Violent protests in Serbia as Vučić announces another lockdown after weeks of alleged pre-election cover-ups

Protesters in front of the National Assembly of Serbia; Photo: Twitter / nedavimobgd

BELGRADE – Thousands of citizens gathered in front of the National Assembly in Belgrade on Tuesday night following the announcement of President Aleksandar Vučić that the new weekend-long curfew will be imposed this week due to rise in COVID-19 cases. After a smaller group of protesters tried to enter the country’s parliament, clashes with the police ensued, resulting in a series of tear gas bombs and arrests, during which both the protesters and the policemen were reportedly hurt.

The protest was triggered by dramatic changes in Serbia’s policy on COVID-19 pandemic, with the government removing virtually all restrictions and sending messages that virus has weakened in the weeks prior to the 21 June election, followed by the proclamation that the situation is close to a calamity only two weeks later, as well as surfacing of reports by investigative journalists claiming that the true number of cases and deaths has been hidden from the public for weeks, if not months.

As of 2 a.m. on 8 July, the clashes have been going on for several hours. The police has used a large number of tear gas bombs on the protesters who continuously attempt to enter the parliament. The protests represent the most serious unrest in Serbia since the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power in 2012.

None of the opposition leaders called the citizens to go out and protest on Tuesday. The videos of people gathering spontaneously surfaced on social networks, attracting more citizens to come as the night progressed. The protests were without clear ideological message, with different participants chanting different slogans directed against the government.

Photos and videos of people being hurt and arrested, and even attacked by the police for no obvious reason, started surfacing on social networks during the night.

Cable television N1 covered the event extensively with several reporting teams on the ground. Meanwhile, none of the channels with the national coverage had live reporters. Most of them ignored the event altogether.

One of the protesters, talking live to N1 reporter, explained that he is protesting because of the recent death of his father, who died of COVID-19 due to the lack of ventilators.

“Dad, this is for you”, said the man, a sentence taken over as a motto by some of the protesters.

What is the context of the protest?

After imposing some of the strictest measures in Europe during March and April, including several weekend-long curfews, Serbia abruptly revoked most of the measures on 6 May. Some of them were still formally binding, but were not enforced, leading to large gatherings such as sporting events and various celebrations. Member of the Government Crisis Staff Dr Predrag Kon proclaimed the effective end of the epidemic in Serbia on 3 June.

However, immediately on the morning after the parliamentary and local elections that took place on 21 June, Dr Kon announced that the situation with COVID-19 was again serious in Belgrade. The numbers of deaths and infections took off in the week after the elections, reaching record high levels for Serbia in the first week of July.

In the meantime, reports started to surface that the Government has been covering up the true numbers of cases and deaths from as early as April. On 22 June, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network – BIRN published an article claiming that, according to BIRN’s insight into the official Government database, at least 632 people had died, which was 388 more than the officially announced number of 233 deaths at the time. The potential number of deaths from COVID-19 in this period could be as high as 1000, since not all who died had been properly tested, BIRN editor later stressed.

BIRN also claimes in the week leading up to the elections, instead of around 90 new daily cases, the real number was more than 300. The Government dismissed the accusations that publicly available information is false.

Meanwhile, the situation in many areas of Serbia started to deteriorate rapidly, with the most dramatic reports of the lack of proper equipment and large number of deaths coming from the city of Novi Pazar. Speaking for the public broadcaster, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić dismissed these reports as well, claiming that Novi Pazar is well equipped and that the situation is under control.

The accusations that the ruling SNS created an overly relaxed atmosphere in country during May in June, so that it can score a big victory in the elections boycotted by large parts of the opposition (which it did, winning 60% of the vote, with the turnout being 49%), have not stopped since the elections. The opposition and the citizens have continued to point at the huge rises in COVID-19 numbers in the weeks following the elections and the reintroduction of the abandoned measures, culminating with Vučić’s announcement of the new curfew on Tuesday, as the proof that SNS risked the health of citizens by maximally relaxing the measures before the elections and falsely reporting on the seriousness of the situation.

New protests against the government, this time organised by the opposition parties and movements, are announced for Wednesday, as well as the Friday evening, when the curfew is supposed to start.

Last week, President’s announcement that the students dormitories will be closed in the middle of the exam period due to rising COVID-19 cases caused protests of students in front of the National Assembly, with the decision being revoked on the next day.

Serbian Progressive Party has been facing increasingly serious anti-government protests every year since 2016.