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Serbian pro-government tabloids repeat opposition claims about orchestrated violence in July protests

Protesters in front of the National Assembly of Serbia, July 2020; Photo: Twitter / nedavimobgd

BELGRADE –  Serbian pro-government tabloid Kurir reported on 5 March that the violent protests that took place in the capital last July were also attended by hooligans “assisted by the renegades in the Ministry of Interior”, with the aim of wrecking chaos and overthrowing the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić.

The article, which does not quote its sources, comes at a time of serious allegations made by President Vučić, his associates, and media close to them, that parts of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) had been plotting Vučić’s overthrow in recent years.

These allegations intensified following the arrest of the members of a criminal group led by Veljko Belivuk in February. The group, whose members were known to the public as football hooligans supporting Partizan FC, has allegedly been involved in drug trafficking and multiple assassinations. The court process against Belivuk and his associates is still in the early phase.

European Western Balkans reported in July that members of the opposition parties, who participated in the protests triggered by Vučić’s announcement of a new curfew, accused groups affiliated with the ruling party of infiltrating the protests and escalating tensions with the police.

Protests in Serbia escalate, opposition accuses regime-backed groups of provoking violence

This version of the events is now also confirmed by Kurir, which reports that, while the gathering of the people who were dissatisfied with the tightening of the measures was indeed spontaneous, part of the assailants who triggered the violence was “obviously colluding with somebody, that is, they were deliberately allowed to cause the chaos of greater proportions and infiltrate the National Assembly”.

A conflict within SNS

Kurir‘s article is just a part of the narrative that has recently been pushed by the media close to President Vučić, which claims that parts of SNS had been colluding with Belivuk’s group and planning Vučić’s overthrow and assassination. More and more information apparently supporting this claim has been released to the public in recent weeks.

So far, former state secretary in the Ministry of Interior Dijana Hrkalović and president of the Football Association of Serbia Slaviša Kokeza have been accused of cooperating with Belivuk’s group and have undergone hearings in front of police.

Hrkalović, who left the Ministry of Interior in 2019, was seen as a close associate of the then Minister of Interior and current Minister of Defence Nebojša Stefanović, who, in turn, was seen as the right-hand man of President Vučić throughout the majority of SNS’s rule.

Despite no direct comments by either man, there are widespread speculations in the public that there is a rift between Vučić and Stefanović and that the Minister of Interior from 2014 to 2020 could be the ultimate victim of the intra-SNS conflict.

The scale of cooperation between SNS and Belivuk’s group unclear

While Veljko Belivuk and the members of his group were arrested only in 2021, investigative journalists have been covering the suspicious connections between the group and the ruling party for years.

The most controversial pieces of apparent evidence were multiple photos of Danilo Vučić, the adult son of President Aleksandar Vučić, with several members of Belivuk’s group dating back to 2018. Danilo Vučić was most often photographed with Aleksandar Vidojević, who was not arrested alongside other members of the group in 2021.

President Vučić strongly denied any involvement of his son with Belivuk’s group, claiming that said Vidojević was only accused of fights rather than criminal activities and that the photos were not proof of anything.

In 2017, journalists of KRIK, the network for investigating corruption and crime, reported that a member of the group was acting as informal security during the inauguration of President Vučić. These men violently dispersed journalists who were trying to cover the inauguration and the protesters that also attended the ceremony.

Belivuk himself was acquitted in 2019 of assisting in a murder in Belgrade in January 2017. According to KRIK, the police suspiciously contaminated traces of his DNA at the crime scene. The process nevertheless revealed close connections between Belivuk and a member of the Gendarmerie (special police unit) Nenad Vučković, KRIK claimed.

Following Belivuk’s arrest in 2021, professor at the Faculty of Law and former member of Partizan FC management Vladimir Vuletić stated that the current secretary-general of the Government of Serbia Novak Nedić helped Belivuk’s group establish dominance among Partizan-supporting groups, most of them connected to various criminal activities.

Opposition politician Marinika Tepić then came out with apparent evidence that members of Belivuk’s group participated in the lighting of torches on the rooftops of the buildings in late April and early May 2020, in support of SNS and President Vučić. The activity was a response to “noise-making”, protests of the citizens against strict COVID-19 measures from their homes.

None of these claims, implying a high level of cooperation between SNS and the group, has so far led to direct activities of the judiciary.

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