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How Jared Kushner’s Luxe Hotel Scheme Ignited a City Rebellion

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

A luxury real estate venture backed by Jared Kushner in Serbia has stoked fierce opposition from public officials and civilians who have accused Kushner of cultural insensitivity over the project.

The proposal from Kushner’s Affinity Group investment firm is aimed at building a high-rise hotel and ritzy apartment building on the site of the bombed-out former Serbian army headquarters in Belgrade.

A local opposition group, the Kreni-Promeni or “Make Changes” movement, recently launched a petition against it that garnered some 10,000 signatures in a matter of hours. As of Friday, more than 25,000 people had signed the petition.

Serbian officials who spoke with The Daily Beast described the project as inappropriate for several reasons—including its impact on the cultural heritage of Belgrade.

“It’s one of the pearls of pre-war architecture,” Serbian politician and opposition leader Borko Stefanovic told The Daily Beast. “There is the emotional aspect: This site was bombed by NATO in 1999. Most Serbs believe this site should not be desecrated in any way.”

Stefanovic is the deputy president of the Party of Freedom and Justice in Serbia’s parliament, and his center-left coalition fear that the Serbian government might use the deal to curry favor with Kushner—and ultimately, Donald Trump, his father-in-law and the presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. president.

“There is absolutely no transparency, the government is not willing to present to the public any aspect of this possible deal,” Stefanovic said. “Mr. Vucic and his regime are counting desperately that Mr. Trump will win in the United States.”

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Savo Manojlovic, the leader of the Kreni-Promeni opposition movement, told The Daily Beast that he also believes the deal is part of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s efforts to cozy up to Trump in advance of a potential election win this fall.

Trump was previously interested in developing the same site. In 2013, he was in conversation with the Serbian government about sites for a luxury hotel, according to then-Prime Minister Ivica Dacic. Although Trump associates pursued the idea, it never happened.

Ric Grenell, Trump’s former envoy to the Balkans—who would like to become Secretary of State if Trump is elected president, according to the New York Times—has also been working with Kushner on the plan, fueling suspicion among Stefanovic’s coalition that the deal is about sidling up to a potential Trump administration.

A close up of Jared Kushner

Jared Kushner

Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

Murky waters

The investment could create some problems for Kushner, said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which has spent years tracking potential conflicts of interest tied to Donald Trump.

“What [Kushner] should be thinking about is: I was in the White House, my father-in-law is running for president, I shouldn’t enter into deals that may give the appearance… of [a foreign government] trying to gain advantage with the potential next president of the United States,” Weissman said.

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Concern about Kushner’s deals have echoed through the halls of Congress as well. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) called for Congress to investigate Kushner’s alleged “influence-peddling” abroad.

Grenell’s role in the deal could also put him in hot water down the line, Weissman warned.

“If our diplomats are conducting themselves as diplomats with an eye towards what business deals they can conduct when they leave the foreign service, rather than how to advance the interests of the American people, we’re in a really bad way,” Weissman warned.

The Daily Beast sent comment requests to Kushner, Affinity Group, the Trump campaign, and Grenell, but did not receive responses.

A photo of a bombed building in Belgrade

A tram passes the bomb-damaged building of the former federal military headquarters in Belgrade, which could be reborn as a luxury hotel financed by the Trump family.

Andrej Isakovic/Getty Images

Behind the curtains

The Vucic government has kept details of the deal quiet, according to Stefanovic, who said that he and his colleagues received a “memorandum of understanding” about the deal but nothing else. His coalition has raised the issue in parliament, but was shut down by Vucic and his cronies, he added.

“Their response in the parliament when we started to speak on this was fierce. They attacked us personally—it was on the verge of physical violence,” Stefanovic said.

Opposition officials have previously accused the Serbian president of being behind a violent attack against Stefanovic. After hooded men attacked Stefanovic in 2018 with brass knuckles, knocking him unconscious and bloodying his clothes, protesters flooded the streets of Belgrade to demand an end to political violence in Serbia.

In an effort to gain some insight into the plan, a member of Stefanovic’s coalition sent Kushner’s team a letter requesting they publicly release the details of the project, Stefanovic said. Although they received a response that Kushner’s team would respond, they have yet to receive anything, he said.

More transparency around the project is unlikely to end the staunch opposition to it. Manojlovic’s opposition group believes the government should not allow the real estate proposal to move forward, in part because they believe the site is legally protected.

By law, the army headquarters site—which had been destroyed in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1999 bombing in Serbia—can only sustain construction for the purpose of returning it to its original structure and purpose.

But for over 25,000 Serbs, the new luxury construction plan from Kushner’s private equity firm doesn’t pass the smell test, and is in fact insulting to Serbian history. “The demolition of this complex represents the destruction of dignity,” the group’s petition states.

Stefanovic suggested that any reconstruction at the site must pay tribute to the war. Some proposals have suggested creating a history museum at the bombed out site, something Stefanovic said would be preferable to luxury developments for Kushner’s group or for Vucic’s political games.

A view of Park Manjez and Yugoslav Drama Theatre

Aerial View of Park Manjez and Yugoslav Drama Theatre at Cold Winter Afternoon City Life.

Courtesy of Brian Vargo

But the group hasn’t signed a deal yet, a person familiar with the proposal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Daily Beast.

Affinity Partners previously told the New York Times the plan would include a museum and memorial.

The Kreni-Promeni group is planning other ways to pressure the government to cancel any planning with the Kushner-backed project, including through demonstrations, Manojlovic said.

“Petition, protest, and public pressure—we will do everything to protect our state, citizens, and national and constitutional pride, to not give our government a chance to do this illegal act of giving land to the Kushner family,” Manojlovic told The Daily Beast, describing the venture as “very problematic.”

His message for Kushner and his team is simple: Stay out of Serbian affairs

“Serbia is not for sale,” Manojlovic said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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