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Who is leading the escalating protests in Serbia?

Protesters in front of Radio Television of Serbia; Photo: Tanjug / Dragan Kujundžić

BELGRADE – “As you can see, I am very scared”, said the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić with irony, as the sounds of protests outside the seat of Presidency found their way in during his yesterday’s press conference. In spite of this statement, the events on Saturday and Sunday could possibly mark the turning point in the demonstrations that have spread across the country in the past three and a half months. The following days and weeks will most likely determine their future scope and leadership.

The weekend of radicalisation

On the evening of 16 March, regular protest walk through the streets of Belgrade turned into a spontaneous storming of the building of the Radio-Television of Serbia (RTS), country’s public broadcaster. Even though nobody was seriously injured and the police managed to remove the demonstrators from the premises after a few hours, this was the first instance of radicalisation of the otherwise peaceful protests.

RTS has been accused for biased reporting in favour of Vučić’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party for years, and none of the protests’ organisers has been allowed to appear in a live programme ever since they began in early December. This was the primary demand of dozens of citizens and politicians who entered the building on Saturday.

A day later, President Vučić decided to hold a press conference and address the alleged violence of his political opponents. “People who think differently [from the opposition leaders inciting violence] must understand that they are allowed to protest, fight politically, vote for whomever they want, but that violence is forbidden is Serbia”, he stated.

As a reaction to the press conference, demonstrations were staged in front of the seat of Presidency. The participants vowed not to let Vučić to leave the building without talking to them, which he has avoided doing ever since the protests had started.

The decision of the organisers sparked the first serious clashes with the police, with pepper spray being thrown into the crowd at one point. However, after the news came in that several people have been arrested for entering RTS the night before, the majority of the protesters decided to walk to the police station in the other part of the city and demand their release. This gave Vučić the opportunity to leave the Presidency five hours after the press conference. He was met with booing of several dozen people who stayed in front of the building.

Mother of an arrested student; Photo: Tanjug/Zoran Žestić

After expressing their support to the arrested citizens, the protesters dispersed in the late afternoon, stating that they will stage another round of demonstrations if their members are not released by tomorrow. Some of them have been sentenced for 30 days in prison in the meantime.

The entire series of events of Sunday coincided with the 15th anniversary of March 2004 pogrom of Serbian citizens from Kosovo, which was covered by the main part of President Vučić’s press conference speech. He even accused Kosovo’s Prime Minister Haradinaj for trying to overthrow him by siding with opposition members.

“But they have come across a hard nut to crack. They have come across somebody who is not afraid of anything”, said Vučić. “I believe that nobody has ever held a press conference in these circumstances. But I wanted to show to the people of Serbia that fear from hooligans, thugs, fascist leader Boško Obradović and tycoon leaders Đilas and Jeremić should not exist”, he added.

Is the far-right hijacking the protests?

Many commentators have indeed pointed at the prominent role played by the leader of Dveri Boško Obradović during the above-described events. He was the first to enter the RTS building on Saturday and his argument with the security members has been widely shared on the Internet. He also directed the crowd on Sunday, and participated in driving the van with the sound-equipment through police lines. This has put the issue of the future leadership of the protests in focus.

Saturday gatherings in Belgrade, which soon spread across the country, are still organised by a civil society organisation “One of the five million”, which was only supported, but not coordinated by the opposition coalition Alliance for Serbia and other smaller parties and individual politicians. However, the past few weeks have witnessed the rising number of opposition figures addressing the protesters. It began with less controversial personas, but slowly built up to the party leaderships, many of whom were a part of the previous government, still remembered as dysfunctional and corrupt.

The Alliance for Serbia is an extremely ideologically heterogeneous group of parties, one of its members being Obradović’s Dveri. The party and its leader have often been regarded as far-right, their most controversial positions being the initiative to re-examine the role of the Second World War Nazi-collaborators in Serbia, as well as staunch anti-LGBT policy (even though Obradović has distanced himself from the calls to murder gay people by some of Dveri supporters that took place in 2014). It should be pointed out, though, that no major party in the deeply conservative Serbia has ever adopted a pro-LGBT agenda.

In the past several years, Obradović has positioned his party as a part of a populist wave that is spreading across Europe, adopting a clear anti-EU stance, but also supporting a stronger role for the state in the economy, in contrast to the globalisation. He described his party policies as a mixture of right-wing and left-wing ideas.

With the weekend of tumultuous events behind us, can it be said that Obradović and Dveri taking over the leadership of the protests? It is too early to make the final judgement, but a closer look at the situation shows that this scenario is far from happening.

Boško Obradović during the protests; Photo: Tanja Valić/Tanjug

“One of the five million” has always been a wide coalition of citizens, somewhat mirroring the Alliance for Serbia. It can even be argued that the most of the protesters in Belgrade are the people with generally liberal attitudes, certainly more liberal than Dveri. Having this party at its front lines would put both the organisers and the Alliance for Serbia in the risk of losing a large part of their support.

Apart from Dveri, main members of the Alliance include centre-left, pro-EU Democratic Party, centre-right People’s Party lead by former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić and the future social-democratic party of the former mayor of Belgrade Dragan Đilas. All of them have emphasised that the only aim of the coalition is overthrowing the regime of Aleksandar Vučić and creating the conditions for free and fair elections, after which more ideologically coherent alliances are expected to be formed.

Obradović’s personal popularity could rise as a consequence of the recent events, but it is doubtful that this would be enough to make Dveri the first choice of a substantial majority of the citizens. The party is still viewed as a fringe group, and similar endeavors of Obradović in the past, including his confrontation with the members of the Republic Electoral Commission, as well as police during the local elections in Lučani, ultimately did not have any significant effect on Dveri’s success.

Another important factor are Đilas and Jeremić’s political capital and (apparent) financial resources build into the Alliance for Serbia. Both of them seriously outperformed Obradović in the Belgrade local elections and presidential elections, respectively. In fact, Dveri has been unable to reach the 5%-vote threshold on its own ever since it started participating in the national elections in 2012.

It is, therefore, highly unlikely that the other leaders of the Alliance for Serbia would wish to stay in the shadow of Obradović. After all, most of them were right by his side during the events over the weekend, making speeches as the events unfolded. The proof that most of the ordinary citizens participating in the demonstrations support the politics of Dveri is also lacking. Framing the protests as “far-right” or even “right-wing” thus seems incorrect, at least for the time being.

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