On 3 May, a 13-year-old male student opened fire on pupils and staff of the Vladislav Ribnikar Elementary School in central Belgrade. He killed nine of his schoolmates and the school security guard. A day after, a 21-year-old man went on a shooting spree in the rural communities southeast of Belgrade. Armed with an automatic assault rifle, he opened fire from a car, resulting in the deaths of eight individuals, including an off-duty police officer, and leaving at least twelve others injured.
Whereas contemporary Serbia knew of other incidents of mass shooting (a 2007 mass murder leaving nine dead and a 2013 one with a death toll of 13 people), 2023 was the first time that killers went on a shooting spree in a school or in a public space targeting unknown individuals. Previous two instances of mass murders took place in a close circle of family and neighbours.
What was additionally different this time is a totally inappropriate reaction of the representatives of the state to the double tragedy, as well as the fact that the mass murders came after a decade long daily promotion of violence on government-controlled media. As if on 3 and 4 May, the cover of the pressure cooker boiling for ten years of Vučić’s rule exploded off.
Instead of sharing the grief with the families of the assassinated children or accepting the responsibility for the occurred, the government ministers blamed video games and “Western culture” for the tragedy. Anger provoked by such blatant avoiding of responsibility is what brought the Serbian citizens out to the streets to protest, not only in Belgrade but across the country.
The regime unwilling to fulfil the demands of the protest
Until today, six large Serbia Against Violence protests took place bringing each time a human sea unseen since the democratic revolution that overthrew Milošević’s bloody regime. Out of nine clearly defined demands of the protesters only two are met. The minister of education already resigned and the extraordinary session of the National Assembly to discuss the mass shootings and the security situation in the country took place.
The fulfilment of these demands did not cost the regime much. The minister of education was not from Vučić’s party, but from his coalition partners the Socialists, so he was expendable. The session of the parliament like most of them turned into a travesty since the regime MPs used it to even further perpetuate violent attacks against the opposition and citizens protesting.
The regime is still resisting to fulfil the rest of the demands: resignation of all members of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media issuing licences to nation-wide coverage to TV stations, banning of certain reality shows or tabloids that promote violence, taking away the national licence to broadcast program to TV Pink and TV Happy, resignation of the heads of the Radio Television of Serbia, as well as resignations of the minister of the interior and the head of the civilian security service.
Aggressive propaganda against the demonstrators from the ruling officials and pro-government media, the sorrow spectacle of a pro-Vučić Belgrade rally, only sparked the citizens ire and further intensified the protests. In stark contrast with the predominant practice until now, the public relations machine of the regime stopped functioning, and their reactions only added fuel to the fire of the protests.
Ever since Vučić’s party came to power in 2012, their only modus operandi was that of polarisation of the public opinion. This often worked to their benefit until the mass shootings of 3 and 4 May took place. National tragedies such as these need leadership that brings the population together.
Vučić could have avoided finding himself in today’s position if he went to the primary school in the first days to mourn the victims of the shooting with their families and friends. He could have contained the anger of the citizens by pulling a plug on aggressive rhetoric against his political opponents. Yet, he clearly showed and continues to show that he is unwilling or unable to do so.
Citizens willing to continue with the protests over the summer
The main question arising around the current Serbia Against Violence protests is whether they are any different from all previous anti-regime demonstrations in the last decade, will they die down during the summer, and are they able to produce a powerful political alternative to the ruling coalition.
The public opinion poll conducted amongst the participants of the 3 June protest by the Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) shows the predominance of positive energy amongst the citizens demonstrating. When asked whether they expect the demands of the protests to be met, 76 percent of the citizens believe they will be fully or partially met. Additionally, 90 percent of the citizens are personally ready to participate in the protests during the summer and 68 percent believe others too will continue demonstrating.
Credible ratings of Serbian political parties are yet unavailable. Yet, Vučić’s decision to on 28 June create a larger movement that would englobe his party and smaller partners in the governing coalition gives credit to claims that the popularity of the regime hit rock bottom and that they are in a dire need of rebranding in the run up to next year local elections across the country.
Winning new votes remains a mission impossible for the ruling party. In 2014, Vučić’s coalition won 158 out of 250 seats in the parliament, in 2016 they dropped to 131 seats, 2020 elections were an aberration since the opposition boycotted them, and in the last 2022 elections their number of MPs of Vučić’s party further declined to 120 calling for the first time below 50 percent. Whether they will be able to consolidate their support and stop the additional bleeding out of the votes remains to be seen.
What is clear is that the more aggressive the rhetoric and possibly actions of the regime are towards the demonstrators the more will they strengthen the popular resolve to oust them from power. Should the regime thugs try to attack the citizens blocking the roads across Serbia later today, like they did during the environmental protests back in December 2021 and January 2022, the number of citizens wishing the end of Vučić’s authoritarian regime will further grow.