Aleksandar Vucic took his oath of office as Serbia’s new president on May 31, in a day marked by protests and several clashes involving his supporters, opponents and journalists.
Vucic has served as prime minister since 2014, and despite winning the April 2 election for the presidency – in most respects a more ceremonial role – he is expected to continue to lead the government. This situation has been seen under previous presidents who were also the leader of the ruling party (as Vucic is), but nonetheless sparked protests over fears of growing authoritarianism in Serbia.
In a speech after taking the presidential oath, Vucic said he will fight for peace in Serbia and the region, and that he will talk to everyone, offer solutions, insist on dialogue and compromise, because he deeply believes that this is the basis of all progress, successful business and a safe future, B92 reported.
The ceremony was attended by Vucic’s family, as well as former presidents, members of the Serbian government, representatives of Serbia's religious communities, members of the diplomatic corps, Serbian Army Chief Ljubisa Dikovic, and top officials from Bosnia’s Republika Srpska such as President Milorad Dodik and Prime Minister Zeljka Cvijanovic, according to B92.
Shortly before be was sworn in as president, the assembly took note of Vucic’s resignation as prime minister. His first deputy, Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, has taken over as acting head of government until Vucic nominates a long-term replacement.
Despite all the preparations for the ceremony, the day was full of disputes. While Vucic was about to take his oath at the parliament building at around noon, a scuffle broke out between rival groups of supporters and opponents, both heading toward the parliament building.
Those against Vucic yelled to his supporters that they were “betrayers”. His supporters responded: “we are not betrayers, we are the majority”. In the clash in a tunnel in downtown Belgrade, a group of citizens attacked a journalist from Radio Beograd when she asked them who they were. According to regional broadcaster N1, police did not react to the incident.
Earlier in the day, police stopped citizens from the informal Against Dictatorship group, who were trying to reach the parliament. Police claimed they were not allowed to gather as they hadn’t given notice of the protest (which is required by law).
The Against Dictatorship group had been protesting for about a month against Vucic and his political dominance following the April 2 election. The group claims it has no leadership or official organiser, and that it has no links to any political party or movement.
Another incident involved former supporters of Against Dictatorship, now now protesting under the title Seven Requests. However a group of men disturbed the protest, took the sign reading “People are hungry while the elites are happy” and destroyed it. The same group also attacked journalists from local investigative journalism networks Insider and the Vice while they followed the protesters on their march, N1 reported.
Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) reacted to the incidents, claiming that its supporters were attacked at multiple places in Belgrade, though this does not seem to tally with news reports. “Participants of a counter-rally, gathered around the absolute losers of the elections, today physically attached sympathisers of the SNS at several locations… A group of hooligans physical assaulted elderly women, yelling derogatory expletives and insults,” N1 quoted SNS’s press release issued on May 31.
The day ended with a joint protest by opposition parties and their supporters, organised by the newly established Movement of Free Citizens, founded by former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, the runner-up in the April presidential election.
Jankovic managed to gather almost all Vucic’s political opponents, from left and right, dismaying his more liberal supporters with some of his companions.
Jankovic, seen as having the potential to revive the fortunes of Serbia’s so-called modern left, marched alongside far-right leaders Sanda Raskovic Ivic and Bosko Obradovic. Ivici was president of the far-right Democratic Party of Serbia while Obradovic still leads the Dveri movement. Both advocate ‘traditional values’, which encompass homophobic policies and limited women’s rights, as well as closer ties with Russia.
Also among those who walked with Jankovic were mainstream politicians like former President Boris Tadic, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremic (one of Jankovic’s rivals in the presidential race) and the head of the Enough is Enough opposition movement Sasa Radulovic, whose main goal is greater labour and social rights.
Most of those who marched with Jankovic on May 31 were either openly against the EU or not passionate about membership, even though this is one of the main values held by Jankovic’s supporters. Genuine pro-EU politicians like Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president Cedomir Jovanovic and League of Social-Democrats of Vojvodina president Nenad Canak were absent.
The protest walk was intended to show resistance to Vucic’s growing power and show the unity of opposition, but in fact it reinforced Vucic’s position as a passionate supporter of EU membership. Thus, the march led by Jankovic will likely decrease his popularity amongst Serbians who believe in democracy and want equal rights and freedoms for all its citizens.
Jankovic’s walk was under the title: “Against the autocratic regime of Aleksandar Vucic!” It gathered about a thousand citizens who walked through downtown Belgrade from 18.00-19.00h, carrying banners saying “United against dictatorship,” “Alek to be marshal” (a reference to Yugoslavia’s communist-era leader Josip Broz Tito, who declared himself marshal for life), “He is not my president” and “Freedom for the media”.
The protest was still smaller than the crowd that turned out to cheer Vucic earlier in the day, as several thousand people waited for the president elect outside the parliament building.