Protesters take on Serbian authorities in Belgrade, Novi Sad

Protesters take on Serbian authorities in Belgrade, Novi Sad
Protests over stealth demolitions in Savamala district continue in Belgrade
By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade June 14, 2016

Around 2,000 people gathered outside public broadcaster Radio Televizija Vojvodine (RTV) in Novi Sad on the evening of June 13, to protest against the decision by RTV's newly appointed managing board to sack programme director Slobodan Arezina and 14 news editors. The demonstration took place two days after thousands rallied in Belgrade over the demolition of buildings in the Savamala district to make way for the Belgrade Waterfront development.

Both the protests are on specific issues, and while they have showed some staying power - these are the third in a series of protests in each city - numbers are not huge. They are not expected to present a threat to Aleksandar Vucic, who is in the process of forming a new government after his Serbian Progressive Party won another landslide in the April 24 election. However, they show that the opposition is still active, and whether the protests continue will depend very much on Vucic’s response.

The Novi Sad demonstration followed wide-ranging personnel changes made less than a month after regional elections that brought Vucic’s SNS to power in Vojvodina for the first time.

The Podrzi RTV (Support RTV) movement announced on June 13 that the protest would be stepped up because none of its requests have been met. The protest organisers also claimed that the Vojvodina public broadcaster has been increasingly affected by censorship.

The initiative has demanded unconditional resignations of RTV’s board and the cancellation of the decisions it has made, as well as independence of public services from state bodies, and for the national parliament to elect new members of the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM). According to the initiative, if the REM members are changed it would be able to elect new members to the RTV board in line with citizens' interests rather than the interests of political parties.

Podrzi RTV also asked for an apology for accusations of un-objective reporting. The initiative is expected to continue protesting until its demands are met.

“Our message is that the initiative “Podrzi RTV” is not only a matter of editors, journalists and RTV’s employees who signed the requests, but it has become a citizens’ movement. We won’t give up until the regional public broadcaster starts working in interest of its real owners - the citizens of Vojvodina and Serbia,” the initiative said.

The protesters marched through the pedestrian zone in Novi Sad and returned to the RTV building where the protest ended with a performance by the Horkestar choir, which sang several anti-fascist songs.

Protesters in Novi Sad carried banners and wore t-shirts with messages similar to those seen at the protest in Belgrade on June 11: “Resignation”, “You drown media” , “We are not giving RTV away”.

Some members of the “Don’t Drown Belgrade” initiative that organised the protests in the capital joined the Novi Sad demonstration on June 13. There were also participants from the Colorful Revolution in neighbouring Macedonia, as well as prominent local journalists and civil rights activists.

The June 13 rally was organised after protests held on May 30 and May 23, when thousands of people took to the streets in Novi Sad. Meanwhile, in Belgrade several thousand people gathered in front of the city assembly on June 11. This was also the third protest, following previous protests in the Serbian capital on May 11 and May 25.

Belgrade residents were angered by the overnight demolition of buildings at several sites in Savamala in April, and the subsequent lack of action by police. The demolitions were carried out by a group of masked men on the night of April 24-25, immediately after the general election. The secrecy surrounding the demolitions encouraged many people, even those who are not opposed to the development of the area, to join the demonstration.

The protest was organised under the slogan “Whose town - our town”, which protesters chanted as they marched through Belgrade’s main streets. The march ended in front of the Serbian government building.

As in the previous two protests, the June 11 protest included prominent people from Belgrade, including journalists, artists and actors, as well as opposition members. The symbol of the protests is a yellow duck, which is also the symbol of the Don't Drown Belgrade initiative.

Vucic has sought to distance himself from the demolitions. On June 8, he accused top Belgrade officials of being behind the demolition of the buildings and said those responsible would be brought to justice.

However, no further action appears to have been taken. In addition, Vucic said the construction of Belgrade Waterfront would move forward. “Those who would use this case to destabilise Serbia and, in the latest instance, to stop its expected growth, won’t succeed,” Vucic wrote in a column for daily Srpski Telegraf on June 11.

His party also hit out at the protest organisers, congratulating them for “organising one more circus which brought one thousand people less than the previous time,” in a June 11 statement.

While most of those taking part in the protests are genuinely opposed to the overnight demolitions, there is also speculation that opponents of Vucic are trying to use the popular outrage for their own ends.

Despite a request from the organisers of the latest Belgrade protests that participants from opposition parties should not wear their parties' symbols, the June 11 protest appeared more political than previous demonstrations on the same issue. Protesters carried banners with slogans including “Resignation”, “Vucic kaput” (finished) and “Vucic - pederu” (a derogatory term for a homosexual).

Pro-Russian daily Politika also whipped up a media storm when it claimed Vucic had cancelled planned talks in Brussels and the US because the EU and US had funded the Belgrade protests. This was denied by European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic, who told Tanjug that Vucic was expected to visit Brussels after forming his new cabinet.

Meanwhile in Novi Sad, activists with links to the far-right political movement Third Serbia have announced plans for another rally in the city on June 17. The purpose of the rally is not clear.