Pro- and anti-government protesters defy storms to rally in Belgrade

Pro- and anti-government protesters defy storms to rally in Belgrade
Protestors surround the Radio Televsion Serbia building calling for revocation of licenses for pro-government media outlets that they say promote violent rhetoric. / Camilla Bell-Davies
By Camilla Bell-Davies in Belgrade May 28, 2023

Two huge demonstrations in Belgrade this weekend — a pro-government rally on May 26 and an anti-violence protest the following day — underlined the polarised nature of politics and society in Serbia.

Amid the ongoing demonstrations, sparked by two mass shootings early in May, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced his resignation as leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The announcement was made on the evening of May 26 during the government rally in Belgrade, which thousands were incentivised to attend and transported from different parts of the country. 

On May 27, anti-violence protesters were back on the streets demanding further government resignations and the suspension of government-backed media outlets.

When asked about Vucic’s resignation, citizens at the pro-government rally praised their leader and said he knew what is best for the country. 

Meanwhile citizens at the people’s protest on Saturday said Vucic’s move would change nothing and they would keep protesting until their demands were met — namely the revocation of TV licenses for pro-government media outlets, and the resignations of top ministers who they hold responsible for violence.

This was the fourth installment of the ‘Serbia against violence’ protests that have been raging in the capital since early May. They have been spontaneous in nature, organised by citizens through social media channels with guidance from opposition parties and NGOs. 

At the previous protest on May 19 an estimated 150,000 people marched through Belgrade and blocked the main international highway. The May 27 protest is believed to have been slightly smaller due to the poor weather, but still in the tens of thousands. 

This time protesters came prepared for the bad weather with umbrellas, cagoules, whistles and flowers – the last to place in front of the National Assembly building as a sign of peace and mourning for the victims of the shootings. 

The jovial mood in the cagoule-clad crowd differed greatly from the pro-government rally on Friday May 26, when the flow of people was controlled by marshals, and people shuffled along carrying flags in silence. Nobody chanted, filmed or took photos on their phones. 

Pro-government ‘Serbia for hope’ rally

Hundreds of buses had been laid on to bring citizens to the pro-government ‘Serbia for Hope’ rally. School trips were suspended for the day as the buses were needed, though some saboteurs in Cacak spray painted the buses and punctured their tyres.

Those gathered in front of the National Assembly were addressed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary Peter Szijarto who called on citizens to support their president, and said: "When we Hungarians and Serbs follow our national interests we are successful." Leaders from Montenegro and northern Kosovo were invited to attend, as well as Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik who ended his speech with: "Long live Serbia, long live Russia, long live Republika Srpska!"

Vucic condemned the anti-violence protestors saying they were not interested in the future, but in trying to oust him. He said: "I invite those politicians, of whom I think the worst, to a conversation and dialogue. My door is open to each of them from tomorrow, to solve problems in the institutions of the system." He added that problems are “not solved on the highway”, alluding to the previous two protests where tens of thousands blocked the main bridges into Belgrade.

"I invite you to talk, but there will be no transitional government. The government will be elected in elections," said Vucic, before announcing his resignation as leader of the SNS party.

When asked why he had come to the pro-government rally on Friday, a taxi-driver from Bajina Basta said he wanted: “to support unity, peace, freedom and economy. We live in one country that is Serbia. Without unity as citizens there will be no progress. I don’t want progress to stop. We don't have any problem with opposition parties but they want to divide us, not unify.” Other participants said similar phrases about unity and hope for their children.

A group of lads in their early 30s from Prijepolje (four hours from Belgrade) who worked in hospitals, railways, trucking and other public services said they were feeling good about the unity at the event, and joked that they’d come to meet girls, though they would be returning home tonight because they were “family men.”

Several Serbs from Kosovo had woken at 5am to take the eight-hour bus to Belgrade and would return on government buses that evening. When bne IntelliNews asked if they were concerned about the violent clashes in the north of Kosovo that day, a waiter in his 20s said: “I’m not scared of the Albanians, I have lived beside them 23 years, fought them before and I’m fine to return to this kind of situation.”

Citizens young and old stood out in the rain, watching propaganda videos and listening to their leaders make speeches. Minister for Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic, a former aide to the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic, intoned: “Serbia will not stop, it will move forward, surrender is not an option, my job is to keep the state safe.”  

But as thunder rumbled in the sky and rain started bucketing down people were less keen to hang around. Bars around the area had been closed so most ran for shelter into churches or under arches and underpasses. One group of young men sheltered under bins and drew tarpaulins over them. A family of travellers admitted they’d only come because they’d been promised RSD5,000 (€42), and were angry that the money had not yet turned up while they got soaked.

'Serbia against violence’ people’s protest

Rain was still pouring the following day when the anti-government 'Serbia against violence' protesters took to the streets. The crowd was much less organised, with people forming bottlenecks on narrow roads. But several in the crowd said they preferred it that way as it showed it was spontaneous, not led by politicians. 

Opposition parties were on hand with banners and megaphones to direct proceedings but many citizens were ambivalent or even hostile to their presence. A woman in her 40s, who said she has attended every protest since the 1990s, said: “The opposition are part of the same old system, they are just deja vu. Yes, we need to be better organised, but we need new faces to lead this protest who are not politicians.” 

This was the prevalent feeling among young people in the crowd, many of whom said they don’t trust politicians. During a mini debate outside the RTS building, a young protester vented his frustration on a volunteer in high vis; a member of an opposition party. The youth suggested the protests would achieve better results without the opposition presence, but the volunteer empathised with his lack of faith. The two had an intense but peaceful debate, reported BBC Na Srpskom. 

Demonstrators were addressed by Ranka Kasikovic, an employee of the Gerontological Center in Subotica, who said she suffered intimidation at work because of her refusal to go to the SNS rally. "That's when my fight for justice began," she said.

Others in the crowd said they knew friends working in public service sectors who had been coerced, paid or intimidated to go to the pro-government rally the day before. "They were afraid of losing their jobs," said one. A lawyer said he has been collecting evidence from those 'blackmailed' into going, and showed bne IntelliNews a video of people getting paid on a government bus.

“Freedom to know the truth”

Columns of people surrounded the National Assembly building then moved down to the Radio Television Serbia (RTS) building while shouting "Resignations, resignations" and "Vucic, leave". The crowd made as much noise as possible at the RTS building during the 19:30 main news broadcast. This was the same tactic used on October 5, 2000 when protestors spilled into the streets to demand Milosevic’s resignation, banging pots and pans at the TV building.

A young woman in the crowd said: “We want freedom to know the truth. There should be a state media with different voices on the airwaves, not just the government’s.”

Initially sparked by the shootings in May, these protests have gathered momentum and the list of demands now includes the closure of state-sponsored media promoting violence, an end to glorification of war criminals, replacement of Radio Television Serbia management, removal of all Regulatory Body for Electronic Media council members, immediate cancellation of reality TV programmes promoting violence, and a ban on print media promoting aggression and misinformation, and violating the journalistic code.

A large number of police were parked around the corner from the RTS building, sirens sounded and people accused them of provocation. Organisers had advised protestors to step back at any signs of violence, to “immediately move away from the provocateurs, isolate them and not allow them to manipulate the protest.” Protesters dispersed to a nearby park, among them many elderly and children.

Bojan, a political science student from Bosnia wearing a ‘Serbia against violence’ badge, said he would not like to see any violence as it would undermine the peaceful aims of the protest. When bne IntelliNews asked if he would use his politics degree to go into politics he replied: “In Serbia I can do nothing with this.”

However two other students, Dmitri and Uros from Belgrade, believe things need to get more radical in order to spark change. “You have to take a nail out by banging in another nail,” said Dmitri. “We need to disrupt, upturn buses and burn things, like the militancy that brought down Milosevic.” 

Many of Uros' friends have left Serbia out of a sense of hopelessness, he said. “We feel like our only choices are to sell your soul or to leave.”

An engineer from Belgrade who had volunteered to be one of the protest organisers disagreed with Dmitri and Uros. “With some minimal effort from people, opposition groups and NGOs you have good organisation. People are here today voluntarily unlike people yesterday who are forced to go by the state. This shows we haven’t sunk to the bottom yet. There is hope for a civic society.”

The engineer was wearing a cartoon hyena badge. “Vucic said we protestors are hyenas, so we made these badges.”

Vucic’s resignation was not well received by the protestors, who believe it is not enough. The new Movement for State and People that Vucic will lead is just a “more personalised version of the SNS”, said analyst Nikola Burazer, programme director at Centre for Contemporary Politics and author of the recent Freedom House report for Serbia

He added that the SNS’ popularity has been in freefall since the mass shootings in May and this is Vucic’s attempt to distance himself from the party while keeping his personal popularity and votes. The new party aims to be pan-Serbian in nature: representing the interests of all Serbs, including those in Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Burazer and other Balkan analysts worry this is inflammatory given the volatile and inconclusive negotiations in Kosovo between Vucic and Kosovan PM Albin Kurti. 

As protestors headed home in the rain on May 27, a woman, 44, told bne IntelliNews she remembered going to the October 5 anti-Milosevic protests as a young woman: “It feels like we are always on the street and nothing changes. We were protesting in the 90s and our kids are taking to the streets now. Clearly we’re doing something wrong … but at least we have the courage to speak about it.”

“The EU should know that a lot of people in Serbia don’t agree with our government even though he wins elections,” she added. “When you see all these thousands of people out here, it seems strange that Vucic keeps on winning.”