Hidden Belgrade (21): The rise and fall of the Friendship Park

There are a few testaments of Socialist Yugoslavia’s global ambitions dotted around Belgrade, from the obelisk by Branko’s bridge commemorating the first meeting of the Non-Aligned movement in 1961, to Sava Centar, built to host conferences of OSCE and Non-Aligned Movement in 1977 and 1979, respectively.

However, the most striking and poetic memorial to rise and disastrous fall of Yugoslavia’s international clout is the Friendship Park, between the Museum of Contemporary art and the hulking mass of Palace of the Executive (now: Palace of Serbia).

 

The (official) story is that the idea for a park was initiated by the Youth Union of Gorani [forest rangers] of Yugoslavia in 1961, who wanted to commemorate the international struggle for peace and equality for all nations, by having politicians from all nations plant trees in this part of New Belgrade to show their commitment to long lasting peace. The location of the park was symbolic: next to the political heart of New Belgrade (and Yugoslavia), close to the Communist party headquarters (CK, now Business centre Ušće, now ironically housing a few corporates and a bank), the main Government building and a stone commemorating the start of construction of New Belgrade on 11 April 1948.

Luckily, the initiative coincided with the first summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which was held in Belgrade in 1961. The movement’s strong anti-colonial beliefs, and opposition to both the Warsaw Pact and the NATO, brought together leaders of 25 nations, including Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Abdel Nasser (Eqypt), Sukarno (Indonesia), Haile Selassie (Ethiopia, and of Rastafarian fame) and, of course, Tito. All of these grandees attending the summit planted plane trees on what was back then a random field in Belgrade, and thus the history of the Friendship Park began.

Through the years and with each state visit the park grew and there were plans for a monumental space to signal the country’s global importance. In 1965, a plan by Milan Pališaški, a local architect, won the competition for the design of the park and was built in stages. The first planted trees by NAM members were to be the 180m long main alley of the park (called Alley of Peace), which was to look onto a platform crowned by a sphere.

Although Pališaški’s project was never fully realised, the park grew though Tito’s improving relationships with world leaders from all sides. Between 1965 and 1991 there were trees planted by Queen Elizabeth II and Leonid Brezhnev, Wily Brandt and Gaddafi, Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev –  the park really became a who‘s who of Cold War politics..

The park’s golden years ended in 1991 with the visit of Ion Iliescu, the Romanian president, who planted the park’s 194th tree, probably not more than a few dozen meters from that planted by Nicolae Causecu, who he deposed. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent sanctions meant that the park was plunged into obscurity and there were no new trees planted.

After NATO bombing of 1999 which damaged the nearby building of the old Communist Party HQ, the park was re-activated in the last-ditch attempt by Slobodan Milošević to boost own popularity. In June 2000, in the middle of the Friendship Park he inaugurated an obelisk with an eternal flame as a memorial to Yugoslav “defiance” of the NATO during the war. Ironically an obelisk was the first proposed memorial of the park before Pališaški’s plan. However, the new monument’s purpose symbolically put an official end to the park’s pacifist idea and showed that Yugoslavia, once a country around which nations grouped for anti-colonial agenda was a pariah.

After Milošević’s removal from power in 2000, the obelisk was defaced with a graffito “Večna Vutra” [eternal spliff, a pun] and the parked was just a shadow of the former self. This changed somewhat when Serbia went on a charm offensive in early 2010s, around the 50th anniversary of the first NAM summit, when the then foreign minister and later President of the UN General Assembly, Vuk Jeremic tried to revive the practice of tree-planting, however the idea did not take root, especially as Serbia was now rarely visited by any global states-people. Few people come to the park to marvel at its history and the stones commemorating important men and women who planted the trees are dirty and almost forgotten.

The Friendship park is now part of the new plan for refurbishment of this section of the Danube river bank, however few details about the project are known. The only thing that was announced shows that we are at risk of further symbolical diminishing of the park’s idea and Serbia’s international clout. The current government enthusiastically announced that it plans to build a super-tall mast carrying an over-sized Serbian flag next to the park, as if signalling that now we need phallic monuments to make ourselves seen by the world, while 60 years ago, the world was happily coming to us to plant seeds of the joint future.

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