An interview with Radomir Lazovic
An inspiring, hands-on interview with the activist Radomir Lazovic, one of the founders of Don’t Let Belgrade Drown, a political movement that’s making big waves (!) in Serbia.
We talk about how to build a movement, protesting in COVID times, making the jump from being a grassroots group to a political party competing in elections, and of course those creative tactics that Don’t Let Belgrade Drown has become known for.
About the podcast
Transcript of the interview
MEHRAN: My guest today is the activist Radomir Lazovic, also known as Mika.
He’s one of the founders of Don't Let Belgrade Drown [Ne da(vi)mo Beograd], a political movement that, if you'll excuse the pun, is making big waves in Serbia. The movement started off as a grassroots group focused on reclaiming public space, specifically around a massive development project to turn a piece of Belgrade into Dubai.
Since then, Don’t Let Belgrade Drown has become a prominent force against the increasingly authoritarian and some would say corrupt regime of the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic.
With Mika we discussed movement building, how we can protest in COVID times, making the jump from being a grassroots movement to a political party competing in elections, and of course, those creative tactics that Don’t Let Belgrade Drown has become known for.
I found it fascinating talking to Mika. He’s warm, he’s funny, and he’s very open about all the failures and lessons learned on his journey to becoming a significant political actor in his country.
OK, let's get to it.
MIKA: I am one of the people that started this movement, Ne davimo Beograd [Don’t Let Belgrade Drown], in 2015, '16, '14. We were in general, a group of people that were even before that, really concerned about the development of the city of Belgrade, but also about the idea how to have sort of different kind of city, the place where you can really live in, and which can be considered your own home, but not the playground for the capitalistic destruction, and the privatisation, and everything that's happened during the last few decades.
We were mainly involved in the cultural projects and taking over the abandoned buildings, creating different kind of community centres or galleries out of the space that is unused or left to deteriorate. So when the creation of the Belgrade Waterfront, a maniacally huge project in the city of Belgrade, when it started we were ready to confront it and it was really a big, big struggle until today.
The challenge: the Belgrade Waterfront mega-project
MEHRAN: You say you started the initiative around 2014. What was the scene in Serbia at that moment? In terms of the political landscape, in terms of the media, in terms of the tradition for grassroots activism. What was the challenge that you were responding to when you decided ‘look, we can't deal with this anymore, we need to start something’?
MIKA: Let's start from 2012 when the regime of Aleksandar Vucic won the elections and they got a landslide in debt to the other ones, and they basically created this idea that the flagship project in Belgrade should be Belgrade Waterfront Project. Belgrade has its huge part that is most valuable land that has been left undeveloped for decades. And every architecture student and professor was doing like different kind of ideas, what should be there, should it be a huge park, should it be a public object, what should it be there? It's a really huge part in the centre of Belgrade, on Sava River.
But when the new guys got into power, they created this really, really clever scheme how to take this part of the land out of the Serbian laws, to become sort of extra-terrestrial place in which they can do whatever they want. It's half of the river bank in Belgrade that's been taken away from the city and from the citizens.
So the idea is to create there two million square metres of different commercial and other spaces, in which they will create a new city only for the rich or only for the people that are close to them.
We saw what it will be, it is a closed city, it’s fraud. They are using public money to create a private project, and we started a protest about it.
And in the beginning, these protests were not so big. They had 1,000 or 2,000 people… but they did a small error in that moment.
So, imagine this. We are going fast forward to 2016. In the night of the elections, when they won the elections, the mayor of the town said to a crew to completely destroy one street because they couldn't wait for it to be legally evicted. And a group of around 30 to 40 masked people with balaclavas and with bats and everything showed up, also with huge trucks and also with construction equipment and everything, and destroyed half of the street.
And that really pissed most of the people off. And the big protests started. And those are the protests put us in the spotlight. We had, I don't know, 10,000 people on the streets, 20,000 people, then five again, but it run for more than a year. There was I don't know how many protests and it really gave us an opportunity to tell the people not only that destruction is bad but how the city can be different.
MEHRAN: So you’re protesting the Belgrade Waterfront project, which promised to bring a little piece of Dubai to Belgrade, with, I think the biggest shopping mall in the Balkans and various luxury hotels. They had to change the law in order to be able to start building. You said that you organised some protests and there was only 1,000 people, only 2,000 people. How do you do that? What was that based on? Was that purely just social media? Is that how you got all those people out there? And what kind of message did you target people with, in order to bring them to the streets to start that ball rolling against the Waterfront project?
The value of satire
MIKA: So imagine this: Not the road, not infrastructure, not sewage, nothing but you invest into the commercially privately owned project! It's a terrible thing. And we got with this into the media, and we did prosecutions, and we got to judges, to everybody.
But nothing. It was unbelievably how nobody said anything about it. And then that was the moment that we saw that we need something to change the discourse. We need something to get into the mainstream.
We showed up in one of the public hearings having this beach equipment, because we are called Let’s not Drown Belgrade, so, you know, it’s sort of media interest in us. And they started, “Oh, look at this crazy people. They are protesting the best project in the world with this stupid equipment.” But some of them will say, “Okay. This is something good.”
So we built it a little bit. And during this period, that I’m telling you, 1,000 or 2,000 people in the streets, we were building the story and we were building the trust of the people. And when we saw that nobody is listening to us in the [parliament] or the institutions, then we started to mock them. And this mocking created a feeling of power in the people. Because if the people, the institutions, are not listened to and they were saying, “This is bullshit. We don’t care.” Then the laughter and comic scenes and the creating out of this this really strong feeling that the system is completely corrupt, it's making people that are in the movement powerful. And that's what we did.
MEHRAN: Let me ask you about the media because you say, the idea of mocking, that was what put you on the map in terms of public opinion. But am I not right in saying that the media in Serbia is overwhelmingly pro-Vucic? So what was their reaction? How was that covered?
The Establishment attacks
MIKA: So you have at least three groups in media. One would be the ones that are professional and responsible to the readers or viewers. This is the smallest group and they are under heavy attack all the time. It's really terrible what these people are going through.
The second group is the ones that are mainstream media, with a lot of influence but they would never say anything. They would ignore any problem there is in the country because they are completely controlled by economic means and threats from the government. They will never publish anything about the Ne davimo Beograd or any other movement.
The third group are really the mechanisms of destroying people's lives that are not of the regime. So these third parties is really big. Like three televisions [stations], and sort of four or five daily newspapers, and then when these protests started, in the first 100 days, we were at least 40 times on the headlines, on the cover page of at least two or even three different papers. And they would round up my head, and they would say, "Look at this fat guy. He got really huge amounts of money for hating Serbia.” Or, “They got involved in a geopolitical struggle that wants to kill Vucic.” You can imagine that is not far from being attacked on the street because you want to kill a president or destroy Serbia, stuff like that.
MEHRAN: I believe they also went through your Facebook feed, the media in Serbia, and took photos and published them. You've also had your offices broken into a couple of times. How do you deal with all that personally? And have you ever received any more direct threats to your person in doing this kind of work?
MIKA: Sometimes I deal without any fear. I don’t look back on it at all. Sometimes they get to you. But the worst thing for me is that it became normal for me and I feel that's the worst thing that can happen, because then it normalizes the situation in which you are attacked for something that you're not doing anything bad. On the contrary, for me, most patriotic thing is to know why the money for hospitals is going to private pockets.
But if you want to know how it works, I mean, it works like: You would do a protest, for example, and then the MPs from the government would say that you are a traitor, and then the newspapers would take the statement and then create a whole world around it. And then, on social media, on the street, and so on, you would have these right-wing activists actually taking this, mutating it in sort of most horrible ways. And then in the end you end up with an inbox full of hideous stuff.
But I think that these kinds of threats are really directly connected to the government.
From grassroots movement to political party: challenges and mechanics
MEHRAN: I would like to jump back a little bit to the protests about the Waterfront project. Because you said, there's a year of protests. Don't let Belgrade Drown was basically running these street protests, the largest amount of people in the street since the fall of Milosevic. What happened then? Did that have any impact? Where did you take it after that?
MIKA: People, in the beginning, were really thinking, "Oh, yeah. Maybe this can be a good project for Serbia. Why not? Why shouldn't there be a really wealthy sheikh that will come in Serbia and give us all the bright future that we know that we deserve?” But after the destruction of half of the street and the spotlight that we had, I think that nobody can say that anymore. Everybody knows it's a corrupt business. I feel that this is the first time that the government of a progressive party, which they call themselves — imagine calling themselves progressive! — has been de-masked. So, this protest helped us understand that we are dealing with criminals.
I think that’s the biggest heritage of the protest but the other heritage is that we created a moment which we can develop more and I really think that's the important part, to get people together and change the government completely in Belgrade and in Serbia.
MEHRAN: So after this, there were the local elections of 2018, which you ran in. Tell me a little bit about that decision to engage in the political process. You’ve gone from a grassroots group, that has managed to create a buzz on the ground through Facebook, to more and more and more, and then a watershed moment with the destruction of that street that you were talking about, and now you’re joining the political process. How was that decision made? How was that received internally by your comrades in the group?
MIKA: Well, being such a heterogenous group and everything, we were really thinking that a lot of people will say “Okay, no. We want to stay a grassroots movement. We don't want to get into the political struggle.”
But I really think that the most important thing that changed people’s minds was they saw that after all these struggles, like 15 protests with tens of thousands of people in the street, prosecutions, attacks on us… they didn’t change anything! And people said, “Okay. We need to change the government if we are to have any success.” And there are no better people than us.
And we had these talks with everybody and I think that maybe two or three people said, “I will not be part of the political movement”. But even then, [they] participated in the campaign and it was a really nice, really great moment energy-wise, and the campaign went pretty great. And with no previous experience, we got into this, and it was really packed out with attacks on us on every corner. And I feel that [the regime] invested at least five times more in the campaign against us than we invested in the campaign.
We didn’t manage to get into the city parliament because of the rules of elections, but we got a lot of votes, we got a lot of support, a lot of trust, and this gave us confidence to continue after these elections to create the real movement.
I would say in the moment we got into these elections, we were [just] a group of people that were doing something together. And after we finished this, there was this idea, OK , we want to be a transparent, democratic, solidarity[-based], green, leftist movement that will take this government down.
MEHRAN: Somebody watching this might be thinking well, they organise protests, it’s a grassroots group, and then they engage in the political process, they found a party. How do you do that? Without funding, as you say, without experience. How do you go from being a group of friends who have organised things to a political party, going out there, campaigning, against people like Vucic?
MIKA: A lot of mistakes. A lot of try- outs, a lot of different approaches. But in this analysis of the project, in the time when we were doing this activist grassroots thing that we wanted to get people aware about the fraud that is happening in Belgrade, we got a lot of people together and they developed a huge trust, and really great relations between us. This is completely not enough and it's something completely different than a political organisation. But it was the foundation on which the movement was started.
Also we had a lot of experience in activist and NGO organisations, for example I said that we were founding community centres or cultural centres, art galleries and stuff like that, which involved dealing with a lot of people, and doing it from do-it-yourself, from scratch, with a really small amount of resources. And that’s exactly what we did here.
We used some of the resources that we personally had, some of the resources that our organisations, being NGO or activist organisations, had. I mean, it was really nice atmosphere in which whoever had something, contributed with it. I mean, sort of a small... I don’t know if I dare to say but, sort of a small communism! And it was a really nice moment.
Of course this was completely not enough because, for example, we never got into some of the parts of Belgrade. We never presented ourselves to these people, we were never in the outskirts, we didn’t do enough on the field. I mean, we did protests and then we thought that that’s enough, everybody knows about it.
But it’s not enough. You have to work from the neighbourhoods, you have to work from the really small levels. You need to get into the people’s houses, you need to involve people in the smallest level of problems in order to get their trust and to get them to support you.
And the most important thing is not even supporting, it is participating. Because there were 30 of us, and it’s not a small number, but if you are going to question something that is really strong as our regime is… they have the means of everything. They have the police, they have the media, they have resources, vast resources and money, they are stealing every day more and more. If you are to confront them, you cannot do it with 30 people. You need to be a movement of several thousands.
And that’s what we learnt and that's what we are doing now, and we are changing this idea that a small number of people can do it. And I'm really proud to say that we doubled our membership from February. We are on a really, really good road of changing the government.
MEHRAN: And you’re considering running for the local elections, in 2022, right? So some of these lessons learned you’ll be able to put into practice.
Creative protest tactics
I’d like to ask you a little bit more about the protest tactics. The Waterfront project was your focal point, what brought you to the next level. But today, you’re a progressive movement fighting on many fronts: environmental concerns, corruption, transparency, the whole thing.
Tell me a little bit more about some of the other actions that you’ve done. I believe for example you were protesting the privatisation of abandoned cinemas in quite an innovative way. And you also had a pot-banging protest to protest the COVID curfew, earlier this year. Tell me a little bit about those and where you get your ideas from and how they resonated with people in Serbia.
MIKA: The biggest challenge is to get the people involved. So I will use this cinemas thing as sort of an example.
Serbia was completely ripped off by the privatisations before this government. The last government privatised everything. So, some of the companies survived and are running these days but most of them are actually really a rip-off of the Serbian citizens and people that were working there.
So one of these companies was 17 cinemas, in Belgrade. Sorry, 14. And the idea behind this was really this really powerful guy that bought them out for a really small amount of money. And closed them down, wanting to create betting shops and casinos out to them, because they all were in really nice spots all over the city.
Media were completely closed for this and nobody wanted to listen to this sad story about the workers. It was sort of a stalemate in which these companies were dying out and the workers were not present at all in the media or anywhere. It was really hard for them and also for us.
So we were doing these tactics, of really pretending to be really naïve. What we did was: we got into the cinema, which is closed, we played a movie. Even when the police comes and tries to arrest us, or something like that… I mean, we of course know we’re just pretending to be naïve in this moment. To start to create this atmosphere in which everybody can see that there’s something wrong with this. It’s wrong to privatise a cinema that were invested by the workers and citizens and to sell it off like that to become casinos.
And people then started to think, “Okay, what happened with cinemas? Why are they closed? Why are they not working? Why is the minister’s godfather buying off cinemas for such small money, and selling [them] to become casinos?” And with this, we created a scene in which you can say ‘this is the problem’.
I cannot say this enough: the challenge is to get the people from their daily routine and to have them participate in something that is a big social problem. They know it’s a social problem. They feel it [by] themselves. But everything in this really weird moment in life and in capitalism that we have, everything tells them that there's nothing can be done. But a lot can get done if we are working together.
And I really think in these creative ways of taking people’s attention and putting them together in sort of a specific environment, as [we did] for the cinemas, people then of course started to think about other privatisations. Where are the workers now? Where are the people that were playing the cinemas and so on? And we created a scene in which we can say all these messages.
MEHRAN: I really like that. As a creative, peaceful protest tactic but actually at the site of the issue that you’re protesting, showing people that it can be done, breaking into an abandoned cinema and actually screening something there. It’s fresh and innovative.
How to build a movement
You mentioned, this February you doubled your membership. I’m trying to understand if there were any tactics or specific things that you would point to and say, “It was because of that, that we grew our support considerably.”
MIKA: You wouldn’t believe what my answer is to this: just ask. You need to ask people. If you don't ask them, they will not come. You need to ask them all the time, you need to tell them, “We’re doing this, but with you, we are going to be stronger." And, I mean, it’s really [as] simple as that. Even as a supporter, even as a person that watches. You need to be there because that’s how people understand that there is this movement that is happening in the city.
You need to ask them to participate in what you are doing. And if you are doing it right, and you are creating this transparent, democratic framework… it doesn’t have to be perfect at all. But the important thing is that you don’t lie to them, that you tell them how it is, and that you want them to participate.
A big mistake that we made during the elections, 2018: we called people to support us and all of a sudden we got around 1,500 people wanting to participate in the campaign. That was unbelievable for us in the moment.
But these people felt a need to support and then we did nothing with that. They are disappointed. Maybe they forgave us, maybe not. But if you’re calling people you need to provide them [with] how to support you, where to support you, and how to participate.
Our crucial message is: Get involved. And then we use any opportunity. For example, we today we published a… Dobrica my colleague, his interview which is really good and then you would always finish with: ‘Yes, this is how things are but we can change these things, if you participate. When we do our assemblies or when we do meetings, whatever we do, we are trying to give this message to the people.
So I would say, the more important thing is not to develop really great ways to get this to people, more important than that is to do it over and over again. To always present how people can participate.
MEHRAN: I see what you're getting at in terms of the message but with regard to the distribution, is it mainly online that you’re mobilising people, that you’re speaking to your supporters and getting the word out, or are there other ways that you're doing that?
MIKA: The first moment was, of course, the protests. You have people there then you can speak to them. The other thing is we had really a lot of different discussions, panels, all sorts of physical events that are now not so possible during Corona. We did a lot of events that were showing our messaging. But were also intended to get people to get involved.
We are now in process of buying a sort of van, and we are going to put all the equipment in it. And it should be a small stage for, I don’t know, 20 people. Because there are no places where you can do an event in Serbia that are uninterrupted by government thugs or something like that. We had many, many events during the last campaign banned or attacked, so we couldn’t do anything. But you need to think how to work with that.
So we are buying this campaign van and we are going to go to different municipalities, [where] we don’t have enough people in this moment. Because we want to create small cells also around Belgrade. The idea is to hack this situation in which we cannot use the public spaces, because the ruling party will not allow us. So we go there with speakers, with chairs, and everything. And if there’s five people, we are fine with that. We are going to see another five people in the next place and they are going to be interested because there are problems in Serbia and in Belgrade, in any corner. So that’s the idea in this moment.
Protest in the COVID era
MEHRAN: If somebody’s watching this wondering, how can I get out there and address all these injustices that I’m seeing, given that I’m locked down… what would you advise them? I mean, one tactic you’ve just described is to get a van and have a mobile event, which I think is brilliant. I’ve seen car protests in the US.
DiEM25 had a protest a couple of weeks ago in Luxembourg, which I thought was quite cute. You’re not allowed, of course, to gather many people there and they were protesting outside Amazon, and they asked their comrades to send them selfies, and they had a protest where they were printing the pictures and standing outside Amazon with all these printed pictures connected together by string. So the image that you got was almost a crowd of people but some were there in person and some were just there as a printed image.
Are there any other thoughts on how people could protest and engage in these kind of crazy times of lockdowns and restrictions?
MIKA: We had this really huge protest in times of the curfew, and it was really good because we called people to show up on their windows, on their terraces, and to bang pots or put music or do whatever they want, because they cannot get out. Because they feel injustice and they are really unsatisfied… well, your unsatisfaction at the window. We were working on a big number of people in more than 20 different towns in Serbia, preparing the action.
And this was really great. People really wanted sort of confirmation that they are not alone in this fear, that they are not alone in unsatisfaction, and they are not alone in hope that something can change.
And this thing from the windows, created a sort of a hope. And it was really massive. I mean, there were thousands of people participating. It stopped with putting the curfew down. And for me, it's one of the most important things that we didn’t keep quiet in a really bad moment.
There is always a way that you can protest and that you can say that you are not satisfied and that you want to change things. And that’s why my advice to everybody is: today, if you can glue one sticker on the wall, glue the sticker on the wall. Tomorrow, call your friend to glue two stickers. The other day, you’re going to laugh [at] how stupid you are because with the stickers you cannot change anything.
But maybe you will create sort of a small installation in the public sphere if you are artistically sensitive, or maybe you will go and create a panel with someone that you trust. Just start doing stuff and support your local groups. That is really important. Try to see who is doing something around you. We cannot do anything alone.
So just from not doing anything, or writing comments on Facebook, to actually doing something, even if it is [just] a sticker that you designed and created… there’s infinite space.
And once you cross that infinite space, you’re going to feel…. nice. Maybe stupid, maybe nice, but you're going to feel_something_. You’re going to feel alive. And from that point, anything is possible.
And I think when you get hooked on this, that change is possible, you will not let it down easily.
MEHRAN: I love that. That’s wonderful. It’s one of the things I was going to ask you, is how to combat apathy. And there is such a gulf, between pointing at the problem on social media and complaining, and actually being part of solving the problem. Even if it’s just in a tiny way, as you say, putting a sticker on your window or something. So thank you for that. That’s very valuable.
Something I would like to ask you: if there were one or two books that you might recommend in relation to the kind of topics that we’re discussing?
MIKA: I'm going to tell you a small anecdote. In the group we had this small idea to, you know, develop ourselves more, let’s read something and then create a sort of a small reader’s club. And we decided to read “Right to the City” by David Harvey.
Some of us read it, some didn’t. But half of us read the wrong text, of Henri Lefebvre, which is also called “Right to the City”, and half of us read the David Harvey book, and then we started to talk and people were like, “What are you talking about?” I mean, it’s similar but it's not the same. (!) So, I don't know.
I would consider not to think of yourself too serious[ly]. I mean, you can only joke on your own account, and just do stuff and feel good about doing [it] because you are, no doubt, on the bright side of history. And the dark side tends to present itself as unbeatable, really strong, and [monolithic], but there is no way that solidarity, love, self-improvement, is not stronger than hate and everything that we can see around us these days.
MEHRAN: Mika, thank you very much for that. That was fantastic. All my support to you and your struggle. I’m sure we haven't heard the last of Mika and Don’t Let Belgrade Drown.