Serbian nationalists want to build an extravagant Triumphal Arch in a Belgrade park

The Triumphal Arc in Skopje, North Macedonia in December 2019. Photo by Global Voices, CC-BY.

The Triumphal Arc in Skopje, North Macedonia, in December 2019. Photo by Global Voices, CC-BY.

The nationalist political party Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), a member of the ruling coalition in Serbia, is pushing for the construction of a massive Triumphal Arch in the center of Belgrade to commemorate military victories achieved in the Balkan Wars and the First World War. The arch would be flanked by statues of King Peter and King Alexander of Serbia.

Serbia's ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), lead by President Aleksandar Vučić, has launched other controversial (and costly) urban projects since it came to power in 2012. Those including the Belgrade Waterfront, a musical fountain, a giant flag pole, and a cable-car in the Belgrade Fortress — the latter has been recently put on pause by a court ruling.

The SNS enjoys the support of the SPO, a small right-wing party that used to be influential in the 1990s — it even had its own paramilitary wing, the Serbian Guard — but that has since shrunk in size and importance. Writing for Serbian newspaper Danas, political analyst Miloš Mitrović said that the Triumphal Arch proposal was “a way for them to show they still exist.”

The SPO proposal, put forward in the Belgrade City Assembly on December 6 without a cost estimate or a funding plan, drew comparisons with similar architectural shenanigans by authoritarian regimes in the Balkans.

In neighboring North Macedonia, the “Skopje 2014” project erected over 130 neoclassical structures — among them monuments, statues, government buildings, and museums — in the capital to the cost of at least 763 million USD between 2010 and 2014. The single most expensive structure was a Triumphal Arc called Porta Macedonia, which came to over 7 million dollars. The entire initiative was marred by corruption benefiting cronies of Nikola Gruevski's VMRO-DPNME party, who ruled North Macedonia from 2006 to 2017.

Both SNS and VMRO-DPNME are members of the conservative European People's Party and have cultivated a strong bilateral cooperation at that time when VMRO was in power in North Macedonia. The two populist regimes have often been implicated in backsliding of democracy and degradation of human rights standards in their respective countries.

Caricature of Nikola Gruevski and the Skopje Triumphal Arch.

A 2011 cartoon picturing Nikola Gruevski, former Macedonian PM who built a Triumphal Arc in Skopje. Cartoon by Darko Markoviкј, AKA Dar-Mar, via Citizens for European Macedonia. Used with permission.

In a statement, the SPO argues that Serbia needs such “monumental memorial” in order to “remind us of the glorious moments of our history, inspiring present and future generations to love and defend their homeland.” Party Vice President Aleksandar Čotrić said:

Предлажемо да Тријумфална капија буде подигнута у некадашњем Краљевом, данас Пионирском парку између здања Скупштине Србије и Новог двора, односно садашњег Председништва. Такође, предлажемо да у близини новог симбола наше престонице буду постављени и достојни споменици краљу Петру Првом Ослободицу и краљу Александру Ујединитељу, који су као командати српске војске заслужни за велике победе код Куманова, на Брегалници, Церу, Колубари, Солунском фронту и другим бојиштима од 1912. до 1918. године.

We propose that the Triumphal Arch is erected in the former Royal, today's Pioneer Park, between the Serbian Parliament building and the New Palace, i.e. the present Seat of the President. We also propose to erect appropriate monuments devoted to King Peter, the Liberator, and King Alexander, the Unifier, who, as commanders of the Serbian army, were responsible for the great victories at Kumanovo, on Bregalnica, Cer, Kolubara, on the Salonica Front and other fronts from 1912 to 1918.

SPO added that the construction of the Triumphal Arch was first proposed in the 1930s but did not move forward due to Serbia's occupation by Nazi Germany in 1941.

In the morning of SPO's announcement, Serbian tabloid Espreso ran an article sensationally titled “Belgrade's getting a Triumphal Arch just like Paris, here and now! Serbs will atone their sins towards King Alexander!”. It included quotes by SPO founder Vuk Drašković, who served as deputy prime minister in 1999 under Slobodan Milošević‘s government, and as foreign minister under conservative PM Vojislav Koštunica (2004-2007).

The article unquestionably praises the initiative while offering no information about sources of funding or environmental impact. It revolves instead around “Serbia's sins,” meaning the supposed neglect of the country's military tradition by its governments. Drašković, a self-proclaimed monarchist and an instrumental figure in the rehabilitation of the quisling četnik movement, said:

Nadam se da ćemo okajati grehe, drugačije ćemo se osećati kada prođemo pored spomenika ili kroz Trijumfalnu kapiju, kada je ozidamo u kojoj ćemo se slikati sa onima i pored onih čiji smo potomci. Valjda će to podstaći i pokajanje da im (onim čiji smo potomci) budemo dostojni jer smo se od njih odmetnuli, njih smo zaboravili, njih smo osramotili.

I hope we will atone our sins, we will feel differently when we pass by the monument or through the Triumphal Arch after we raise it and when we take photos with those [historical figures] from whom we descend. I hope it will instigate atonement and that we finally become worthy of our ancestors, because we reneged from them, we forgot them, we disgraced them.

So far, no official response to the SPO's proposal by the Belgrade authorities or the national government has been made public.

Miloš Mitrović says that the proposed plan for the Triumphal Arch doesn't include information about the costs and that its construction would destroy the current park's greenery.

Predlog SPO-a ima za cilj da, dakle, veliča slavnu prošlost, a ponekog je podsetio na svojevremeni, isto monumentalni, u najmanju ruku, projekat izgradnje spomenika i zgrada u klasičnom stilu u Skoplju, poznat kao antikvizacija. Izgradnja trijumfalne kapije i spomenika kraljevima u Beogradu ne bi predstavljala antikvizaciju, pre bi ovom, centralnom delu glavnog grada, ili prestonice kako ga SPO doživljava, dale jednu, malo je reći, grobljansku notu. Ali bi Beograd izgradnjom trijumfalne kapije i spomenika definitivno dobio, posle rekonstrukcije Trga Republike – ili Trga slobode kako bi u svom prošlom životu to rekao Vuk Drašković, taj Branko Kockica srpske politike – još jedan betonski prospekt u svom središtu. Osim ako bi projekat, ipak, bio izveden na manje monumentalan način, pa bi se kapija i spomenici krili među drvećem Pionirskog parka.

Otvara se, naravno, i krajnje banalno pitanje, pogotovo za grupu elitista, koliko bi podizanje monumentalne kapije i spomenika koštalo i ko bi novac obezbedio, bogati dobrotvori ili zahvalan narod, uz opravdanu sumnju da se vlada i gradska skupština, pošto prihvate inicijativu SPO-a, možda ne bi zaustavili na kapiji i dva spomenika, zašto sitničariti, već bi se setili i drugih primera iz slavne prošlosti, a nije ih malo, pa bi kapiji i spomenicima dvojici kraljeva pridodali još koji kip i najmanje jedan obelisk, zašto da ne. Zna se da je monumentalnost kod njih, u vladi i gradskoj vlasti, na ceni. „Faraoni su ostavili iza sebe piramide, ali svuda okolo je pustinja“, rekao bi Aleksandar Čotrić.

So, the goal of SPO's proposal to extol the glorious past, somehow reminds of another, also monumental, project of constructing monuments and buildings in classical style in Skopje, known as antiquisation. The construction of the Triumphal Arch and monuments to past kings in Belgrade would not be antiquisation per se, but would nevertheless make this central part of the capital look more like a cemetery. The Triumphal Arch and the monuments […] would become yet another another space filled with concrete in the center of Belgrade. Unless the project, if built on a less monumental scale, fits between the trees of the Pioneer Park.

Another issue, which might be too banal for the elitist group of the SPO, is the cost this enormous arch and monuments, and who would pay for it — some rich benefactors or the grateful people. One doubts that the government and the city assembly, if they accept the SPO's initiative, will stop with just an arc and two monuments. Why would they be stingy if they could also remember other names from the glorius past? There are plenty of them, so a few more statues could be added, as well at least one obelisk — why not. It's a well known fact that both the central and the city government appreciate monumental things. Aleksandar Čotrić might justify it by saying something like “the pharaohs left the pyramids behind, even though all around them is a desert.”

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