Balkan Transitional Justice | Changing Belgrade Street Names: A Sign of the Times

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This story was first published in Balkan Transitional Justice on July 26, 2016.

by Leah Willingham
SIT Spring 2016
Mount Holyoke College

For 70 years, Marko Cabric’s family has lived in the same apartment building on the same street in Belgrade. Yet, in that time, they’ve had four different addresses.

This is not unusual for many Belgraders. After the fall of Communism in the 1990s, many countries in Eastern Europe started renaming streets to reinforce their states’ emerging national identities.

But, while street renaming was significant in cities like East Berlin, Bucharest and Sofia, the process in the former Yugoslav states, such as Serbia, was even more expansive and radical. Those states were not only shifting from Socialism to democracy but from a unified, multi-ethnic state to six independent nation-states.

In Belgrade, the capital of Socialist Yugoslavia for 45 years, the government was tasked with rebranding its street names to reflect a suddenly exclusively Serbian identity. This has proved a huge and controversial undertaking.

“There were layers and layers of Yugoslav identity in Belgrade streets that weren’t present in other major Yugoslav cities,” Srdjan Radovic, a researcher at the Institute of Ethnography in Belgrade who has written several books on street renaming, said.

“Belgrade did not state this openly, but the underlying policy was getting rid of not only socialism but Yugoslavism from street names, to show the country as Serbian as possible.

Today, street naming and renaming in Belgrade still represents a major division in Serbian society over the way the past is remembered.

Knez Mihailova Street in Belgrade during the 1980s. Photo: Flickr/GothPhil

Wiping away memories:

By 2004, the Belgrade City Council for naming streets and squares had renamed almost 200 streets, including those named after Josip Broz Tito, Karl Marx and the Red Army, the Soviet armed force that helped to liberate Belgrade from the Nazis in 1944.

In 1990, out of 150 streets in Belgrade’s old city, up to 25 had some association with socialism or World War II. Today, only four or five streets retain names from that time.

Cabric’s street, a bustling residential road now called Krunska, the Serbian word for “crown,” was renamed five times between 1945 and 1997. It is the most altered street name in Belgrade.

Since 1945, the street has been named Krunska twice, has honored a past duchess of Yugoslavia once and was called Moskovska, after Moscow, the capital of the USSR. In 1951, a few years after Yugoslavia broke ties with the Soviet Union, the street was renamed Proleterskih Brigada to honor special units in the Yugoslav Liberation Army during World War II.

The street underwent its most recent change in 1997, when Cabric was in his late twenties, when it changed from Proleterskih Brigada back to Krunska. This was a part of an initiative in the 1990s by the then Serbian government to restore streets’ their pre-World War II names.

Cabric said it took some time for residents to get used to the new name. “It was a little confusing for the first few years,” he recalled. “You would get a bill from the power company addressed to Proleterskih Brigada, and the water bill would say Krunska.”

Now, most Belgraders have adjusted to the new names.But some still use street names from the Yugoslav era, even 20 years after most were renamed. Cabric said he went to the tax authorities this spring to pay the fees for his apartment, and his street was still listed as Proleterskih Brigada on the form.

Hairdresser Ljiljana Korolija was working whole her life on the Lole Ribara Street, named after a Yugoslav Communist war hero. In 1997 the street name was changed to Svetogorska, honoring the Orthodox monastic state in Greece, but said she continues to use Communist-era names.

“I still call most streets in Belgrade by the old names,” she said. “I don’t like to see that kind of erasure of history.”

With the post-Socialist explosion of nationalism in Serbia, and all of the states of the former Yugoslavia, more nationalistic renditions of history tended to be celebrated, while positive memories of socialism and Yugoslavia were ignored.

“There is this tendency to show that Serbia between the First and Second World Wars was the best time in Serbian history, whereas the Yugoslav past was somehow harmful for Serbia and for Serbs,” historian and activist Natasa Govedarica said. “And that’s simply not true.”

In Socialist Yugoslavia, Govedarica said, women enjoyed equal rights for the first time, citizens were able to travel almost anywhere without visas, and literacy rates peaked.

“Now, what we do, instead of constructively discussing the legacy of the past and the wrongdoings of the Yugoslav state, is throw baby out with the bathwater,” Govedarica said. “It is harmful to have such a blind and manipulative approach to your past and to history.”

Cabric agrees. In the eyes of the current government, “nothing before the year 2000 existed,” he said. “We are a completely new country and are starting from the beginning. But that’s not productive.

“If you don’t remember the past, you can’t learn from it,” he added.

Terazije square in Belgrade. Photo: Flickr/Lab604

For some Belgraders, calling streets by old names is merely habit. For others, the decision is deliberate and personal.

“You have a lot of people who, for ideological or political reasons, don’t want to accept the new name,” said Branislav Radovic, a 25-year-old law student living on Krunska. “It produces a lot of emotions, especially for people who were actively engaged in that fight.”

But for some the name change is not a big issue.

“If you change the name from ‘Bulevar revolucije’ to ‘Bulevar Aleksandar’, everyone will still just call it ‘Bulevar,” Ivan, who works in Svetogorska street, said.

“Every government has its own ideals and changes the names in accordance with those ideals. Who says the next government won’t change this street back to Lole Ribara because they’re [ideologically] close to that regime? Changing the streets doesn’t change anything.”

In 2007, the Belgrade City Council decided to rename a major street in New Belgrade after Serbia’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated in 2003.

Serbia’s current Prime Minister, Aleksander Vucic, who then was a member of the hard-line Serbian Radical Party, participated in a protest at the time. It involved placing posters bearing the name of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general indicted for war crimes in Bosnia in the 1990s, including genocide, over the name of Djindjic.

Since the mid-2000s, the pace of street renaming has slowed down. The commission for naming streets and squares still exists but is more focused on naming new streets than renaming old ones.

But the process is not over completely. This May, the City Manager, Goran Vesic, said he had submitted a proposal to the Commission to replace Goce Delceva and Pohorska streets in New Belgrade with street names honoring Soviet generals in World War II, Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin and Vladimir Zhdanov.

The two, who led Red Army troops during the 1944 liberation of Belgrade, formerly had streets named after them in the city center. They were renamed Mekenzijeva and Resavska, respectively.

The Belgrade authorities later named two suburban streets after the Soviet war heroes, but only after Serbia reinforced ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia several years ago. Vesic now wants them to have more important streets, to commemorate their contribution towards liberating Belgrade in the war.

Srdjan Radovic says street renaming is no longer necessary as a tool to adjust national memories as it once was. The major streets named after Socialist figures have by now long ago reverted to their old names or had their names changed, and young people no longer learn about Yugoslav heroes in school anyway.

“Figures or terms from the Yugoslav past don’t mean much to people nowadays. People, especially young people, don’t know who those old heroes are,” he said.

“In my neighborhood, a street is named after a Communist resistance fighter who fought in Belgrade during World War II. When I was a kid, we learned about her in school … Nowadays, when she is not mentioned in any textbooks, education, media or public discourse, people don’t care.”

These days, he added, the government doesn’t need to rename streets to change people’s thinking, it just erases persons and terms associated with Socialism and Yugoslavia from the educational system and from public discourse.

“It’s like having a monument that is really rusty and not being cleaned for a long time in a really really dark spot,” he said. “It’s basically not a monument anymore.”

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