Thousands went out the streets in Serbia and Montenegro this weekend, seeking the replacement of their presidents and accusing them of being autocratic, provoking some to suggest that a ‘Balkan spring’ is arising and suggesting possible longer-term unrest in the fragile Western Balkans.
In Serbia, protesters have been marching for weeks urging President Aleksandar Vucic and the government led by his ruling Serbian Progressive Party to resign, claiming he has created an autocratic regime where political and media freedom have been destroyed.
In the latest of the rallies held in Belgrade, some people were carrying health masks and, in addition to Vucic’s resignation, they demanded that Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar step down. People were angered by a recent photo of Vucic with a child suffering from cancer at a local hospital. They claimed that, apart from using a sick child for political purposes, Vucic has also threatened his life with his visit during the flu season.
“We definitely do not want anyone to ride us. That is why we are on the street, because we are sick of the cult towards leaders,” b92 quoted the psychologist Zarko Trebjesanin as saying.
Dragana Rakic, deputy leader of the opposition Democratic Party, went even further, saying that Vucic has established a dictatorship.
Among the protesters were MPs, as well as local councillors who have decided not to participate any longer in parliamentary or municipal sessions in support of the protests.
The protests have spread throughout Serbia and rallies were held in several towns in addition to the capital.
Earlier in February, Serbian opposition groups and parties started a boycott of the parliament to support the protests.
The “1 of 5 million” protests have been organised every Saturday since December 8 and were sparked by attack on an opposition politician Borko Stefanovic in the town of Krusevac. They further escalated after Vucic said that he would not agree to protesters' demands even if there were five million people in the street.
In a response to the protests, Vucic started a campaign called "Future of Serbia” last week, which is seen as a hint of a snap election possibly in spring. According to opinion polls, Vucic would likely win another mandate. The next general vote is scheduled for 2020.
Vucic, formerly a member of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, joined the now governing SNS, formed by ex-deputy leader of the Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic, in 2008. Vucic’s political orientation has changed dramatically, and he now prioritises reforms and Serbia’s entry to the EU.
Vucic was elected president in April 2017 and he took office in May last year. His election sparked protests across Serbia and he was accused of leading the country towards authoritarianism.
"97,000 - resist!" rises in Montenegro
Meanwhile, in Montenegro several thousand people marched for the third time in the capital Podgorica, urging the long-year leader Milo Djukanovic and members of the government led by his ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) to resign. Djukanovic, who is currently president, has been ruling the country for some 30 years, being either president or prime minister.
This is not the first time he has faced protests from the opposition and he will most likely survive without any serious damage to his image.
Moreover, Djukanovic is seen as the West’s man as he has been pushing for the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration. On the other hand, the main opposition party – the Democratic Front – is pro-Russian and against the EU and Nato.
As in previous years, the protesters were chanting, “Milo thief” and carrying banners reading: “No more crime,” “Rebellion” and “We are the state”. This time, the protests are officially organised by an informal group of intellectuals under the slogan “97,000 - resist!”. They blame Djukanovic for the poor status of human rights and media freedom in the country, as well as for the widespread top-level corruption.
Montenegro, which is hoping to become a member of the EU in 2025, has been criticised for years for the lack of progress in protecting the freedom of speech and human rights, as well as for the lack of serious efforts in fight against corruption and organised crime.
The latest protest was triggered by accusations of corruption from the owner of two troubled local banks. In January, Dusko Knezevic, who owns Atlas Banka and Invest Banka Montenegro, provoked a scandal in the tiny country, accusing Djukanovic of corruption and claiming a warrant was issued for his arrest upon pressure from a clan related to the president. He claims that the president and his family are trying to take over his businesses and properties along Montenegro’s Adriatic coast.
In January, Knezevic released a video showing himself giving money to a member of Djukanovic’s DPS money was allegedly donated to support Djukanovic’s campaign for president; he returned to the presidency in April 2018.
The troubled businessman claims in article posted on his LinkedIn profile that he was one of the DPS’s biggest donors for the last 25 years.
According to the protest’s organisers, the sum was €97,000, which gave rise to the name of the movement.
Meanwhile, the DF said earlier in February that it will ask other opposition parties to jointly ask the constitutional court to rule on whether they can remove Djukanovic from his post. Theoretically, Djukanovic could be removed if 41 of the 80 MPs vote in favour of this decision. This means that the DF would need all opposition MPs and two members of the ruling coalition to back the dismissal, which seems highly unlikely at the moment as, apart from the DPS, the ruling coalition comprises its traditional partners that have never turned against the party.