What Was The Real Reason Behind Serbia's Summer Clashes?

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Over the last twenty years, Serbia has, in one-way or another, been under the influence of Aleksandr Vučić, the current leader of the ‘Serbian Progressive Party’ (SNS). Vučić’s political history is an exhaustive tapestry; he shifted away from the far-right ‘Serbian Radical Party’ in 2008, after which he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister, then Prime Minister before being elected as Serbia’s president in 2017. Initially viewed by the EU as a positive shift in Serbia’s troubled politics, since 2018 the streets of Belgrade tell a different story with violent protests against Vučić erupting into daily life.

This summer, protests reached new heights after the SNS dominated the June parliamentary elections and the world was offered an insight into Vučić’s extreme actions in quelling opposing voices. Shocking viral videos captured riot police beating unarmed protestors, provoking international condemnation and concerns about human rights abuses and a decline into authoritarianism. However, international reporters seemed to have misunderstood the root cause of the problem, instead describing the protests as being ‘anti-lockdown’; whilst this is partly true, it barely scratches the surface of a severely convoluted movement. One protestor, Nikola, offers up his insights and explains the real reason these protests are taking place and what they may mean for the future of Serbia.

Nikola is an ardent left-wing protestor and SNS critic who has been heavily involved in the demonstrations. He points to 3 main triggers that caused the protests to explode. Firstly the extreme lockdown measures, which were some of the most stringent in Europe. “Until May”, he says, “people over 65 were constantly locked down in their houses with no attention. They were only given the right to walk the streets from 4am to 7am to purchase basics.” Secondly, in an attempt to win the support of voters in the June elections, Vučić swung to the other extreme and opened up everything, including a major football match, which is known to have spread the virus prodigiously. Thirdly, shortly after the SNS took an extraordinary 60.65% of the vote, the restrictive measures came back “to cover up the other extreme, when they opened up everything in an idiotic manner” which had, unsurprisingly, resulted in a coronavirus spike. Many believed that the lifting of restrictions was a ploy to boost the incumbent president’s popularity before the elections. Critics were furious, and combined with the fact that “200 000 people had lost their jobs which, in a country of only 7 million, is a nightmare”, their discontent was taken to the streets.

“Vučić is a despot, a dictator. I think a large part of the world doesn’t understand how dangerous he is,” Nikola exclaims. His hatred of the president comes from a personal place, deeply rooted in childhood when he first encountered Vučić. “In 1993, when I was 5 years old, it was one the largest hyperinflations in the history of mankind [peak inflation reached 313 million per cent/month]. In the early morning, lines of desperate people waited to buy bread or milk at the market whilst NGO’s delivered bread from trucks. One day, two old fucked-up Yugo cars and one new car turned up at the market as the NGO’s were delivering bread. One of the men stepped out with a gun and pointed it inside the truck, stopped everyone, and then abruptly and violently they started throwing all the bread to the ground, stamping on it. There was a 23-year-old boy among them who turned out to be Vučić. The other guy with him was a future MP of the Serbian Radical Party.”

Vučić entered Serbian politics at a young age. His pernicious nationalism is well documented and during the bloody Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, he was filmed saying, “If they [Muslim Bosniaks] kill one Serb, we will kill a hundred Muslims”. Later he joined the Milošević government during a period of blooming Serb propaganda and media censorship, working in the Department of Information and Culture for Serbia at the same time as the influential Goran Matić was working in the Department of Information and Culture for FR Yugoslavia. In one incident, Matić’s department publicly accused and arrested a group of ethnic Serb men of being French secret service agents who were plotting to assassinate Milošević, a story Nikola believes was “made up” calling Matić “a guy with a fruitful imagination”. France repeatedly denied these claims calling them “fantasies” yet Matić stuck to his narrative.

By the 2010s, Vučić claimed to have reformed his former ultra-nationalist ways, becoming the leader of the ruling centre-right SNS. However, Nikola was sceptical and whilst Europe “brought that shit”, he still firmly believes “the foundation from this regime lies in the 80s and 90s”: a time of war, propaganda and authoritarianism. Indeed critics point to Serbia’s rapid decline in press freedoms as proof that the country may not have changed as much as initially expected. The violent reaction against protestors and bystanders certainly appear to legitimise Nikola’s concerns.

An initial response from the government was to try and “find a leader to divide [the protestors]. […] The government pulled out 2 or 3 names of opposition leaders that often get blamed for scandals in the country.” Although Nikola doesn’t like the opposition leaders, he claims, “in this case they are not the organisers. When some of them showed up to the protests, the masses in fact showed that they were not welcome. So the government lost this argument.” But this blatant lying didn’t stop the SNS from passing on the blame. Shortly after that, outside forces were targeted, revitalising old school fear-mongering techniques from the time of Matić. Nikola knows a foreigner living in Belgrade who was taken away and accused of being MI6. “He was presented in the tabloids with a photo from his passport with all his private details. But he’s just a guy living in Belgrade”, Nikola emphasises. With Vučić’s history, it is understandable why Nikola is suspicious of these accusations. To him little has changed. “Every once in a while the story is refreshed” he says, “but the threat of an outside enemy always remains strong.”

Vučić is also no stranger to attacking and discouraging critics and during the Milošević period, he introduced a repressive law wherein journalists critical of the former government were fined. Now, he’s using the media to tarnish the character of the protestors who confront the government’s lies in handling the pandemic, labelling them “desperados and mercenaries”. There is an infamous story in Belgrade that Nikola refers to as an example: “A boy approached a journalist [during the protests]. She asked him ‘Why are you doing this?’ He said ‘I’m doing this for my father. They say there are more than enough respirators, that no one is waiting in the hallways and that everyone has a bed’. But his father was waiting too long to receive a respirator and died, even though he was a healthy man before corona. Later the tabloids put all their attention towards verbally destroying this poor kid.”

Not all the protestors had such a personal connection to the government’s poor pandemic response as this young man. In fact the protestors were such an eclectic group that it is almost illogical to see them fighting side by side. Small right-wing groups, left-wing groups, centrists, students, Orthodox priests and football hooligans, all with different agendas, but united by their goal of ousting Vućič. Some, as Nikola describes, were just “losers-of-transition”, a term used to describe people who suffered and never recovered from the transitional, post-communist period. “There are various motives”, Nikola continues, “national dissatisfaction, economic reasons, and ethnic reasons”. This final reason has been at the forefront of the nationalist, far-right side of the protests and explains why members of Serbia’s right wing and even his former supporters have taken to the street against him.

The main issue at the heart of Serbia’s nationalism is Kosovo, a disputed territory that Belgrade views as Serbian. As part of his EU-friendly rebranding, Vućič promised to resolve the Kosovo crisis and acknowledge the Albanian majority state as an independent country. Last year, President Trump appointed the controversial Richard Grenell as the Chief Meditator in the Kosovo peace negotiations to come to an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, which many hard-line nationalists are vehemently against “because keeping Kosovo as anything other than 100 per cent Serbian, at least in their minds, is betrayal.” As such, far-right groups, including football-hooligans, joined in the protests, singing “13th century songs about Kosovo being the heart of Serbia.” Nikola admits that demonstrating alongside them was “difficult to swallow” but he recognises their need as an ally to defeat Vućič. It’s not ideal, but Nikola states that “this is the reality, you operate with what you have.” What he really believes is necessary is a militant left, which would not only be able to overthrow Vućič but ensure that the far-right don’t fill the vacuum instead. However, no such group currently exists. Instead the left is dominated by students, which Nikola is heavily critical of.

“The students that were running the protests showed no audacity in certain moments, no charisma, no political intentions. Sometimes relatively good ethics, but they were too pacifist from the start. They were just trying to establish communication with formal groups and parties not the regular people. It started to seem more exclusive, like petty bourgeoisie ‘good kids’ trying to be revolutionary. They know they don’t have the guts, physical endurance or organisation skills because this requires risks.” He describes a Ghandi style sit down that was organised, however emphasises that “Vućič cannot be overthrown in elections, it can only be by force. No sit-downs will ever give a result.” This soft approach, in Nikola’s eyes, may explain why the protests never really developed. According to one count, at its peak, there were only 7000 protestors. Compared to the hundreds of thousand who demonstrated against Milošević in the October Overthrow of 2000, partially burning down the parliament and forcing Milošević to step down, these protests seem anodyne and ineffective.

Times have changed and Nikola reflects on the why these protests are different to the revolution 20 years ago. “Some people are too drained out and do not have faith in themselves which is quite logical,” he concludes. “They lost everything, they’re much older; there is no vibe, no spirit.” There was also “the return of everyone from Milošević’s’ regime in late 2003 and early 2004” [apart from Milošević himself] which partly undermined the revolution and lowered morale. Many instead have opted to leave Serbia. “In the last 10 years or so, you have constant migration of about 50,000 people per year,” Nikola states. Naturally emigration results in a brain drain, which doesn’t help a country, particularly when strength, energy and intelligence are required, and having a constantly shifting society hinders not only advancement but also the ability to form strong political movements. Effectively, “these are the people that could be an opposition”, however they have ended up in countries like Germany or Sweden where there are more opportunities.

Nikola is not optimistic about the future. The pandemic will result in a worsening economic situation, which he thinks will “increase the negative energy and accumulate in bitterness and depression.” However he hopes that this negativity could materialise into a beneficial outcome. “The concern is how to accumulate energy from this dissatisfaction so that it doesn’t disperse but to have a more partisan guerrilla operation in a tactical element.” Nikola predicts that there could very well be fresh protests later this year if more people lose their jobs. “If 7000 shook them up now, in autumn if there’s maybe 20,000 out of which 40 per cent are normal and brave people, we shall see what this brings.”

Serbia’s future is unknown, but Nikola makes his biggest fears clear. “If nothing happens now, then in the future [Vučić] might declare himself as a Tsar to rule to the end of his life and then have emperors and authorities transferred to his son to be king. It is very possible.” Whether or not this will happen is debatable, however as Vučić’s grip tightens on the country, we may realise too late that the tall, bespectacled leader once seen as a fresh democratic face may instead drag Serbia back to its dark, autocratic past.

Photographs courtesy of NNK.