Prateek Srivastava, Executive Director & Senior Advisor - Inequalities
Protestors in front of the Serbian Parliament in Belgrade, Serbia, Photo credits: EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC
Just last week the world came together to mourn the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, where Bosnian Serb forces set out to ethnically cleanse around 8,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys. As the world collectively recognised it as the worst crime on European soil since the second world war, it also quickly turned away the eyes from the region’s ongoing crises.
A new bout of violence rocked Serbia in the first week of July, in addition to the ongoing pandemic and restrictions by the government. Massive protests followed by violence have disrupted everyday peace and harmony in the nation's capital and other major cities. Although this is not the first time in recent years that violence has erupted over demands of justice, however it is certainly surprising given the global conditions. Thousands of people held protests against the president and his government, initially triggered by his plans to re-enforce a lockdown but are now raging towards a much deeper concern. Despite the ban on large gatherings, people rallied across Belgrade and other cities. Although earlier framed like a protest against the reinforcement of lockdown, the issues that have raged people to step out of their homes and ask for their rights are much more severe.
A country that saw brutal war ending up in the breakup of Yugoslavia, and suffered mass destruction of infrastructure. A nation that built its name again from the ruins of what once was a peaceful union, Serbia’s rise to democracy and designation as a hub of commerce and culture has certainly been remarkable.
The trouble in the Balkans today is not Russian or U.S. meddling, though there is some of that, but a special case of unchecked executive power, erosion of the rule of law, and pervasive economic insecurity. Serbia is already in the midst of several things, from the EU-Kosovo settlement, rising levels of corruption and the new COVID-19 pandemic, that has clouded most of the issues under it.
A democracy is judged by the free and fair flow of information, where a government is by the people, for the people and of the people. This article touches upon the recent protests and violence in Serbia and its linkage to a much larger problem, that the world has so far ignored.
Citizens hit the streets of Belgrade and other major cities of Serbia after the elections were held on June 21 and when the talks of reinforcement of lockdown started hitting the headlines. Protesters, some wore masks, walked in front of the important buildings in the capital city, occasionally calling for President Vučić to step down. Similar peaceful protests followed in the cities of Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Cacak, and Nis. Although started peacefully, these protests turned violent by July 8th, with several injured as clashes erupted between groups of protesters and police. Authorities claimed that protesters threw projectiles including flares, stones, bottles, and eggs, and tried to enter the parliament in rage. These protests have now drawn much larger attention, especially from the European Union as the peace talks about Kosovo-Serbia are currently undergoing.
Serbia’s chief epidemiologist, Predrag Kon, said that the protests showed how people felt about the lockdown. Similar narratives were followed by several media wires and newspapers across the continent, however, the case appears to be different. So how did the situation get here?
Elections, COVID-19 and the Controversy
Photo Credit: EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC
These demonstrations were initially over the frustration of economically stifling measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, however, soon evolved into anti-government rallies. Protesters and critics of Vučić claimed that his government lifted the state of emergency to hold an election, and deliberately let the situation of the massive spread of COVID-19 crises spin out of hand. Serbia is the first country in Europe to hold elections since the start of the pandemic, however, it didn’t go as planned.
The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has been in power since 2012 and Aleksandar Vučić has been the President since 2017. SNS is known to be a conservative and right-wing populist political party and has been adopting distinct pro-European Policies. This election saw a very different tone than the ones held before, a strong sense of rush to attain power leading to boycott from several. Reading it piece by piece, the parliamentary elections were initially organized for 26 April 2020, however later were postponed by a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Numerous parliamentary and non-parliamentary political parties boycotted the elections, including Alliance for Serbia Party, a major opposition coalition. Initially, the boycotting of elections was on the claims of the freedom of the press being held back and the economic instability that was further disturbed by the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but further everyone pointed out the not so fair and free elections that were being held in the middle of a pandemic. Vučić’s government on May 22, declared a “victory over coronavirus” and cancelled most of its restrictive measures, including curfews. Lola, a Serbian national says - that the ruling party, SNS stated in their campaign commercial word for word that "we beat COVID-19, it's time to leave the house and resume our regular lives."
The elections held on June 21 resulted in a massive win for Vučić’s Progressive Party with 60.65 percent of votes in their favor, which extended its rule for four more years. This election saw the lowest participation in the ballots since 1990. No strict measures were in place during the elections, except for wearing a mask.
Serbian President, and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Aleksandar Vucic Picture Credit: ALEKSANDAR DIMITRIJEVIC / A
Football and tennis matches were allowed, clubs and restaurants were open, also a few concerts and religious festivals. All restrictions on entry into Serbia were also uplifted in May, and people didn’t have to go into a mandatory self-isolation for 28 days. Lola added, “Speaking of people who entered Serbia, the president stated, mid-March that his biggest mistake in handling the crisis was letting people come back into the country and those people, including myself were blamed for the spread of the disease. This rhetoric was used for over two weeks until he realized (my guess) that the same people are still going to be in Serbia for the elections due to other countries keeping their borders closed, so he spun the rhetoric and said how the same people are an asset to the country as they can invest and better the economy.”
Vlado, a Nis based student, says - “I kinda saw it coming, as these restrictions were lifted and the election date was decided in a matter of 24 hrs. It was obvious that the cases will go up as people are not gonna sit in their homes when bars and restaurants and games are all open. We all knew that he was doing this to make it look okay for him to hold elections.”
Several claimed that these restrictions were lifted and activities were allowed to follow so that elections could be held, as “if you permit political activities, you have to allow work of restaurants, clubs, freedom of movement and even football matches.”
No one expected anything apart from what the elections resulted in. The author reached out to a former journalist, who stated, “No campaign, no marketing, but we all knew who is gonna win the elections.” It is important to point out that this is not the first time the region has seen the use of a pandemic for electoral purposes. Professor Zoran Radovanović claims, when the smallpox outbreak happened in 1972, the Yugoslavian government prematurely eased measures deliberately so that the elections could take place.
The Protests of July 2020
Citizens hit the streets of Belgrade and other major cities of Serbia after the elections were held on June 21 and when the talks of reinforcement of lockdown measures started hitting the headlines. Large gatherings of people started peacefully, but slowly resulted in violent clashes with police. Violence later spread to other cities, including Novi Sad, where protesters hurled firebombs and smashed the office windows of Vučić’s ruling Progressive Party. While most protesters were peaceful and chanted slogans, it was reported that hooligans and extremists mixed with the protesters, and aimed to destroy property and create conflicts with the police resulting in a shadow over the revolt of angry citizens. Protesters mainly demanded Vučić’s resignation and smashed shop windows and set police cars on fire, while smaller groups rallied peacefully. Protesters in Belgrade also rallied around major governmental buildings and tried to enter the Parliament. Reportedly, Belgrade riot officers used tear gas to disperse mostly right-wing demonstrators in a resumption of the biggest outbreak of violence.
It is being widely reported that these protests are being held due to the prospect of a renewed lockdown, as cases escalated in the past few days. The government previously announced that it may consider imposing a curfew and restrictions on gatherings and everyday activities. Which according to the government have resulted in these protests? Is this the case?
Lola says, “I believe that the protests that are going on in many Serbian cities are a result of years of lies and manipulation of the masses. Even though the world is suffering and a pandemic is at its peak, the people who were silent and oppressed for months had no other way of expressing their anger and frustration with the current administration.”
Adding to Lola’s point, for most ordinary citizens, the biggest issue is as always, the economy. The past few years have seen a massive rise in unemployment, over half a million. Also, since the SNS party came to power, the method for measuring the unemployment rate has changed twice, leading to conflicting statistics. According to the Global Integrity report, corruption levels are perceived to be high and public trust in key institutions remains low. Hence the notion of asking for a fair and free way of choosing the governments remains a very vital need for people of the country.
Vlado adds, “For me, a proper way of living, income security, jobs opportunities is what matters the most. These elections, that happened without even a solid yes of everyone, has taken away my very right to put my word forward. This election was a game of chess where I, and many like me, have lost a voice for next few years. So what should we do, just sit quiet? Hence I stand in full support of the protests. We have had it with everything with lies and disguises and what not.”
When asked about the recent win, the former journalist added, “ Yes they won, but many across the nation boycotted the elections, which shows not all are in agreement of this administration. People who voted for them saw the so-called win over coronavirus as a positive thing. The narrative of this win was so widely publicized, this had to add somewhere. They also gloated about the EU mediated talks between us and Kosovo, that added to some votes as well.”
Lewin (1935) explains this phenomenon by stating that the valence of regions is thus closely related to the state of the needs, and any change in direction and intensity of needs leads to an increase of positive valence of some regions and a concomitant decrease of negative valence of others, thereby altering the field of forces that ultimately determines action (locomotion) and thinking (cognitive structure). Inner needs and past experience will charge certain regions of the political life space with positive valence and others with negative valence, setting up a field of forces directing voting action. This phenomenon was widely used in elections in serbia in 2012, 2017 and in 2020. These elections are seen to be very controversial for a number of reasons. Major cities reported several irregularities. For example, the city of Novi Sad, at the polling station No 172, ruling party activists organised transport to and from the polling station, while the screen inside was set so that the whole voting process was visible. Secondly, in the city of Novi Beograd, members of the electoral committee reportedly telephoned voters and asked them to vote for “a particular list”, reminding them that the ruling party “had paid for their schooling.”
Several unsigned reports from polling stations were also reported, providing evidence to doubt the validity and results of the elections in general. Under Article 75 of the Law on the Election of Members of the Parliament of Serbia, the record has to be signed by all members of the electoral committee.
Journalist Milenko Vasovic reported that many electoral committees were under the illegal control of coordinators from the Serbian Progressive Party, while blackmailed voters had to use mobile phones to take pictures.
The reports of providing transports to voters to polling stations also add to the suspicion that these groups received some form of “stimulation”, either in terms of products or money, which is forbidden and punishable. The president and his government have described the protests “political” and said they had “nothing to do with the coronavirus.”and have dismissed those claims of deliberate attempt to spin out the COVID-19 situation out of hand as "senseless." The government has been blaming the protests for the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases and a possible return of the ‘state of emergency’ throughout the nation. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case and is not in the favor of the president.
The following graph shows the numbers of cases of the COVID-19 virus in Serbia, from March to July 2020. The state of emergency was declared on March 15, 2020, and the Chinese model (Curfew, mandatory isolation, lockdown, etc.) was adopted on 21 March. The state of emergency was removed on May 6 and around June 1, the narrative of “win over the virus” started circulating throughout the popular media, giving all credit to President Vučić and his party. A massive football derby took place in the second week of June, which was attended by about 25000 people, followed by elections and then protests that started around July 2nd.
Speaking at a press conference on Jul 07, Serbian Minister of the Interior Nebojša Stefanović described these protests as attacks on the police by protesters. Without specifying any identification, the minister said these protests are happening as “somebody needed the violence”, which is “the key to their politics”. Prime Minister Ana Brnabić stressed that there will be no “violent overthrow” of the Government, while the Minister of Defence Aleksandar Vulin described the protests as a coup attempt.
Importantly, there was (and is) no news of open dialogue or discussion to hear the demands of the people who are protesting. Also, as the government points out the violence against police and law enforcement officers, videos of brutal violence on citizens circulate all across the internet. The following video on Twitter shows a large number of policemen beating a man lying on the ground and not showing any resistance. Several videos of such kind have been circulating online. Youth Initiative for Human Rights, a Serbian NGO, called on the Interior Ministry and the Ombudsman on Wednesday to launch investigations into the excessive use of force by the police. They specially reported against the live telecasts of police attacking some people on TV N1, a widely popular news channel. It called for an investigation that would be fast, transparent, and thorough. Amnesty International reported Images of Serbian police firing tear gas and stun grenades indiscriminately into the crowd, and of protesters and bystanders being charged by mounted police and beaten by police in riot gear, raises serious concerns.
Picture Credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica
The government has called out the protesters and claimed that protesters are throwing tear gas on police, which is “obviously a lie...The amount of violence used by the provoked police was uncalled for.” says Lola.
Former Journalist added, “ Thanks to social media that this is not hitting the feeds of people. Yes, human rights are being violated. We do not have the freedom that the constitution gives us. However, after major suffering, people will speak up, and they are, but instead of having a dialogue, these people are met with beating and tear gas. However, the more sad part is that the world doesn’t seem to care, obviously, why will they, we are not the U.S.”
Unfortunately, the media outside the Balkans failed to report on these crimes. It wasn’t long ago when the whole world came together to fight police brutality and post pictures in the background of the George Floyd case, but in this case, a silent nerve runs through the world wide web, and people do not seem to know and up to some extent care.
Where does the Future Lie ?
Photo Credit: Reuters
The protests and other uprisings against the government have now slowed down as the ‘narrative’ has been changed to the raging cases of coronavirus due to these protests, which as discussed above, doesn’t make sense. The authoritarian government holds very tight control of the media and is often known to use it as propaganda to support pro-Europe, right-wing ideas. This case is no different. The former journalist added “ I applaud their efforts in muffing the noise of protests to something to do with the virus. It takes a lot to do that, a lot of control, which they have established very well.”
Serbia lands 99 on the scale of freedom of the press, as noted by Reporters Without Borders. There have also been cases of police attacking journalists of Nova.rs, even though they showed their press ID, this portal reported. So to what extent the news is being served impartially remains unknown.
It is certainly not the first protest of the year that has been calling for a fair and free democracy, nor is it the first to brutal violence and a web of lies. The more serious part is that these irregularities are taking place all across the world and nothing seems to fall in place for people who are actually in need of a proper reform of the governments.
Vlado says, “ Not sure where we are going, but I do know these cases and protests have opened the eyes of people who remained blind followers of right-wing populist narratives. Currently, it appears to be dark. With COVID-19 and the violence and everything, it doesn’t appear to be going somewhere, but surely there is a light beyond this tunnel.”
The future of Serbia’s free and fair democracy currently appears in the dark. Although people have been asking for re-election or other measures to be taken in this case, what will be done remains under a curtain. A curtain that people believe is made of lies.
Lola adds, “All I know is that I will be there to support and demand basic rights and services that a government should provide its citizens even though that would mean being poisoned by expired tear gas or even experiencing police brutality because there will be no change if there isn't a revolution… this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Prateek Srivastava is completing his Masters in International Politics from KU Leuven Belgium, is an incoming graduate student at CEU Department of History and did his undergraduate studies at the University of Cincinnati, USA. His research interests include violence, politics, religion and migration in South Asia. He was the Scripps Howard Communication Fellow for the World Affairs Council in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, reciving a grant of $2000. Prateek has published widely on South Asian politics, including his first book,Identity and Diaspora. The University of Cincinnati awarded him,Undergraduate Research Achievement Award in April 2019 for the same. Prateek is currently researching inequalities, ethnicity and violence with a special focus on media in South Asia.