European Western Balkans

The wave of mass shootings in Serbia sparks political turmoil

Photo: FoNet

Tens of thousands of Serbians have rallied twice in the past two weeks in Belgrade, calling for the resignation of top officials and a crackdown on promotion of violence in the media. The protests were triggered by two mass shootings on 3 and 4 May in which 18 people were killed in less than 48 hours, including nine children in the “Vladislav Ribnikar” elementary school in the Belgrade city centre.

The two protests on 8 and 12 May, organized by pro-European opposition parties, were perhaps the largest since Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power in 2012. Another one is scheduled for this Friday, during which the blockade of one of the vital roads – “Gazela” Bridge in Belgrade – is expected.

“We demand an immediate halt to the promotion of violence in the media and public space, as well as accountability for the long-standing inadequate response from the relevant authorities,” stated the green-left opposition party “Ne davimo Beograd” in a press release.

The protesters are also calling for the resignation of several high-ranking officials, including the interior minister and the head of Serbia’s intelligence agency, as well as members of the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM), a body responsible for issuing licences to national broadcasters, which is frequently criticised by the opposition of enabling government’s control over the media.

They criticize the authorities for remaining silent over the years regarding the promotion of violence on national pro-government television networks. Among opposition demands is the banning of reality shows known for their violent content and the prohibition of pro-government newspapers that regularly exacerbate tensions with crude articles targeting political opponents, thus violating media codes of conduct.

Following intense public pressure, Education Minister Branko Ružić stepped down last Sunday, a day before the first citizens’ protest and five days after the unimaginable tragedy.

In his resignation letter, he referred to the “cataclysmic tragedy” of the school shooting. Interestingly, the same minister had stated on the same day when a shooting in an elementary school happened that “Western values” were among the reasons for such acts of violence, prompting harsh criticism.

Opposition parties have declared that “all of Serbia will come to a standstill,” implying that the protests could escalate. Protest marches have also taken place in Novi Sad and a few smaller cities in Serbia.

The government harshly condemned the protests

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and other high-ranking state officials have condemned the protests, referring to the opposition parties as “faceless evil” that dares to exploit a national tragedy for their interests. Pro-government tabloids have depicted the rally in the same manner on their front pages. According to these media outlets, the rally aimed to attack the Serbian president and politicize the deaths of the 18 individuals. In defense of Aleksandar Vučić, “RT Balkan,” a Serbian version of the Russian state-affiliated portal banned by EU sanctions against the Kremlin, has also echoed the same sentiments as the pro-government tabloids, accusing the opposition parties of exploiting the tragedy for political gain.

In response to the citizens’ protest against violence, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has decided to hold a rally of supporters from his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) on April 26. He has announced that it will be “the biggest rally in the history of Serbia.” It is expected that Vučić will step down from the leadership of the SNS the next day.

Additionally, in March of this year, Vučić began preparations for creating the “People’s Movement for the State,” a new political movement. Many believe that Vučić has turned to the creation of this movement, of which the SNS will be a part, as an attempt to rebrand his party, whose image has suffered over the past 11 years due to numerous corruption scandals. Results of the last-year elections have shown that Vučić is significantly more popular than the party he leads. Also, Vučić announced the possibility of extraordinary elections in September.

Over the past two weeks, state officials have continuously engaged in speculation regarding the number of people expressing their dissatisfaction on the streets of Belgrade. Consequently, opposition leaders have been accused of doctoring protest photos.

The joint photo featuring the President of Serbia, Prime Minister Brnabić, and the Minister of Finance on Ana Brnabić’s Twitter account has sparked widespread anger.  “There are many more of us than last time. We’ll be heading to Gazela Bridge soon,” wrote Brnabić, mocking the opposition for the doctored photos.

The prevailing sentiment portrayed in the media and on social networks is that the Prime Minister is mocking the citizens who protest against violence rather than her political opponents.

State response to mass shootings

Mass murders are rare in Serbia, and the recent shooting in an elementary school was unimaginable for most citizens before 3 May. Just a day after the first tragedy in the elementary school “Vladislav Ribnikar”, another 21-year-old man killed eight people and injured 13 in villages near the Belgrade suburb of Mladenovac.

In the aftermath of these events, the highest state officials emphasized that these incidents were entirely unpredictable, and no one from the government could be held responsible for them. While the public demanded the resignation of Education Minister Branko Ružić, the leader of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) Ivica Dačić stated that his resignation would not solve the problem.

“I think it is now a relative question whether Minister Ružić will resign or not… It will not contribute to society seriously addressing this type of problem because such incidents occur once every 10, 20, or 30 years,” said Dačić.

Nevertheless, the education minister submitted his irrevocable resignation on moral grounds. However, many believe that one of the reasons for his resignation was to divert attention from the scheduled opposition rally on Monday.

Following the shootings, the President of Serbia proposed several steps, some of which came into effect on Monday 8 May, including an amnesty for illegal weapons.

Under the new measures presented by the president, individuals can surrender weapons, ammunition, or explosive devices to the nearest police station, even from the comfort of their own homes. People who possess unregistered weapons can call the nearest police station and request a patrol to collect them without requiring identification.

“We emphasize that during this period, until June 8th, citizens who surrender weapons will not face any criminal responsibility or consequences. The origin of the weapons does not need to be proven, nor any documentation presented,” stated the Ministry in a written statement.

Vučić stated that around 400,000 people in Serbia own handguns or other weapons unrelated to hunting.

“All licenses will be reviewed, and the number will not exceed 40,000. Those who retain firearms will have to undergo checks every six months, including medical and psychiatric evaluations, as well as mandatory drug tests that they will be informed of only 48 hours in advance,” added Vučić.

While the Serbian Justice Ministry prepares amendments to tighten laws regarding the unlawful production, ownership, carrying, or selling of weapons or explosive materials, the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Health will outline a plan for mandatory examinations of gun owners.

However, opposition parties believe that violence in Serbia is pervasive, with the ruling party being the main generator of violence through its media and TV stations.

Moreover, many psychologists and professionals argue that the government’s measures regarding the return of children to schools are inappropriate and can lead to re-traumatization. It is suggested that schools need more psychologists, not school police officers.

There was also controversy among the Serbian public regarding the characterization of the mass murder near Mladenovac as an act of terrorism. Interior Minister Bratislav Gašić stated that it was a terrorist act the morning after the shooting. Government officials noted that the 21-year-old killer, at the time of his arrest, was wearing a T-shirt with the logo “Generation 88” and a map of Europe showing Italy and Spain, former fascist countries, as well as France. The President of Serbia claimed that “H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet, and the number 88 is used as the Nazi salute “Heil Hitler – HH.”

However, some media outlets reported that the shirt was a souvenir from a student trip. Additionally, security experts pointed out that the act could not be classified as terrorism since the killer had no political or ideological motives.

Speculation among the Serbian public suggests that the act was labeled as terrorism to absolve the police of responsibility, as the mass killer was previously known to them as a criminal.

The absence of the highest state officials, including president Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, as well as Belgrade mayor Aleksandar Šapić from the “Vladislav Ribnikar” school was not overlooked, contrasting with the thousands of Serbian citizens who had shown their solidarity with the victims.

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