Weekend of rival protests looms in Belgrade

Weekend of rival protests looms in Belgrade
Rally sponsored by President Aleksandar Vucic to be followed by the latest Serbia against violence protest. / Camilla Bell-Davies
By Camilla Bell-Davies in Belgrade May 25, 2023

Tensions are mounting in Belgrade as two rival protests are set to take place this weekend. The first is a rally sponsored by President Aleksandar Vucic, the second a continuation of the ‘Serbia against violence’ movement, which has been demanding political change. 

The two events will happen on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 May, respectively. Opposition parties had originally planned to stage the ‘Serbia against violence’ protest on the same day as the government rally, but delayed due to fears of clashes. Still, tensions are expected. 

Saturday’s rally will be the third mass demonstration this month by the movement that was initially sparked by the school shootings that claimed 18 lives but has gathered greater political momentum.

The government has said the three protests were provoked by foreign and extremist elements seeking to politicise the tragedy, and has called them an “internal terrorist attack” by the opposition who are “armed” and “refuse to give up their weapons” – a comment on the government’s policy to disarm the country following the shootings. (There is no evidence the opposition is armed, nor were there visible guns at protests).

Vucic called on citizens to attend his event on May 26 if they want “to preserve Serbia, to defend it from those who would collapse and destroy it at any cost and to show in a peaceful, dignified, proud and democratic way that no one can take Serbia away.” 

In an effort to maximise attendance, hundreds of buses have been deployed to transport people from regions of Serbia to the capital. Pro-government media outlets, including Informer, Pink and Happy TV, have been posting daily countdowns and non-verifiable reports of participants coming on foot from Serbian-majority towns in Kosovo. 

The Orthodox Church is encouraging their congregations to attend, and will lead the procession on the day with saintly relics. Platforms have been constructed in front of the National Assembly building in Belgrade and signs all over town advertise the event. Security on the day is likely to be tight.

Anti-government protesters demand change

Though initially sparked by the two mass shootings in early May, the reasons behind the anti-government protesters go much deeper. 

At the previous demonstration on May 19, hundreds of thousands of people vocally demanded the revocation of broadcasting licenses for TV networks such as Pink and Happy that "promote violence and glorify war criminals and gangsters”, in particular the reality TV shows which feature fighting, nationalistic comments and glorification of war criminals such as General Ratko Mladic.

Many people from the crowd told bne IntelliNews they were sick of being bombarded with violent propaganda and wanted to live in a better Serbia. They chanted for Vucic to resign, using the clarion call of the protestors that brought down the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. 

Lots of participants said they were unhappy with Western Europe and the US for turning a blind eye to Vucic’s creeping authoritarianism, and called for international assistance in pressuring his government. 

The crowd also demanded the resignation of two senior ministers, including director of the Serbian intelligence agency, Aleksandar Vulin, who on May 24 attended Russian President Vladimir Putin's security conference in Moscow. 

Maja Bjelos, senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy said Vulin’s “controversial” Moscow attendance was “just another thing to add to our grievances. He is showing himself to be on the side of perpetrators of war crimes and those who promote violence. It shows we are rejecting the EU.”

Opposition MPs are also calling for the dismissal of Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic, whom they hold "objectively responsible" for the current security situation. Some have argued that the second shooting could have been prevented had the police taken action sooner. The killer already had a criminal record and had been detained for possession of weapons, but charges against him were dropped. 

Serbians on social media have also expressed concern about statements by Aleksandra Durovic, Serbia's ambassador to the Council of Europe, who said that Serbia would reconsider its membership in the Council. This would mean Serbian citizens would lose European protections such as access to the European Court of human rights. 

Protesters condemn violence 

Violence is broadly condemned by the protesters who have managed to keep things calm at the last three events. “Violence is contrary to the aims,” said one Belgrade resident. #Srbijaprotivnasilja (Serbia against violence) has been the rallying call.

Another explained: “We have become smart to infiltrators trying to whip up violence. Last week there were small incidents of provocation. There were people wearing Z shirts and someone from [far-right group] People’s Patrol who harassed an activist. They are trying to discredit the protests and provoke police intervention and end the protest. So we mustn’t react.”

But opposition parties have said greater militancy might be needed if the protests on May 27 are to achieve their aims. Dr Radivoje Jovovic, a member of the Green-Left coalition party, said the opposition plan to form a ring around the main TV building in central Belgrade, where Pink and Happy reside. Opposition party leaders would be “at the front of the blockade because we have to prove ourselves, risk a bit and do something more radical,” said Jovovic. 

“Fighting autocracy won’t be solved by flowers,” he continued. “People are completely disillusioned by politics and we opposition politicians want to show that we mean it; that we can put aside our differences and egos and work towards a common goal.”

Jovovic explained that protests in the past have failed because there is mistrust and lack of unity among opposition coalitions who try to take the lead: “It’s like crocodiles in a box: too many egos and differences. This time it is different: the protests are spontaneous and people led so we are swept along by that force.” 

In the crowd last week, left, right and centre-leaning citizens were unified in their discontent. There was a huge amount of energy in the streets. Jovovic said he hoped the opposition parties "don’t spoil it”. His party’s intentions and the map of the protest route have been published on social media to let the crowd to know what’s happening so they feel safe.

Government response 

Given the ruling Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS’s) majority in the assembly, it is unlikely that any of the opposition's demands will be adopted soon.

But Dr Bojan Elek, deputy director of Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, believes there could be some kind of political outcome from this weekend as Vucic is due to make a speech at the congress of the party on May 27 in the city of Kragujevac. 

Speaking from Brussels, Elek said MEPs were speculating whether Vucic would announce a snap election or step down from the SNS to spearhead a new movement. For now, elections are scheduled to take place in September.

The government would not respond to request for comment or to these speculations. 

In her address to parliament on May 19, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said "there will be no Maidan revolution" in Serbia, referring to the Ukrainian protests that brought down pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. She also lost her temper with the opposition and said, in what analysts have described as a freudian slip: “The government will not be changed by elections in Serbia.” 

“This comment has made people very angry,” said Bjelos. 

Meanwhile, Vulin and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic were spotted in Moscow attending the International Security Conference alongside leaders from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their presence raised questions about whether the “sister services from the East” that Dacic referred to after his last visit to a Beijing security conference where Moscow was present, would be deployed.

Analyst Bjelos believes: “Russia is too busy with war and not actively engaged in this protest, however, the Serbian government will do what it can to maintain the illusion of Russian backing, as a threat.”

Jobs at stake 

Those working in public sectors or in temporary or casual employment across the country are feeling the pressure to attend the pro-government rally. President of the Sloga trade union, Zeljko Veselinovic told N1 news that managers in hospitals, schools and other public institutions have drawn up lists of employees who should attend, regularly DM them and speak intimidatingly of contract terminations. Many fear losing their jobs if they don’t attend.  

Still, many more have announced their intention on social media or among friends to join the ‘Serbia against violence’ people’s protest on May 27 instead.

Lawyers and NGOs are offering legal advice to help workers, especially those on precarious contracts, navigate the situation and avoid attending the rally. Cedomir Stojkovic, a lawyer from the Oktober group that was launched to rein in Russian influence in Serbia, posted a call for employees to gather evidence of blackmail and threats and report them. He said they contravened “Article 135 and 163 of the Criminal Code, punishable by up to 3 years in prison, and that any employer who tries to use direct blackmail or soft pressure to persuading or forcing employees to be part of a rally commits a criminal offence and at the same time violates the law.”

Opposition parties, including the People's Party, the Democratic Party, the Party of Freedom and Justice, the Moramo coalition, the Green-Left coalition, the Movement of Free Citizens and the Movement for Overturn, have also pledged legal assistance to employees who may face consequences for refusing to attend the rally and called upon the judicial institutions to address reports of blackmail of employees. Jovovic said his Green-Left coalition party had received around 200 requests but hoped to get more.

Despite this protection, labour law expert Mario Reljanovic told N1 that many workers are reluctant to initiate legal proceedings due to the time-consuming and arduous nature of the process, as well as lack of trust in the judiciary.

Though the protesters want to keep the peace, one woman in last week’s crowd admitted she felt protesters may need to take more radical measures. “I’ve been protesting since 2016, from 2018-19 I came every Saturday to speak out against violence in politics and media. I was there in July 2020 when we tried to bring down the government and we got hit. Nobody wants violence but there is a feeling that this regime will not go peacefully.”