Protests in Serbia: The coronavirus will cause the fall of the government?

  • Marija Kadovic
  • 17.7.2020 10:32

In Serbia, the coronavirus went very fast from being “the funniest virus in the history of mankind”, as Dr. Branimir Nestorović, a member of the government crisis committee described COVID-19, to being one of the deadliest threats to Serbs in the 21st century. The inability of the Serbian government to deal with this threat angered many Serbs. It forced them to at the peak of the pandemic take over the streets of Belgrade and many other Serbian cities to show their dissatisfaction with authorities and demand change.

The increase in the numbers of infected people in Serbia made the government announce a second lockdown. President Vučić’s announcement that Belgrade would be put under quarantine for three days was met with disapproval by the citizens, which led to the rise of protests. Protests that started on Tuesday, 7th of July have continued, and have escalated into violence between rock-throwing demonstrators and special police forces, who use tear gas, armoured vehicles and force to scatter them. 

Protests in Serbia - how did we get here? 

A reader without any insight into what has been happening in Serbia in the last couple of months could ask why would people of Serbia protest against measures that are imposed to protect their health and lives? However, the protests are not inspired by the lockdown but rather the total mismanagement of the situation, combined with the ineffective and opportunistic policy choices during the outbreak. 

After imposing strict measures in his fight against coronavirus, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić lifted restrictions in May and announced the defeat of coronavirus. Fast re-opening of the country was followed by holding sports matches with tens of thousands of people without any social distancing. Furthermore, conditions for general elections to occur on the 21st of June were created, for which the president campaigned for even during the height of the pandemic. Shortly after the elections were held and Vučić managed to tighten his grip on power, he ordered another lockdown as a solution for the rapid increase in the number of infected cases which are overwhelming healthcare facilities.

 

The protests are not inspired by the lockdown but rather the total mismanagement of the situation, combined with the ineffective and opportunistic policy choices during the outbreak.

 

The slow reaction of Serbian authorities would be more natural to understand if they were not aware of the seriousness of the situation. However, not only were they informed, but they were hiding the actual numbers of infected from the public. According to the report presented by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), in Serbia “more than twice as many infected patients have died than the authorities announced, and hundreds more people tested positive for the virus in recent days than admitted.”

The foreign distraction of attention 

Unable to effectively respond to current “political” protests at home, president Vučić is looking for an enemy abroad to divert attention from the existing problem. For dissatisfaction of Serbs that led to unrest, he accuses foreign intelligence services which aim to overthrow the government and weaken Serbia’s position during European Union mediated negotiations with Kosovo, a country whose 2008 independence Serbia does not recognise. 

The inability to resolve problems that arose at home forced Aleksandar Vučić to turn against his Russian friends and accuse them of backing up anti-government protests. In his opinion, right-wing extremist groups received support from Russian agents who disagree with the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, because the solution of long-lasting problems between these two countries would bring Serbia closer to the West, which is not in the interest of Russia.

 

“For dissatisfaction of Serbs that led to unrest, Vučić accuses foreign intelligence services which aim to overthrow the government and weaken Serbia’s position during European Union mediated negotiations with Kosovo.”

 

Seriousness of protests

The frustrations that have been building up over the past few months have resulted in the current protests. People are dissatisfied with the rule of Aleksandar Vučić, who has been concentrating all the power over the past eight years in his hands. Both as a Prime Minister, and now president Vučić established control over the media and is using various television channels and tabloids for spreading propaganda. In a report that reviews the level of democracy, Freedom House moved Serbia from free to partially free country. These protests present people’s rise against the authoritarian regime, which restricted the freedoms and rights of citizens of Serbia. 

 

Both as a Prime Minister, and now president Vučić established control over the media and is using various television channels and tabloids for spreading propaganda.”

 

The spontaneous protests that erupted in Serbia are being labelled as violent due to hooligans who were intentionally spreading violence, but who are believed to be far-right groups close to the authorities whose aim was to present protesters in the bad light. However, as a contra resistance against them, demonstrators started promoting the slogan “Sit Down, Don’t Be Set Up” to show their dissatisfaction and desire to fight for changes peacefully. 

Protests in Serbia are not something new; however, protests this time are supported by everyone from members of left-wing parties to members of right-wing parties, including those who do not endorse any of the parties. This is what differentiates these protests from previous ones and shows that people are determined to fight for change. 

The seriousness of these protests is the best demonstrated by a brutal police response that some analysts compare with police behaviour during the rule of Slobodan Milošević, president of Serbia in the 1990s. Violent police behaviour towards protestors is a sign that the authorities are scared of people’s conduct and the consequences that it could have on the party in power.

However, one of the weaknesses of these protests is that there is no defined leadership and there are no clearly defined goals articulated by the demonstrations. Without these two essential elements, protests could very soon lose their solidarity and public support.

The coming days will highlight the implications of the protests, but one thing is sure - people are angry, and their dissatisfaction will not disappear overnight. Therefore, the newly elected government in which the Serbian Progressive Party, headed by Aleksandar Vučić, which currently has a majority, will need to find a way to counter people’s dissatisfaction if they do not want to be the first government in Europe to fall due to bad poor management of country during the time of corona.

About author: Marija Kadovic

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