Protests in Belgrade and other Serbian cities have taken place daily since Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s victory in the April 2 presidential election. Numbers swelled to 15,000 on April 8, and more protests are planned for the coming days.
The protesters are voicing a wide range of grievances against Vucic, who reinforced his dominance over Serbian politics with his presidential election victory. The student protesters have been backed by opposition pro-EU and democratic parties, while far right parties have also come out in support of the protests.
At the latest demonstration on April 9, some participants carried placards saying “Stop Vucic”. However, according to Balkan Insight, others held posters with anti-capitalist slogans, calls to save Belgrade’s Chinatown district and the words “We Won't Be A Cheap Labour Force” - a reference to the low paid jobs created by foreign direct investors encouraged by Vucic’s government.
As usual, the protest ended with calls of “6pm tomorrow”. The protests were initiated on a Facebook page called Protiv diktature (which means against dictatorship). The students who initiated the protest stress that there is no official organiser or leader.
“The protest arose spontaneously, [due to the] disappointment in the functioning of state institutions, lack of media freedom and unequal representation of different political options during the election presidential campaign,” says a statement posted on the Facebook page on April 9.
“Vučić’s rule is criticised above all by the liberal elites from large cities. Mainly young people have protested against the outcome of the election and the irregularities during the election campaign,” wrote Mateusz Seroka of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).
They were frustrated by the lack of an opposition candidate with a chance of challenging Vucic in the recent election, as shown by the prime minister’s first round victory. This has confirmed the position of Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) as the undisputed centre of power in Serbia, leading to warning from international observers of a risk of growing authoritarianism in the country.
This is pointed out in a recent policy paper from the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), which claims democracy is backsliding or at best stagnating across the Western Balkans. It includes Vucic among leaders from the region - alongside Nikola Grusevski in Macedonia and Mila Djukanovic in Montenegro - who “have used Western support to take power, but also drew on the authoritarian rulebook to keep it.”
Protesters have also criticised the media, calling in particular for the resignation of the editor-in-chief of public broadcaster Radio-televizija Srbije (RTS), as they claim Vucic was helped to victory by favourable media coverage.
“What … contributed to Vučić’s victory was the dominance of the pro-governmental trend in the media which not only gave much more publicity to his campaign but also became an instrument for attacks on opposition candidates,” according to Seroka.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders agrees that “Media freedom has declined ever since Aleksandar Vucic, Slobodan Milosevic’s former information minister, became Prime Minister in May 2014. Financial and editorial pressure are put on the media to conform. Those that are most critical of the government are attacked publicly.”
However, the Serbian authorities have shown no inclination so far to clamp down on the protests, which have been peaceful except for some isolated incidents on the first day, when eggs and stones were thrown at police. Vucic himself has said he will allow the protests to continue as long as they remain peaceful.
The protesters have started a Facebook poll to decide which demands they will put to the government. The choices are: Vucic’s resignation as prime minister and president-elect; the introduction of electronic voting and a revision of the voting system; the ‘cleaning’ of government institutions, including the constitutional court of people who belong to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS); the dismissal of members of the Republic Electoral Commission (RIK); and a call for the resignation of the parliamentary speaker Maja Gojkovic and RTS’s editor-in-chief.
Further down the list of potential demands are the free movement of students between Belgrade and Novi Sad universities; a new general election and referendums to be held on every important issue. Lastly, the students suggest calling for members of the regulatory authority, the Electronic Media Council, to be dismissed.
Pro-EU and democratic parties from the opposition support the students, specifically over their requests related to changes which would bring more democracy such as new voter lists and an electronic voting system.
However, the protests have gathered a broad spectrum of people who are against Vucic. On April 8, student campaigners stood alongside members of police and army unions who were calling for better working conditions, higher wages and the establishment of the rule of law in the country.
Far far-right groups that pose the main risk to stability in the country and the region have also come out in support of the protests. This has raised concerns that those who are protesting to prevent dictatorship and want to build up democracy in the country can be used by agitators for their own causes, which are far from the aim of a modern country with strong democratic principles and rule of law.
The pro-Russian far right’s involvement in the protests is shown by comments from the leaders of the far-right Dveri movement and the Serbian Radical Party (SRS). The SRS and Dveri are the loudest opponents to the EU and EU values in Serbia and promote closer political, economic and defence ties with Russia.
The SRS’s Vojislav Seselj has supported mass protests against Vucic, especially the demands of students related to dismissals at RIK and RTS. Seselj told journalists that he doesn’t know who is organising the protests.
Dveri’s Facebook page states it unconditionally supports the anti-Vucic’s protests. “Vucic is good enough for Soros but not for us,” the page says, alongside videos with young people explaining why they are protesting.
“I want to find a job because I’m worth it and not because I’m a party member,” says one, while another states, “I’m leaving this country because I cannot find a job.” In the background of the interviews can be heard the chant: “Vucic faggot”, which is often chanted at the protests.
Another video posted on Dveri’s Facebook page shows its president Bosko Obradovic saying that the protests are confirmation of what he said on election night. “Vucic thief, you stole elections! That’s completely the same thought I had on April 2 and students are chanting it,” Obradovic said.