Occupy the Military: Squatters Struggle for the Balkans’ Derelict Barracks

Miodrag Sovilj Novi Sad, Pula and Ljubljana

Activists and the Serbian authorities fail to find common ground in a battle of ideals and real estate – unlike in Croatia and Slovenia.

Djordje Kolarski awoke in time for the end. He heard the alarmed voices above the puttering of the old Russian generator, and he saw the police dogs, misting the morning air with their breath. He knew the game was up.

The military police had been around before, but only to check the activists’ identity cards. This time, they had brought the dogs to clear them out.

Djordje and his friends had spent the night in the old barracks, huddled together for warmth. They had broken the locks to take over the building. Staying overnight was a way of making sure no one locked them out again. The occupation had been vigilant – but the eviction, when it came, was brutally efficient.

“I dared not plead my rights,” says Djordje, a 26-year-old who wears his hair dreadlocked down the middle and shaven at the sides. Looking back on that January morning, he says the activists abandoned all thought of resistance when police backup teams arrived.

The barracks in Novi Sad are once again off-limits to the public.

 Cold and scared, they did as they were ordered, assembling outside with their belongings. A small crowd gathered on the street. Some shouted at the police. No one tried to stop them. By mid-morning, the building was empty and padlocked, and Serbia’s brief experiment in socially conscious squatting was over.

The activists had tried to lay the foundation for an alternative cultural centre during their occupation of the Archibald Reiss barracks in Novi Sad.

The city is the second-largest in Serbia, and the capital of Vojvodina province, It is probably best known to a younger generation of Europeans as the home of the annual Exit music festival.

The squatters argued that their city lacked a space for alternative culture. In  the barracks, they hoped to create a place for workshops and performances, a home for musicians, activists and artists.

The illegal takeover of a derelict military building created a stir in the city. Although unprecedented in Serbia, the tactic had been tested successfully in the Croatian seaside city of Pula and in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. Activist-squatters there had reached an agreement with the authorities, eventually legitimising their presence.

The squatters in Serbia shared many ideals with their counterparts in Croatia and Slovenia. But their failure was testament to a very different reality.

The tussle over the Archibald Reiss barracks pitted the demands of artists against the needs of Serbia’s soldiers.

It showed that while there may be sound reasons for bending the law to promote culture, they carried little weight during an economic crisis. And they certainly could not counter the military’s right to dispose of its property as it pleased – even as the condition of that property deteriorated.

‘Benefit to society’

The Archibald Reiss barracks were built in the 1890s for the soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which Novi Sad was then a part. They are after a German-born scientist who championed the Serbian cause in the early twentieth century.

The two-storey high structure has large windows and a pale yellow façade. Compared to the historic attractions of the city centre, the barracks appear somewhat functional. Compared to a modern Serbian barracks however, they seem rather grand.

According to a spokeswoman for Novi Sad’s main conservation body, the Institute for the Protection of Historical Monuments, the complex is the subject of a preservation order on account of its “historical and architectural” value.

The financial potential of the site is obvious. It occupies prime real estate – an area of 10,000 square metres in the heart of Novi Sad.

In 2011, Serbia discontinued mandatory military service for young men. With fewer recruits to house, the Archibald Reiss barracks were deemed obsolete.

The barracks are seen as part of the city's heritage.

The complex was placed on a list of derelict properties that the cash-strapped military is trying to sell to private investors.

The barracks were evacuated in the summer of 2011. Under the terms of a government plan for the disposal of military assets, the local authority – in this case, the city of Novi Sad – was first to be offered the building. But the city did not have the funds for a purchase.

On 22 December 2011, a loose network of youth activists, calling themselves the Social Centre Initiative, broke into the complex.

During their brief stay, the activists spruced up the rooms and tried to make them hospitable, using donated furniture. They also tried to make an impact in the community, providing a soup kitchen for the poor and handing out Christmas presents to local children. At night, they rigged up a cinema screen.

Ivana Volic, a member of the initiative, says the site would have served as a home for creative individuals and organisations that had “no space of their own and no money to pay high rents”. It would have “benefited  the whole society”, she says.

The initiative applied for official permission to use the barracks as a cultural centre, but did not receive a response.

On 13 January 2012, the authorities called time on the occupation, and the police moved in to move the activists out. The barracks are still on the market. A buyer has yet to be found.

Prime location

The sale of the building is part of a broader plan to raise money for the housing of thousands of current and former army officers and their families. Some have been without their own homes since fleeing to Serbia in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia disintegrated.

Colonel Aleksandar Ilic, the official in charge of the sell-off, estimated the total value of the military property on offer countrywide to be around one billion euros. The proceeds, he says, will fund the construction of around 12,500 apartments.

Serbia’s government has faced embarrassment over its failure to honour the obligation to house the families of around 14,000 officers and defence-ministry employees.


The most famous alternative social centre in the world, Christiania in Copenhagen, has escaped the threat of “normalisation”.

The former military complex in the centre of the Danish capital was officially the property of the state. Since the 1970s, it has been occupied by hippies and bohemians who reject common notions of property and ownership.

Last year, the state announced plans to sell off the site. It offered the residents the chance to buy the land on which they lived. Some protested, arguing that private ownership would undermine their communal values. Others feared that Christiania would pass into the hands of developers who would force the squatters out.

The squatters eventually struck a deal with the state, buying up shares in their site to finance its purchase.

“They no longer fear the police will kick them out of their homes,” says lawyer Line Barfod, whose office helped with the sale. “They can continue developing the free community in which they live”.

In Vojvodina, the families of some 800 service personnel live in rundown military facilities, or in rented accommodation. Some were even housed in the Archibald Reiss barracks several years ago.

As the legal owner of the building, the military had every right to evict the activists. It could argue that the presence of squatters on the site might deter interest from potential buyers.

However, the activists argued that they were protecting the structure against deterioration. During their short stay, they replaced some damaged roof tiles.

Some officials and experts in Novi Sad have criticised a strategy that has left a historical building unoccupied indefinitely, as it awaits a buyer.

Though they may not necessarily support the activists, they believe the building should not be left as it is now, uninhabited and unattended.

Aleksandar Jovanovic, a former president of the local parliament, says the Archibald Reiss is part of the city’s “cultural heritage” and its care should have been entrusted to civilians.

“Buildings fall apart quickly because of a lack of maintenance. It is better to have poor management than no management at all,” he says.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) could not gain access to the site to check the condition of the buildings. However, Colonel Ilic acknowledges that the structure may have lost some value since it was abandoned. The defence ministry, he says, is no longer investing in the upkeep of any of the buildings it has earmarked for sale.

Critics say the military’s attitude amounts to the deliberate neglect of a valuable structure.

They argue that the longer the building remains unoccupied, the faster it will deteriorate – and the stronger the case will be for its eventual demolition. Only the land would be of any value then, as a site for a new development.

“The fact that the army and the state are acting like bad estate agents is horrifying,” says Aleksandar Bede, a prominent Novi Sad architect and urban researcher.

Experts say the derelict building's condition is deteriorating.

Bede believes the military have over-estimated the worth of the complex and says it is very unlikely to receive the asking price – especially in the midst of an economic crisis. Whoever eventually buys the site will probably knock the structure down. “We will, sooner or later, see a shopping mall where the building once was,” he said.

While the barracks’ current state may upset some experts and activists, the military does not appear to have broken any laws in its management of the site.

The military has not commented on the allegation that its strategy makes it likelier that the barracks will be demolished. There is no evidence to suggest, as some suspect, that the site has been earmarked for new construction.

Defending the military’s strategy, Colonel Ilic told BIRN that the value of the site could improve with time.

“The value of the whole complex is influenced not only by the object itself, but by the land and the location,” he says. “The location in time improves the value.”

Colonel Ilic says the military is prepared to lower the price to 60 per cent of its original value if no buyer comes forward.

A private estate agent estimates the cost of the land occupied by the barracks – without the buildings – at between €800,000 and €1.2 million.

Tacit agreements

The needs of youth activists and former military personnel are not always incompatible. In the Croatian seaside city of Pula, the two groups share space in a 17,000 square metre complex that was once a military barracks.

The Karlo Rojc is the largest squat of its kind in the former Yugoslavia. It was left derelict after having housed refugees from the war in the early nineties. Activists took over the site 15 years ago.

Today, it acts as an informal cultural centre, hosting events and gatherings for some 70 local associations. These include dance and theatre companies, football fans, a punk collective, “hacktivists” – as well as a union of former soldiers.

The Karlo Rojc has survived, in part, because of an unusual manoeuvre by the city council. Back in the nineties, the military owed the city millions of euros in unpaid municipal charges.

The Metelkova squat in Ljubljana is now a tourist attraction.

Pula acquired the barracks from the military as part repayment for the debt. But the city did not have the means to maintain the property. It struck a deal with the activists who had taken over the building – they would renovate the site, and the city in return would legalise their status.

“If it was not for the army’s debt, I don’t think they would have given us the building so easily,” says Erik Luksic, the chief cultural official on the Pula city council.

As with the Archibald Reiss in Novi Sad, the squatters had targeted a building that no one could afford to maintain – but the response was very different.

“The city never sent out the police force,” says Luksic. “We simply tolerated [the squatters].”

Illegal occupations of derelict sites seem to acquire legitimacy by giving a community something it needs – and by saving money for the city.

The oldest barracks-turned-cultural-centre in the former Yugoslavia is in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

The Metelkova complex was taken over by activists in 1993, amid clashes with the police. The administration eventually gave in to the squatters, who had enlisted the support of prominent public figures for their campaign.

Uros Grilc, a Ljubljana council official, says Metelkova has become part of the city’s cultural landscape, and a tourist attraction. The council supports the activists, who function as a sort of autonomous culture ministry, overseeing projects that the city has passed up.

“Our job is now much easier because Ljubljana does not have to spend a lot of money on cultural programmes,” says Grilc. Applicants for projects are directed to Metelkova, and “they finance themselves”.

As with Pula, the occupation of the site is subject to the terms of a tacit agreement with the authorities.

Drug-dealing and fights are not tolerated at Metelkova, and the activists are responsible for securing the premises. In exchange, the city turns a blind eye to minor violations of food and alcohol licensing laws.

Grilc says the city had defended Metelkova  in confrontations with state officials who had tried to enforce regulations to the letter of the law.

“We managed to calm them, because this place is evidently not chaotic. It is rather well-organised,” he says. “What goes on in Metelkova is not always 100 per cent legal, but we prefer not to insist on absolute legality in this case.”

Back in Novi Sad, the activists say they are still trying to drum up support for a fresh takeover of the barracks. It is unclear if the people are behind them.

Silvija Fekete, a kindergarten teacher in her thirties, backs the campaign.

“Nobody was using the barracks then, and nobody is using it now,” she says. “Sure, they entered without a permit but look at it now – the building looks even worse than before.”

Nikola Karmarkovic, a student in his twenties, is less supportive. “They entered without a permit, by cutting the locks on a private property,” he says. “Imagine if someone broke into your house and claimed it…. That’s exactly what they did.”


Miodrag Sovilj is a Novi Sad-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. It was edited by Neil Arun.

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Miodrag Sovilj

Miodrag Sovilj is a radio journalist in Serbia.