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To Some In Belgrade, Serbia Risks Loss Of 'Crown Jewel' In Kushner Deal

Despite decades of sporadic debate about transforming the site, the old General Staff buildings have remained mostly unchanged after the NATO bombing raids in 1999.
Despite decades of sporadic debate about transforming the site, the old General Staff buildings have remained mostly unchanged after the NATO bombing raids in 1999.

BELGRADE -- Serbs in Belgrade and close followers of their memorialization of the Balkan wars of the 1990s are responding coolly to word that Serbian officials are surprisingly advanced in talks for Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to redevelop one of the most recognizable symbols of Western military might targeting Serbs.

The abandoned headquarters of the Yugoslav General Staff in downtown Belgrade was struck by two overnight bombing raids in April and May 1999, midway through NATO’s 79-day bombardment to force an end to violence and charges of ethnic cleansing between mostly Serb troops and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, then an autonomous province of rump Yugoslavia.

Despite decades of sporadic debate about transforming the site, the old General Staff buildings have remained mostly unchanged as a crumbling reminder to many Serbs of perceived bias against their national cause at a dark historical juncture.

"Why should it be given away?” Belgrade retiree Zivko Nedeljkovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service this week, following news of the potential Kushner deal.

He said he used to participate in wartime demonstrations to protest NATO’s attacks, thought he doesn’t specifically recall the night when the General Staff headquarters was hit. He read media reports about the purported Kushner project and said he opposed it because it would effectively mean giving the property away to foreigners.

“Leave it as a cultural and historical monument so that anyone can see what [NATO] did to us,” Nedeljkovic said.

Casualty figures from the NATO bombing campaign differ significantly. The late Yugoslav and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s administration claimed that in addition to around 900 Serbian troops and police officers, the bombardment killed around 5,000 civilians; NATO estimated around 500 civilian deaths.

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Sharply differing perspectives on wartime events, including Western bombs falling on the Serbian capital, remain integral aspects of Serb national identity and a major irritant in Serbia’s relations with the United States and its NATO allies.

The fate of the bombed-out former General Staff buildings and the similarly damaged Radio-Television of Serbia building less than a kilometer away in particular have fueled long-running “mnemonic battles” and debate over “narratives of victimhood” in Belgrade.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, a radical nationalist lawmaker in the 1990s who was a government minister until President Slobodan Milosevic’s overthrow in 2000, has said he is “delighted” by a possible Kushner deal.

The old General Staff buildings and adjacent Defense Ministry buildings are on a heritage protection list, and the land underneath them belongs to the government. Belgrade’s Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage has said it has not received any official document proposing to amend that status.

Vucic has vowed full transparency on any eventual plans for the site, but Serbian authorities’ groundwork on a future project involving Kushner only came to light after an opposition lawmaker divulged its purported outlines.

Kushner is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka and has focused on his investment and development projects since Trump was voted out of the White House in 2020, including through a company called Affinity Partners. Trump is the presumptive Republican candidate to run against incumbent Democrat Joe Biden for the U.S. presidency in November in a rematch of the 2020 vote.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump (left), his daughter Ivanka Trump (center), and her husband, Jared Kushner, in Miami on March 9.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump (left), his daughter Ivanka Trump (center), and her husband, Jared Kushner, in Miami on March 9.

On March 13, Serbian opposition lawmaker Aleksandar Jovanovic flashed a purported government document at a press conference saying Construction, Transport, and Infrastructure Minister Goran Vesic had signed a memorandum of understanding with an entity called Kushner Realty LLS, although it noted that the memorandum was not legally binding. The Serbian-language document, which was seen by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, also authorized Vesic to sign an investment agreement based on the signed memorandum.

The next day, Vesic said via his Progressive Party's (SNS) Instagram page that he had received “authorization from the government” but that the government would inform the public “when and if, on the basis of that authority, a memorandum or other act is signed.” He added that there was “no need to create a sensation where there is none.”

Vesic insisted that “since 2000, all Serbian governments have tried to revitalize the General Staff premises” but that “it fell to us to solve this problem…”

“We’ll be proud to announce it when or if we find a partner for [development of] the old [General Staff] site,” Vesic added.

Seemingly prompted by New York Times reporting on Kushner’s hopes for the Belgrade project and beachfront projects in nearby Albania, Kushner shared “early design images” for those plans on social media on March 15.

Meanwhile, he told the newspaper that his investment company was “pretty close” to finalizing the Serbian and Albanian deals.

The New York Times noted reports quoting a senior Serbian official as far back as 2013 when Trump already had reportedly expressed interest in the same Belgrade location, and of Kushner’s collaboration with a Trump administration envoy to Germany and the region, Richard Grenell, in pursuit of the new Balkan projects. The paper said Grenell had encouraged Serbian officials to consider U.S. investors for a project at the former General Staff site in 2020.

The New York Times suggested the deal for 1,500 luxury apartments and a hotel at the downtown Belgrade site involves a $500 million investment and a 99-year lease “at no charge,” with the Serbian state receiving 22 percent of profits.

The government document outlining the project seen by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service appeared to include a mechanism for the Kushner side’s eventual ownership of the property once the redevelopment work was completed. It foresees the creation of a limited liability company called Atlantic Incubation Partners established jointly by Serbia and Kushner Realty. In addition to the General Staff premises, the document includes buildings that house Defense Ministry, military security, and military intelligence operations.

A former chief of Serbia’s General Staff, Zdravko Ponos, accused Vucic of “investing in his [own] political future” and likened any deal relinquishing control of the site to surrendering “a family jewel.”

“He is giving away something that could be considered a family jewel of this country,” Ponos told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, “because these buildings and that location, especially the old building of the General Staff, is a family jewel.”

'Job Creation, Economic Growth'

Trump’s 2017-21 administration eschewed years of EU and U.S. pressure aimed at a more comprehensive breakthrough on one of the Balkans’ thorniest diplomatic headaches -- Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo -- in favor of “focusing on job creation and economic growth.” Grenell was a public avatar of those policies, which supporters credited with rare, if incremental, progress but critics accused of endangering long-standing ties with Pristina and sparking the downfall of Kosovo’s government.

Vucic wished Trump “the best of luck” before the U.S. leader’s reelection bid in 2020 and has been portrayed by some as an unspoken Trump ally, although he has stopped short of the kind of explicit public support voiced by European populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Anti-corruption lawyer Nemanja Nenadic
Anti-corruption lawyer Nemanja Nenadic

Veteran anti-corruption lawyer and Transparency International program Director Nemanja Nenadic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that there are many outstanding questions about the process behind such a contract.

He said it was likely to involve a public-private partnership in the form of a joint venture or the use of state-owned property in exchange for a public benefit. But in that case, Nenadic suggested, a formal bidding process should precede any legally binding agreements.

He noted that local authorities designated the controversial multibillion-dollar Belgrade Waterfront urban renewal project to be of such special importance to Serbia and its capital as to invoke the so-called lex specialis doctrine to supersede broad regulations, allowing them to avoid a public tender.

The government document seen by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service recommends declaring the Kushner project to be a project of special importance, too.

The topic of the General Staff buildings was raised in parliament in one of the first sessions after disputed elections in December that included accusations of widespread voter fraud on behalf of Vucic and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

Jovanovic, the lawmaker who disclosed the government document laying out the project’s status, suggested at the time that proponents of the deal were “bowing down to American companies.”

Art historian Branislav Dimitrijevic
Art historian Branislav Dimitrijevic

Branislav Dimitrijevic, an art historian and a member of the opposition Green-Left Front party, argued that the buildings should either be restored to their original state or preserved somehow as a monument.

"Leave it like this so we don’t forget," Ranka, a longtime resident of Belgrade, who asked that her full name not be published, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. She fled to the Serbian capital from Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Bosnian War in 1992, she said, and life in wartime Serbia is still vivid in her memory.

"I experienced this more tragically than the war in Bosnia,” she said.

A Belgrade pensioner named Vojislav said the best idea would be for the state to turn the site into apartment buildings but include a memorial as well, and perhaps even include wings like the Oculus at the World Trade Center memorial in New York City.

Vucic has said in the past that prospective projects would envisage “some kind of museum of victims” because “we are not going to hide what happened.”

Last week, The New York Times quoted Grenell as saying the Kushner project was a chance to “turn a symbol of previous conflict into a bridge of friendship and renewal.”

Gruia Badescu, a research fellow in East European history at the University of Konstanz with a longtime focus on ruins, reconstructions, and the memory of the 1990 wars in the Balkans, has dug deep into events around the former General Staff building, which comprises an “A” and a “B” structure.

He told RFE/RL that the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage was so “panicked” that it would be destroyed for redevelopment that they listed it as a national heritage site because it was arguably the most important building by Yugoslavia’s foremost modernist architect and urban planner, Nikola Dobrovic.

'Important Informal Memorial'

While much of the public was unaware of such underlying reasons for heightened interest in the shattered building, which was finished in 1965, Badescu said it became “a cause célèbre” in the architecture and heritage world to protect it.

The listing, in 2005, effectively blocked potential redevelopment plans for the site as it would have to be restored to its original state, he said.

“So it remained a prominent relic, a prominent ruin, and it became…the most important informal memorial of the NATO bombing,” Badescu said. For that reason, he said, he would expect the general public to oppose redevelopment.

“On the one hand, it would erase a universal memory that unites them. People in Belgrade, no matter what position they had in the 1990s, whether they were pro-Milosevic or against -- and remember, Belgrade was very much against Milosevic -- they condemned the NATO bombing,” Badescu said. “The second point is that you have the Belgrade Waterfront situation, in which the more active civil society, the youth, the architects, various cultural sectors, and others who were sick of corruption really protested.”

He said including a museum of victimhood might pacify some but it could also prove problematic. Unlike in the bombardment of the Radio-Television Serbia building, he said, although there were unconfirmed reports that two men in the vicinity may have been killed, no one is known to have died inside the disused former General Staff building.

Moreover, Badescu said, some people might regard a former military building where operations were planned in the 1990s as an awkward site for a museum to the suffering of victims of war. While the army was seen as an ethnically unifying Yugoslav institution throughout much of Josip Broz Tito’s reign, he said, the perceptions of many people in the former Yugoslavia changed during the violence of the 1990s.

Badescu also wondered whether the museum to which Vucic referred would be a historical museum exploring the complexity of the 1990s and the role of Serbia or “a memory museum in which you just talk about victimhood and you blame the West.”

He said a possible role for a U.S. developer was especially intriguing, as opposed to an investor from anywhere else around the world.

“By having a U.S. person redeveloping [it], the symbol of the NATO destruction of the city -- the U.S., in Serbian minds -- I think that also could be quite incendiary: ‘How come it’s the Americans who destroyed it and the Americans rebuild it?’

“If the government were to frame it as an act of expiation -- ‘by redeveloping, by reconstructing, by showing solidarity, it is a way of saying sorry and even providing this museum of victimhood’ -- this is a way the framing can make sense,” Badescu said. “But otherwise it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to people to have an American -- and a politically high-up person -- redeveloping it.”

Written and with reporting by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Ljudmila Cvetkovic and Jelena Jankovic
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    Ljudmila Cvetkovic

    Ljudmila Cvetkovic is a correspondent with RFE/RL's Balkan Service. 

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    Jelena Jankovic

    Jelena Jankovic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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