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The Balkans under a wave of protests: Serbian Demonstrations as Bridge to Nowhere

Over the past several weeks, a series of demonstrations of a bigger and more serious nature hit the Balkan region, specifically Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. All these protests included tens of thousands of people on the streets, and all are political and ongoing, directed against the authorities in Tirana, Skopje, Belgrade and Banja Luka. Although they are unrelated to each other, an additional common feature is that demonstrations are taking place in troubled times when the Balkans experts warn that there is a high risk of escalation.
Protests in Belgrade (photo: Marko Đurica, Reuters)

Compared to other simultaneous protests in the Balkans, the demonstrations in Belgrade are the longest-running, the most massive and taking place in the most populous and powerful country of the former Yugoslavia. They began to take place in the Serbian capital after an incident in late November 2018 when Borko Stefanović, an opposition non-parliamentary politician and leader of the small opposition party Serbian Left, was attacked in the southern town of Kruševac, soon spreading to cities across the country. Known as the "One of Five million" marches, the protests are directed against Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and his governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), whom they accused of political pressures, declining levels of human rights, violence and threats to media freedom. Protests have taken place on every consecutive Saturday since the initial rally. The crowds in Belgrade have regularly numbered over 10,000 people, making them the largest over the past two decades.

Speaking to a New York Times reporter, Borko Stefanović explained that he was struck in the head from behind and knocked unconscious, after which the attackers continued battering him with strikes to the head, leading him to conclude the attack was in fact a failed assassination attempt. A day after the attack, he displayed his bloodied shirt from the night of the attack at a press conference, and the image later became a symbol of the demonstrations with protesters rallying under the slogan "Stop the Bloody Shirts" or "No More Bloody Shirts." Following the assault, members of the Serbian opposition claimed that the attackers had ties to the ruling party or the attack was a result of hateful rhetoric used by the Vučić government against its opponents.

Once a member of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Vučić changed his course ten years ago when he became one of the founders of the conservative populist SNS party, embracing more politically moderate and pro-European views, steering government policy toward an eventual entry into the European Union while also maintaining close ties with Russia and China. The protesters are asserting that since being elected President in 2017, Vučić had amassed more power, silenced the press, and undermined opposition, displaying increasingly authoritarian tendencies. The demonstrations commencing in 2018 have been the third series of such anti-Vučić protests in three years. The previous series of protests took place in 2017, denouncing SNS's perceived domination of the media and voicing concern regarding claims of voter intimidation, and the 2016 protests were also similar in nature.

The first rally was held on 8 December when thousands of protesters had marched in downtown Belgrade to voice concern about the assault on Stefanović, while also condemning the Serbian government. Three days later, the house of investigative journalist Milan Jovanović was shot up and bombarded by Molotov cocktails, and this attack further fueled the protests. Jovanović said that he believes the attack was related to his reporting on corruption in the municipality. Since January 2019 the protests have spread from the capital to several other cities, including Novi Sad and Niš, as well as several towns. The protests have been organized by various students and activists, along with the Alliance for Serbia, a loose alliance of various opposition parties and organizations, led by Dragan Đilas. Other prominent leaders have included activist Jelena Anasonović, actor Branislav Trifunović, and far-right opposition politician Boško Obradović.

On 6 February, the opposition parties presented their answer in the form of an "Agreement With the People," expressing a joint commitment to defend the freedom of the media and ensure free and fair elections. They promised not to participate in any elections or in the work of the current parliament, until those criteria are met. They agreed further on the need to form a joint election list for future fair elections, and to work on forming a transitional expert government with a one-year mandate, after which elections would take place. The document said the opposition would continue to fight for the democratization of Serbia, and would review the current government's actions. However, the document was criticized on socials networks.

Tensions escalated on 16 March when thousands of protesters gathered outside the presidency building where Vučić was giving a press conference. The opposition leaders were trying to create a human chain around the building, while at the same time a group of around fifty protesters separated from the main crowd and stormed the office of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS). They were accompanied by Đilas and Obradović. They accused Serbia's public broadcaster RTS of not giving enough attention to the movement and wanted to read their demands on air. RTS denied the request and after several hours in a tense standoff, special police units cleared the protesters out of the building. Five people were reportedly detained. Vučić later slammed the intruders as "tycoon bullies and fascist goon squads."

Considering that such incidents are provoking worldwide media coverage, further escalations are highly likely, as well as new marches and increased participation. Still, it is hard to believe that the result will be any major change on the domestic or foreign policy scene. First of all, the political background of protesters and organizers is diverse, with both far-left, liberal, moderate, and far-right nationalist factions voicing opposition to the government. Despite opposition parties are providing some logistical support, the protests have been non-partisan in nature and as some observers already noted, without a viable electoral outlet the momentum of the protests will simply fizzle out. Even if by some miracle they manage to achieve successful results, there will be no serious changes because the protest organizers belong to the same neoliberal and pro-Western camp as the current government.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.