Serbian capital’s £2.56m taxpayer-funded decoration budget met with outrage and accusations of corruption.

A festive light tunnel in the colours of the Serbian flag in Belgrade. Photograph: Andrej Cukic/EPA

September 11 2018 was a typically sweltering late summer’s day in Belgrade. Temperatures in the Serbian capital were pushing 30 degrees, and the weather showed no signs that autumn hid around the corner. So it might have seemed surprising that it was on this day, against a backdrop of lush greenery and searing sunshine, that municipal authorities began decorating the city with Christmas lights.

If last year was anything to go by, the festive decorations will be there for quite a while, too. Last year they went up on 28 September and remained in place for more than five months, before finally being taken down in March.

Around much of the world, Christmas decorations are designed to inspire holiday cheer. In Belgrade, however, they’re a source of endless controversy. Unlike in many other European cities, decorations in the Serbian capital are financed by the taxpayer – and since 2014, Belgrade’s municipal government has spent nearly 800 million dinars [£6 million] on Christmas lights, and approximately €83,000 on last year’s artificial Christmas tree.

Elaborate Christmas decorations in the city’s central square. Photograph: Koca Sulejmanovic/EPA-EFE

Anti-corruption activists and Serbia’s independent media have condemned the decorations as a superfluous expense. They point out that the spending siphons much-needed funds from dilapidated services. The protests caused such outrage that Belgrade’s now-former mayor, Siniša Mali, promised to cancel the tree contract and find a less expensive supplier.

“The streets of Belgrade are literally falling apart”, says Ljubica Slavković, a local architect and researcher. “Roadways are full of potholes, you often see huge quantities of rubbish in public places and, in the winter months, you’ll encounter the very pressing problem of a lack of bus and tram drivers. Everywhere you go you see huge crowds of people at bus stops who, in this freezing weather, wait for public transport that might never come.”

In 2014, Belgrade’s Christmas expenditure was just under 3 million dinars, but that bill has grown with every passing year. This winter, it’s set to rise to no less than 340 million dinars [£2.56m], which is a 40% increase on last year. To put this into context, the Croatian capital Zagreb, home to a Christmas market voted Europe’s best three years running, spent no more than €795,000 on its advent makeover in 2017 – around half as much as Belgrade.

The newly installed ‘Golden Gate’ in Belgrade’s central pedestrian zone. Photograph: Koca Sulejmanovic/EPA-EFE

In a country where 85% of the population earns less than the official “average” monthly salary of €375 (£335), Belgrade’s latest Christmas budget could be used to employ at least 638 additional bus drivers.

Many other cities choose to avoid spending any money on public decorations. The Christmas lights on Oxford Street in London are financed through a business levy on local retailers. Decorations on Rome’s Via Condotti have been funded by the luxury fashion house Bulgari in the past. In Washington DC, federal mandate stipulates that the $500,000 plus spent on the US Capitol Christmas tree has to come from private donors.

The Capitol Christmas tree on the west front lawn of the US Capitol in Washington DC. Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Images

It’s not just the price of Belgrade’s Christmas decorations that is such a point of contention, it’s the alleged corruption that hides behind them as well. In 2016, Pištaljka, a local investigative media organisation, published evidence of irregularities in the public procurement process for the lights. The municipal body overseeing the tender was so specific in its demands that it published a photographic list of decorations pulled directly from the catalogue of a single Greek lighting manufacturer – and a private company based in Belgrade was the only retailer that stocked these decorations. Critics said that meant it effectively won the contract by default.

“The whole procurement process behind these decorations is incredibly problematic”, says Slavković. “It’s so clearly obvious that the tendering was rigged and it’s evident on a really banal level that this is just pure corruption.”

Municipal authorities have defended the expense, arguing that the lights are a major tourist draw that earns the city a twenty-fold return on its investment through increased tourism.

Aleksandar Saničić, the CEO of YUTA, Serbia’s national association of travel agencies, casts doubt on those assertions.

“As far as I know, there isn’t a single institution that has performed any sort of analysis that indicates that [the decorations] have an effect on tourist numbers”, he says. “We have studies that prove that numbers have grown significantly in recent years but I wouldn’t draw any direct links between that and the Christmas decorations.”

Nor do they appear to be spreading Christmas cheer.

“Many people feel embittered by these decorations because they’re an ever-present, sparkly reminder that somebody – and when I say ‘somebody’, I mean those in power – takes them for fools”, says Slavković. “There’s a prevalent apathy that, to a large degree, comes out of this feeling that this is how things function over here and the city’s residents are powerless to do anything about it.”

This article was originally published at TheGuardian.com