Weekly anti-government protests spread across Serbia

Protest in Belgrade; Photo: Tanjug/Filip Krajinčaić

BELGRADE – Weekly protest walks, taking place since 8 December 2018, have become the most serious challenge to the rule of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić so far. The protests, which are supported but not formally organised by the opposition parties, have spread to more than 20 cities and towns across the country, and have received support from a number of university professors, professionals and artists. One of the protests took place in Kosovska Mitrovica, the largest city of the Serb-majority Northern Kosovo, which is governed by Vučić’s political allies.

The protests, organised under the title “One of the five million” (a reference to the initial reaction of President Vučić, in which he said that he would not give in to the demands of the protesters even if there were five million people on the streets), have first taken place in the capital of Belgrade, and then spread to the other cities, including Novi Sad, Kragujevac and Niš.

According to the organisers, the number of participants in Belgrade has exceeded 20.000 several times. The average number has been between several hundred people in smaller places and several thousands in the urban centres.

Even though the protests were triggered by the beating of an opposition member Borko Stefanović in November 2018, they are now seen as a general expression of dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition, which has been in power since 2012. Speakers addressing the protests routinely reference the increasing authoritarian rule of the President, lack of media freedoms and debate in the Parliament, and Belgrade protest walks regularly pass by the building of country’s public broadcaster RTS, which is heavily criticized for biased reporting.

Since the protests gather a wide spectrum of participants, both left-wing and right-wing banners can be seen, including those focusing on bad socio-economic issues, as well as those expressing dissatisfaction with Vučić’s policy towards Kosovo.

Wednesday, 16 January, was an exception to the regular pace of the protests in Belgrade, which are organised on Saturdays. On that day, thousands of people commemorated the one year anniversary of a still unresolved murder of Oliver Ivanović, Serbian politician in Northern Kosovo. Around a hundred of citizens of Kosovska Mitrovica, a place of Ivanović’s assassination, took to the streets this Saturday under the banner “One of the five million”.

The protests have been endorsed by hundreds of university professors, with the members of the Faculty of Philosophy and Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade breaking the ice in January. “The Government refuses to answer to the questions and requests of the citizens, and its officials offend everybody who dare to pose a question or express a different opinion”, wrote the professors of the Faculty of Philosophy in a joint statement.

Around 150 lawyers, as well as more than 400 artists and performers, many of whom have become prominent faces of the protests, have also signed a statement of support to the citizens out on the streets.

Complicated relationship with the opposition

Even though they can be regularly seen in the crowd at the events, no opposition politician has addressed the citizens before a protest walk. This has up until now been exclusively done by prominent public figures.

One of the organisers of the protests, actor Branislav Trifunović, publicly demanded concrete plans and proposals from the opposition, as well as guarantees that they would not continue where Vučić and his parties have left off if they come to power.

The reason behind this demand is a fact that a large number of opposition politicians, including two of its most prominent leaders, Dragan Đilas, former mayor of Belgrade and Vuk Jeremić, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, have been a part of the previous government, which is not remembered in a positive light by the majority of the citizens.

Opposition parties, majority of which are gathered in a ideologically heterogeneous Alliance for Serbia, have accepted this message, and have since held several meetings in order to create a common platform that could translate the energy of the protests into a political success (which remains far-fetched according to the most recent polls). There has been no conclusive agreement, even though the Alliance for Serbia has proposed a one-year government of experts that would “bring the country in order and create conditions for free and fair elections” after the fall of the ruling coalition.

The best strategy for facing Vučić has also been a hot debate topic in recent months, with the Alliance for Serbia refusing to participate in any elections due to what they deem as a lack of conditions for their fair conduct. Some of the opposition parties have also decided to boycott the sessions of Parliament, arguing that the working conditions and the atmosphere in the nation’s highest legislative body cannot lead to any constructive result anymore.

As Đilas and Jeremić prepare for their meeting with ALDE MEPs in the European Parliament this week, in the context of a round table on the situation in Serbia, the protests seem to be gaining momentum, while the opposition is still struggling to find a unified voice.