The Limits of Kin in Belgrade: Fighting Air Pollution in the Wake of Racial Capitalism

Multi-layered collage: Serbia’s first urban photo-bioreactor, called a “liquid tree,” fighting air pollution in Belgrade; Roma settlement on the outskirts of Belgrade; crowd of environmentalists merging with clouds of air pollution surrounding skyscrapers in Skopje. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Since the so-called “Industrial Revolution” of the late 18th and 19th centuries, pollution has gained momentum. Particularly in metropolitan areas, air quality has become a major political issue, often revealing divisions between those who denounce the deterioration of air quality, point to the health-related and social consequences, and campaign for change, on the one hand, and those who are most affected by air pollution, on the other. In his contribution to the “Kin City” series, Ognjen Kojanić examines such social divisions in Belgrade, arguing that urban environmentalism, which appears to champion universal values, has yet to overcome its unacknowledged classism and racism.


Air pollution is a problem that plagues many urban centers across the world. Cities across Eastern Europe, including Belgrade, occasionally top the list of the most polluted places in the world. A 2020 report on air pollution in the Western Balkans highlighted the problem of high emissions of harmful particles, which often exceed EU and national limits. It cited a 2016 estimate that the cost of air pollution in Serbia was 1.68 billion euros.

In Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, several citizens’ associations and non-governmental organizations have been active in the fight against air pollution. Activists promote expert knowledge on the topic, emphasizing the need for constant monitoring and measuring of air quality. They highlight the short-term and long-term consequences of harmful substances on human health and emphasize assessments about excess mortality due to air pollution, which show that Serbia’s rate is double the EU’s. Terms such as “PM2.5 particles” are now frequently used in public discussions about air quality, attesting to the success of these public awareness campaigns.

Increased awareness of the issue has led to increased use of mobile phone apps such as BeoEko and AirCare. Many Belgraders constantly monitor air quality indicators and, especially in winter, some residents avoid going outside when these indicators are particularly high. Some people also use filtering devices in their homes to reduce the amount of harmful particles in their homes. This type of small-scale infrastructure reflects individual solutions to social problems that depend on private wealth. While systemic solutions are lacking, these devices allow wealthier segments of the population to manage indoor air quality and reduce their own exposure to harmful air.

For Land, Water and Air”

There have also been overtly political attempts to raise this issue in public. Air pollution became a focal point of a wave of environmental protests in Serbia between 2020 and 2023. In addition to the problem of poor air quality, the mounting environmental issues that the protesters were rising up against included the devastation of rivers due to the construction of small hydro-power plants, polluting industrial facilities, illegal landfills, and deforestation. Ivan Rajković has described these protests as ecopopulist in the sense of pitting “the people” as the defender of “life itself” against the “elites” who spread death. Air, water, and land functioned as symbols of nature as life-giving and simultaneously in need of protection from rampant destruction in search of profit, as the prominent slogans “Stop the Investors! Save Nature!” and “For Land, Water and Air” suggest.

At the level of national and urban politics, these protests were seen by many as a form of mobilization against the ruling regime that has been in power since 2014. Protesters point to corruption, manipulation of institutions, and the political use of economic growth at the expense of quality of life and egalitarian ideals.

The government has many instruments at their disposal to limit air pollution. The largest sources of pollution, according to reporting from the Guardian in 2023, are “coal plants, vast landfills, old vehicles and bad heaters spew a cocktail of toxic particles that land in the lungs and veins” of Belgrade’s residents. Government policies related to the production of electricity, car engine standards, and subsidies for clean energy sources thus shape the possibilities for improving overall air quality. Accordingly, there have been pressure campaigns to force the government to act in addition to the large-scale protests. The national government adopted a national action plan for air quality with a 2.6 billion Euro price tag spanning 2022 and 2030. However, the ruling regime continues to be criticized for not being up to the task on this issue. For example, the Belgrade city government decided to install a tank filled with microalgae that bind carbon-dioxide and emit oxygen through photosynthesis that was dubbed a “liquid tree.” Critics pilloried this as a publicity stunt performed by the ruling regime that is infamous for cutting numerous trees across the city.

But while much of the ire is directed at the government’s (in-)ability to regulate and monitor large sources of pollution, activists fighting for better air quality have also identified smaller targets. If they cannot phase out the use of coal in power generation on their own, some activists say, “we must at least clean up our own backyard.”

The burning of cables to extract copper that can be sold for recycling is thus frequently singled out in discussions about air quality. As Eva Schwab documents, calls for policing this source of pollution were articulated in small-scale protests that started back in 2012. More recently, the activist group Eco Watch, which was the main organizer of a series of “Protests for Harmless Air” attended by thousands of people in Belgrade, posted multiple times about cable burning in Belgrade on its Facebook page. Although they sometimes admitted that the phenomenon of cable burning is not a major factor in the overall air pollution, it was singled out for producing “smoke full of dioxins and furans that not only cause cancer but also change DNA.”

Framing the urban Roma population

One post called those interested in attending a meeting to come up with a “plan for collective action” to send a direct message to Eco Watch because the meeting was secret “out of precaution.” Posts like this one led critics to speculate about the intentions of Eco Watch activists and to label the group as racist. They drew parallels between Eco Watch and Leviathan, a group of right-wing activists who claimed to care about animal welfare but used it as an excuse to harass the Roma population. Eco Watch defended itself against accusations of racism by claiming that its concern was not with the nationality of those doing the burning, but rather with its consequences in terms of the release of carcinogenic particles. They explained that they wanted to solve the problem that the state institutions in charge had failed to solve, including by crowdfunding the purchase of a machine that separates metal from insulation without the need to burn cables.

Contrary to the group’s claims that they are not targeting Roma, the Facebook posts attract several comments from the page’s audience that more directly attack the waste pickers. Typically, these comments are written from the perspective of the “majority” and echo stereotypes about the Roma population. Commenters express dissatisfaction because the Roma are supposedly protected by the state and various NGOs, making it impossible to solve the problem. The Roma are portrayed as lazy and criminal, who neither follow community rules nor pay the taxes and fees they owe. Comments also express fears about the high birth rate among Roma, describing it as “animalistic breeding.” Some go so far as to call on their neighbors to gather and beat them with sticks, or demand that the government evict them and place them under supervision to ensure that they follow the rules.

Piro Rexhepi argues that the position of Roma is an outcome of the historical articulation of racial capitalism in the Balkans.The Roma are racialized as “tainted Europeans” and seen as incapable of integrating into the dominant population, which is coded as white. These long-standing patterns of social exclusion persisted throughout the socialist period, despite the official emphasis on egalitarianism and the fight against pre-socialist patterns of inequality. However, they have arguably become more pronounced since the restoration of capitalism in the Balkans. Many Roma in Eastern Europe are challenged to negotiate both the hierarchies of racialization and the accumulation of waste, as Elana Resnick shows in her work on waste pickers in Bulgaria.

The divisions in the fight for clean air

The anti-pollution protests in Belgrade faded over time, partly due to infighting within the environmental movement. Although the protests resulted in some victories, not many demands were met. In particular, some of the biggest polluters are still operating as before. This failure allows us to reflect on the divisions in the fight for clean air and similar environmental struggles, and the implications of such divisions for urban environmental justice.

On one level, the split is strategic. One strategy is to fight the problem of air pollution as a systemic problem, pressuring the state to enact policies that target the biggest polluters, create a strong regulatory environment, and create a system of subsidies to move away from polluting activities. An opposite strategy is to fight the problem in racialized terms, scapegoating some as the perpetrators of environmental damage who need to be policed.

On another level, and mirroring the split in strategy, there is a split in the way the subject of the anti-pollution struggle is conceptualized. Within the systemic strategy, the constituency with a shared interest in clean air as a common good can be seen in class terms, consisting of all people who cannot afford privatized air purification infrastructures. Within the racialized strategy, the constituency is the dominant group, coded as white, subjected to the inhalation of smoke produced by Roma waste pickers.

Beyond the limits of kin

If the collapse of the anti-pollution protests is a cautionary tale that shows us the limits of kin in Belgrade, it can also point to the ways in which environmental politics can be reframed in more productive ways. Ghassan Hage, in his polemic “Is Racism an Environmental Threat?”, argues that anti-racism and environmentalism must be intertwined because both should resist the logic of what he calls “generalized domestication” as a way of being and relating to the world.

Hage sees racism as an environmental threat “because it reinforces and reproduces the dominance of the basic social structures that are behind the generation of the environmental crisis.” His insight is helpful in reframing Belgrade’s anti-pollution policy. The fight against pollution should go hand in hand with the fight against the racialization of Roma. Like other marginalized and racialized groups, the Roma suffer disproportionately from environmental harms, and as such should be an integral part of the fight for environmental justice. This struggle should be one in which Roma and non-Roma act in solidarity and kinship to demand large-scale solutions for the benefit of all.

Editor’s note: The article is a contribution to the “Kin City” series of the Berliner Gazette. More information:

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