Protests against Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's victory in the April 2 presidential election continued on April 4, spreading to towns across the country.
The protests on April 3 and 4 took place under the slogan “Protest against dictatorship”, a reference to Vucic’s growing dominance over Serbian politics. They initially appeared to be a spontaneous gathering of students organised on social media. However, the aggressive slogans of some of the protesters and minor attacks on police have raised suspicions that they could have been organised - or at least co-opted - by actors with a political agenda.
Several thousand citizens, mainly students but supported by migrants stuck in Belgrade, gathered and walked through downtown Belgrade on April 4. A couple of hundred joined similar protests in the second and third largest towns in the country, Novi Sad and Nis. Protests also numbering a few hundred people were held in Cacak, Zrenjanin, Leksovac, Uzice and Kraljevo.
Most of the protests took place without major incidents. However, some protesters threw eggs and stones at police officers, and a fight broke out between protesters in Novi Sad. On April 3, protesters also tore down a fence with the photographs and names of Serb victims in Kosovo’s civil war - known as the wailing wall - in front of the National Assembly building.
The main slogans of the protesters are quite insulting, akin to those of Serbian football fans who often chant nationalistic slogans, raising the question of whether the protesters are really pro-democratic and pro-EU oriented groups. Specifically, there is speculation within Serbia that Russia or Russian-linked groups could be behind the protest with the aim of weakening support for further progress toward EU membership.
Those gathered chanted “av-av-av" - Serbian language onomatopoeia for dog bark, and a reference to Vucic's initials and his campaign logo, AV - "Vucic is a crook”, "Electoral fraud”, "He's finished”, "We don't want you, Vucic” and "Resignations", according to Beta news agency.
Events at the protests also uncannily echo the forecast made by openly pro-Russian daily Informer back on March 20. The daily claimed that Vucic’s opponents in the elections (it named candidates Sasa Jankovic, Vuk Jeremic and Bosko Obradovic) had plan to organise protests against Vucic’s victory “with eggs and stones”, claiming election fraud.
Informer’s owner Dragan J. Vucicevic advocates closer ties with Russia and famously has a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face on his mobile phone fascia.
Peaceful protests allowed
So far, the police have not responded to the attacks against them, and Vucic has said publicly that the protests can continue so long as they are peaceful.
"We're a democratic country and everyone has the right to be happy or unhappy because of the election results. Imagine if I were to call on all my supporters to go and celebrate," Vucic told reporters on April 4, B92 reported.
According to Milan Jovanovic, president of the Belgrade based NGO Forum for Security and Democracy, Vucic now needs to further improve relations between himself and the pro-EU opposition, which will be a kind of test for both sides to show if they are indeed committed to EU integration or not.
“An open relationship with the pro-EU civil society organisations can help Vucic in his further relations with students, who are protesting now. By their protests, students are also showing their anger over the lack of social dialogue and communication with civil society organisations,” Jovanovic told bne IntelliNews, referring to Vucic's claims that he is committed to the strengthening of democracy in the country.
Vucic’s support has grown in recent years due to his support for EU accession. However, there are still concerns that he could diverge from the path towards the EU, and fall under Russian influence instead. Vucic’s visit to Putin just a week before elections raised concerns among pro-EU citizens. who fear that Russia’s so called ‘soft influence’ will become an anti-EU campaign.
There has also been criticism over his increasingly powerful role within Serbia. Freedom House’s latest Nations in Transit report on the state of democracy in the post-communist countries notes that “there are still no consequences for politicians and parties that undermine [Serbia’s] independent institutions.”
Meanwhile, both Jankovic and Obradovic - Vucic’s rivals from the centre-left and far right of the political spectrum - have spoken out in support of the protesters while denying that they were behind the protests.
“Dear young people on Belgrade’s streets, express freely your protest because of unfair elections, just non-violently and don’t let anyone provoke you,” Jankovic tweeted.
His ideological opponent Obradovic, the president of far-right movement Dveri, also tweeted his support to protesters: “Youth, congratulations! You cant allow any provocation either protests to be taken by any foreign agents which do colourful revolutions!”
Obradovic is opposed to EU and Western influence in Serbia, while Jankovic is pro-EU and was mainly supported by people who want to see Serbia within the union as soon as possible.