Serbia Riven By Continued Anti-Government Protests
Protesters rallying against the incumbent Serbian government of President Aleksandar Vucic demonstrated in downtown Belgrade, capital of Serbia, on April 20, 2019, marking another Saturday of anti-government protests since December 2018. Last Saturday’s protests following a pro-government rally was held the day prior, which drew thousands of supporters of Vucic to Belgrade from across Serbia, neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo to counter months of demonstrations calling for Vucic’s resignation, democratic reforms, and greater media freedoms.
Regular protests began in early December, after an opposition politician and two opposition activists were attacked by black-clad men in the southern city of Krusevac on Nov. 23, 2018. While the government reported that the assailants were apprehended shortly after the assault, leaders of a broad coalition of Serbian opposition parties accused President Vucic’s governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of being involved in the attack.
Upon the call of Dragan Djilas, the former mayor of Belgrade and co-founder of the big-tent opposition coalition Alliance for Serbia, thousands peacefully rallied in downtown Belgrade on Dec. 8, 2018, under the slogan “Stop the Bloody Shirts,” to condemn the attack on the opposition members.
While members of Vucic’s government downplayed the number of demonstrators at the December 8 protest, the President asserted on Dec. 9 that he “will not meet any of the demands… even if there was five million [protesters]” and challenged opposition leaders to defeat him and his SNS at an election.
Opposition leaders announced plans on Dec. 11 for a series of anti-government demonstrations, proclaiming the December 8 protests as “just the beginning” for Serbia’s myriad opposition parties and unveiling a new slogan — “It Has Started,” namely, the fall of President Vucic — for ensuing protests. Protesters, however, also began using the slogan “One in Five Million” at the December 15 demonstrations in a direct reference to Vucic’s defiant statement a week prior.
While President Vucic hinted on Jan. 1, 2019 that he was considering calling snap elections, opposition parties in the Alliance for Serbia pledged to boycott any such elections under “current unfair conditions” and instead called for fresh elections to be held one year after a “transitional government” of experts is formed to succeed Vucic’s government. Opposition leaders also reiterated their calls for an immediate end to Vucic’s “autocratic rule” in order to secure better press freedoms and fair elections.
By late January, anti-government demonstrations had spread beyond Belgrade, with sizable protests in the cities of Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Pancevo, Zajecar, and Krusevac. Additionally, professors from a wide range of universities across Serbia voiced their support, with a joint letter from faculty affiliated with universities in Novi Sad and Kragujevac stating that “we are obliged to raise our voice, in the belief that the citizens of Serbia deserve better than what this government offers them.”
While demonstrations were regularly held throughout the first two months of 2019, the severity of the situation escalated in mid-March when thousands of demonstrators surrounded the presidential palace during a presidential press conference and another group of around fifty protesters forced their way into the state broadcaster — in an attempt to read their demands live on air — before being expelled by riot police. Vucic denounced the protest leaders as “the worst thieves” and asserted that his government would not let “tycoon bullies and fascist goon squads” threaten journalists.
In an attempt to answer five months of protests calling for Vucic’s ouster, pro-Vucic and pro-government supporters numbering in the tens of thousands descended upon Belgrade on Apr. 19 in what the beleaguered president called “the biggest [rally] the country had seen in decades.” Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, along with the Bosnian-Serb President Milorad Dodik and Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, also spoke at the rally. While state-run media outlets estimated more than 100,000 attended the rally, independent outlets declined to offer any estimates.
Anti-government demonstrations resumed on the following day, with protesters marching through downtown Belgrade and ending their rally in front of Serbian state television headquarters. It remains to be seen whether or not Vucic will survive a widening popular movement calling for his government’s resignation. Additionally, questions still remain regarding whether or not the opposition — with parties running the gamut from far-left to far-right — will stay unified should Vucic quit and fresh elections be held. Vucic’s SNS-led coalition currently controls 160 seats in the 250-seat unicameral National Assembly of Serbia.