Serbian far-right groups and pro-Russian extremists held a protest around the presidency in Belgrade on February 15. The protest almost turned violent on several occasions, especially when fake news started to circulate among the gathered crowd that a pregnant woman had been arrested. Some of the extremists even tried to storm to the building but they were prevented by the police.
The protest was organised by the pro-Russian People’s Patrols that is close to Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group, and banned neo-fascist organisation Obraz and parliamentary party Dveri (Doors) called on their supporters to join the protest too.
The main reason for the protest was Serbia’s distancing from Russia, but also a potential agreement with Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Serbia is under huge pressure from the West and specifically as an EU candidate to put sanctions on Russia. It is considered to be a historic ally of Moscow in the Balkans, while Russia has exploited the issue of Kosovo and used its role on the UN Security Council to style itself as a protector of Serbian interests.
Another grievance is that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stated that he is ready to talk about the French-German plan for Kosovo that was supported by the US. Moreover, Serbia has suspended all of its military exercises with Russia, while continuing to do them with Nato.
On February 16, police stated that three people were arrested in connection with the protest, and on the Telegram channel of People’s Patrols it was confirmed that their leader Damjan Knezevic, alongside two more members, was arrested. Knezevic and other members of the Peoples Patrols do not hide their connections with notorious Russian private army Wagner.
Despite the protests against Vucic and the deal with Kosovo, most analysts and journalists in Belgrade claim that far-right organisations in Serbia were formed while successive governments turned a blind eye or even gave their support.
In contrast to the extremists within Serbia, Vucic can portray himself and his government as moderates, despite backsliding on democracy in the country. This gives Belgrade more leverage in international negotiations over the Kosovo issue and an excuse to avoid making concessions, as officials cite the need to placate the aggressive rightwing within the country.
Editor in chief of the weekly Vreme (Time), Filip Svarm, told Voice of America that far-right groups have been formed under the influence of the current government, claiming recent events were “a show for the West”.
“The president was nourishing the new extreme right wing. I think that without that support from the top of the state it cannot even survive and I do not think he lost control over them. This is just a show for the West to present them how much opposition he has in Serbia and he [can] use that extremism in the negotiations,” said Svarm.
Vucic did address the public on February 15 after a meeting with officials from security sector, and accused all of the opposition for violence.
“These people today, they called for violence. What is that idea about the violence, who do you want to kill? When we spoke in the parliament that the violence is their [the opposition’s] only argument, when it becomes clear that they don’t have ideas or arguments, then they “spilled” the violence to the streets,” said Vucic in his address.
He added that citizens should not worry and that the “state will secure peace, security and safety for everyone”.
Although the extremists were shouting insults at Vucic during the protest, Aleksandar Popov from the Centre for Regionalism NGO, also speaking to Voice of America, said that the authorities have not lost control over the far right, and speculated that the protest would only have gone ahead with official endorsement. He also gave the example of the Pride parades that have gone ahead in the country for several years.
“Since President Vucic came to power, Gay Pride parades started to be organised with much less security since the hooligans and far-right stopped making problems, at least significant ones.
“One of the Gay Pride parades, that was ‘blessed’ by the state, was like we are in Holland. It was totally peaceful without extremists. So, obviously someone told them: stay at home; don’t make problems. Are they powerful enough to do this protest on February 15 by themselves? I sincerely doubt that,” concluded Popov.