A bombshell interview has been making waves in Serbia this week. On Monday, the Network for Investigating Crime and Corruption (KRIK) published revelations by Marija Mali, the ex-wife of Belgrade's mayor, claiming that her former husband, Sinisa Mali, admitted to being involved in the demolition of private property in the Serbian capital’s neighborhood of Savamala in April 2016.
According to Marija, her ex-husband told her that the violent demolition on the election night was organized in order to make room for the further development of the so-called Belgrade Waterfront project.
Late on April 25, 2016, a night after snap parliamentary elections, a group of about 30 masked men, armed with baseball bats, knocked down multiple buildings in the Savamala neighborhood, where a controversial Belgrade Waterfront gentrification project is planned.
“He said like it was an ordinary event. ‘I had a problem: some [people] did not want to move out. I organized a cleanup operation. People came in the middle of the night, smashed a little… I didn't do anything bad, but I organized everything by myself,’” Marija says her ex-husband told her.
She also said Mali named the company that provided bulldozers to tear down the buildings in the Savamala district, but revealed no details.
Marija Mali said her main motive for speaking publicly about the demolition and other alleged wrongdoings by her ex-husband — including his offshore businesses and his real estate assets (which was also investigated earlier by KRIK) — was a court verdict that cost her custody of her three children.
She told KRIK that Mali used political connections to win custody, despite criminal charges filed against him for domestic violence.
By exposing Mali, Marija also admitted that she involved herself in some of his illicit affairs when she gave a false statement to anti-corruption officials about 95,000 euros in family spending.
“Sinisa and his lawyer came up with an idea that after my father’s death I found money that I later used for everyday needs,” said Marija.
At first, most mainstream media in Serbia simply ignored the interview. No national television networks or other mainstream media outlets reported the story until state officials began reacting.
Podrži RTV (“Support Vojvodina Public Broadcaster”), which promotes the role of Serbia's public broadcasters, quoted Vreme Weekly journalist Jovana Gligorijevic's criticism of the national media:
J. Gligorijevic: Nas javni servis RTS je izvestavao o neodgovornosti gradskih vlasti Orovila u Kaliforniji a o Beogradu cute kao zaliceni!
— Podrži RTV (@PodrziRTV) February 15, 2017
J. Gligorijevic: Our public broadcaster RTS reported on lack of responsibility of the city authorities’ in Oroville in California, but they remain very silent on Belgrade.
At a press conference the same day KRIK published its story, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic refused to answer journalists’ questions about the allegations presented in the interview, but promised to explain everything the next day, during his own interview with Serbia’s public broadcaster, RTS, which is widely considered to be pro-government.
Šta je RTS objavio?
Koje važne velike vesti?
Oni nisu nikakav mainstream
To je najveća laž
— PRO-FEEL (@SlobaGeorgiev) February 15, 2017
What did RTS publish? Pink? Prva? Blic? Novosti? Kurir? What important and big news? They are not mainstream. That is the biggest lie.
At the same time, story was gaining major attention online, where more than 330,000 people read the interview in a single day, according to KRIK.
Belgrade's mayor, meanwhile, simply ignored it and all his ex-wife's allegations.
Vucic, on the other hand, changed his tone and promised that those responsible for the election-day demolition will bear the political consequences. “Mali will hardly keep his post for much longer,” he declared.
“Mali will not be the candidate [for the mayor] of the party I lead. I spoke to him two days ago, and I do not know if he understood me, but I told him that,” Vucic later said in his interview with RTS.
But Vucic also used the interview to praise Mali for his accomplishments during his term, saying he had some of the best results in Belgrade’s history, and implying that the scandal with his ex-wife was being politicized.
Vucic said that Mali's only real mistake was that the demolition was carried out the middle of the night and that he would even be proud if the action had been completed during the day.
Serbian authorities, including Prime Minister Vucic, claimed those buildings were constructed illegally, while an independent government report a month later found that police allowed the incident to take place, ignoring calls from local citizens about the masked men.
In June, following massive public pressure and a promise that he would reveal “the whole truth” about the action, Prime Minister Vucic said that top city officials were behind the demolitions.
Still, though, there have been no formal charges or high-level resignations. In response, a series of protests have swept Belgrade, demanding that the mayor and top police officials step down for their role in the scandal.
Nijedan dan više! pic.twitter.com/6fOcT7NeCa
— Ne davimo Beograd (@nedavimobgd) February 15, 2017
Photo: Banner “Let’s Not Drown Belgrade”
Tweet: Not a day more!
— OCCRP (@OCCRP) February 15, 2017
One of the most recent protests was staged on Wednesday, after KRIK's interview with Marija Mali. According to reports, thousands of people, led by initiative “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd,” (“Let’s Not Drown Belgrade”) gathered in front of the City Assembly and later marched to the prosecutor’s office, demanding an investigation and justice for those responsible.
Since Vucic, who started his second term in office in August 2016, announced this week he would run for president in elections this spring, there are rising concerns that this scandal will be “buried” by subsequent breaking news, and Twitter users are doing their best to keep KRIK's interview with Mali's ex-wife circulating online.
Zbog cirkusa oko izbora ne smemo zaboraviti intervju Marije Mali.
Hocemo ostavke, odgovrnost za rusenje u Savamali!!https://t.co/jnfDyJV8KA
— Jovana Radenovic (@joovanica88) February 17, 2017
Because of the circus on election we mustn’t forget Marija Mali’s interview. We want resignations, accountability for the demolition in Savamala!