 9am and between 4pm and 6pm, when people working on the other side of the bridge have to cross it.

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