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Kitsch or art work? Controversial monument unveiled in Serbia

BELGRADE, Serbia – Kitsch or an extraordinary work of art? It depends who you ask.

Serbia’s President attended the unveiling of a grandiose monument to a medieval monk and historical ruler on Wednesday evening, which has come under fire from critics who describe it as oversized and cheesy.

President Aleksandar Vucic’s allies say the 23-meter-tall, 75-tonne bronze sculpture of the legendary founder of the Serbian state, Stefan Nemanja, will stand on a gilded egg-shaped plinth in downtown Belgrade, becoming the new landmark of the Serbian capital.

Opponents think the memorial is a megalomaniac and expensive sign of Vucic’s populist and autocratic rule that should be removed.

Vucic told a crowd of several thousand of his followers, who did not distance themselves socially during the coronavirus pandemic, that “the beautiful” statue represents an “art masterpiece” that is a symbol of Serbian statehood and unity.

He said that all those who “dream of removing it” will not succeed because it is “the anchor of the entire Serbian nation”.

Social media commentators have dubbed the sculpture “Saruman on a Childhood,” and critics said the sculpture, made and designed in Russia, contradicts traditional Serbian architectural style and instead resembles mega-monuments from the Soviet era.

An independent society of Serbian art conservators said the monument was an “ideological product of despotism” that had no connection with Serbia and Belgrade in the 21st century. The art historian Aida Corovic said it was not a monument to Stefan Nemanja, but to Vucic’s “arrogance”.

Belgrade’s Deputy Mayor Goran Vesic dismissed the criticism, saying the once-run-down part of the city will become “one of the most beautiful places in the capital” and a new center of the city.

The monument was erected in a renovated square in front of the old Belgrade train station. It is part of the Belgrade Waterfront Project, funded by a United Arab Emirates company, which includes shopping malls and Dubai-style skyscrapers.

The construction of the monument has often been likened by critics to a hotly controversial redesign of the Macedonian capital Skopje in the early 2000s, which included dozens of monuments and sculptures that earned it the nickname “the kitschy capital of the Balkans”.

Both projects have become synonymous with secret and reckless spending. The price that the Russian sculptor paid for the monument was proclaimed a state secret, but independent estimates put it at around 9 million euros.

Dusan Stojanovic, The Associated Press

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