Mood turns belligerent at latest mass protest in Belgrade

Mood turns belligerent at latest mass protest in Belgrade
Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have participated in the rally on May 19. / Ed Godsell
By Camilla Bell-Davies in Belgrade May 20, 2023

Belgrade witnessed a massive protest on the evening of May 19, as hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets demanding an end to violence and the promotion of hatred in the media and public spaces. 

This was the third and largest protest to take place in the capital since two mass shootings in early May that killed 18 people. The mood among the crowd was more belligerent this time. People told bne IntelliNews their frustration towards the government has intensified as President Aleksander Vucic has shown minimal effort to curb the violent rhetoric in his propaganda, even since the tragedy.

Protestors gathered in front of the Serbian National Assembly building at 6pm and marched through the city to the main bridges of Gazela and Brankov Most, subsequently blocking traffic on the main international highway that connects Belgrade with Hungary and North Macedonia.

While an exact count of attendees is yet to be confirmed, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people participated. The column was 2.5km long. In the previous protest held on May 12, an estimated 100,000 citizens marched through the city to block Gazela bridge.

Among the crowd were schoolchildren clutching their homework and hand-drawn signs, families with strollers and many elderly people. 

Sparked by mass shootings

When asked if the shootings was the issue at stake, many said that this was only the spark, that the issues went far deeper. 

“We are marching over this bridge because we are protesting for the future and safety of our families, we are angry with this government that spreads violence and hate speech on their reality TV, and created the conditions for the tragic shootings,” said a man of 40 with a wife and two youngsters. 

Another participant, aged 82, held up a sign saying: “turn off the TV, turn on your brain”, echoing the demand that the government shut down tabloids like Informer and channels Pink and Happy TV which critics say push violent discourse, propaganda and misinformation.  

A man handing out blue, red and white Serbian flags said: “I want to show Serbs are normal people who want a normal life, free from violence.” A large Serbian flag without the heraldic symbol was unfurled. Bearers said the heraldic symbol was “too nationalistic”.  

(Later, far right groups like People’s Patrol reported the banner to be a Russian flag and called the event a pro-Russian rally.)

Other demands included the replacement of the Council of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM) and the resignation of Minister of the Interior Bratislav Gasic and the director of the Security Information Agency (BIA) Aleksandar Vulin.

Spontaneous gathering 

Organisation of the protest was largely spontaneous. People spread word among friends and colleagues on social media apps Viber and WhatsApp. A coalition of political opposition parties and civic groups also rallied and supported the protest, including the Democratic Party, the People's Party, the Green and Left Front, We Don't Drown Belgrade, the Zajedno Party, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Movement of Free Citizens, the Syndicate of Harmony and the Movement for the Revolution.

Chants of “Vucic out, Vucic resign” were raised regularly, whistles and horns were blown, but in general the crowd was calm. 

As darkness fell, participants illuminated the streets with lights from their phones. The atmosphere was electric. “People are finally waking up,” a 35-year-old tech worker told bne IntelliNews.  

One protestor tried to urge people to storm the parliament but people quickly shushed him. “We are still respecting and mourning the victims of the shooting,” said a mother-of-two. 

Only two minor incidents of violence were reported. One in front of the Serbian parliament when a woman carrying a "Stop Femicide" banner was attacked by individuals wearing black hoodies. Another person attempting to record the incident was also attacked.

The Kreni Promeni movement published a video showing Sava Manojlovic's confrontation with a male who attacked him on Gazela bridge, reportedly from far-right group People's Patrol. The crowd chased them away.

These acts of violence were condemned by the protesters, who said any fighting would make the peaceful, anti-violence protest pointless. 

Highway blockaded

At midnight, some participants led by pro-European opposition party Green and Left Front erected tents, set up sleeping bags, and arranged chairs to block a section of the international highway at the Novobeograd petrol station. 

The demonstrators said they would continue the blockade, which would heavily impact Serbia's international traffic, until all their demands were met. 

However the blockade was lifted at 6am, and traffic was allowed to resume. It’s unclear whether police cleared people away or if they left of their own volition.

The Serbian government reported that only a few thousand turned out for “a walk”. Vucic is in Montenegro today attending the inauguration of the newly elected president of that country, Jakov Milatovic. He has not commented on the protest. 

A pro-government rally is due to take place on May 26. The government has arranged buses to collect citizens from across the country, but many in the May 19 crowd said they would not go. 

Opposition parties and civic groups are offering advice for citizens who risk losing their jobs if they don’t comply with instructions to take part in the pro-government rally. Instead, they will likely attend the next anti-government, anti-violence protest the day after on May 27. 


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