“All as One – 1 out of 5 million”: Serbian protesters mobilise against growing authoritarian rule

Serbia heads to its sixth month of anti-government demonstrations against President Aleksandar Vučić, whom the critics are accusing of leading the country in an increasingly authoritarian and non-democratic way.

Hana Srebotnjak
7 May 2019, 12.01am
Serb protests under the slogan '1 of 5 million'. Photo by: Marija Janković. All rights reserved.

The protests were sparked by news of a brutal beating of opposition candidate Borko Stefanović, founder of Serbia’s left-wing party Levica Srbije, in the southern town of Kruševac last November. After Vučić infamously declared he would not give into protesters’ demands even if five million were to gather after the first organised rally in December, the protesters named their mobilisations, ‘Svi kao jedan - 1 od 5 miliona’ (All as one - 1 out of 5 million).

Their biggest concern are the means used by the current government to silence its opposition: the state has a severe lack of media freedom, alarmingly high levels of corruption and violence against political opposition, particularly verbal attacks, are a regular phenomena.

Vučić elections, situation in Serbia

Aleksandar Vučić became president of the country in 2017 through what his critics say have been ‘highly unfair’ elections. A former two-time prime minister as well as minister of defence, he has been the leader of the ruling conservative and populist SNS Party (Serbia’s Progressive Party) since 2012. During Slobodan Milošević’s authoritarian regime, which dragged Serbia into a bloody war against its ex-Yugoslav neighbours, Vučić also served as strongman’s Information Minister between 1998 and 2000.

Vučić’s 2017 presidential campaign was extremely corrupt. In exchange for votes people were offered careers, money, food and even ludicrous favours such as getting hold of marijuana for their children, as local photojournalist Marija Janković recounted.

The president’s clasp of the country today is enormous. Out of 170 municipalities and towns in the country, there are but six whose local self-governments are not led by an SNS majority: Šabac, Čajetina, Paraćin, Bosilegrad, Surdulica and Bujanovac. In Serbia today a medical doctor cannot be employed unless they are member of the SNS. This was the case in Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia (SFRY) where, in order to serve public posts, one had to be a member of the Communist Party, the only party that existed. Yet in a multi-party system, which Serbia supposedly is today, this of course is sectarian and unjustifiable.

Serbia has a severe lack of media freedom, alarmingly high levels of corruption and violence against political opposition, particularly verbal attacks, is a regular phenomenon.

Since 2012, Vučić has not participated in a single political dual debate on television, including in the pre-election period. Moreover, Serbia’s five national media stations are now under his strict personal control impeding the possibility of opposing ideas to circulate in the country.

Fake news is thriving. According to Janković, in 2018 between 300 and 400 fake news stories were published on the front page of government controlled newspapers, including smear campaigns against current demonstrations with certain tabloids such as ‘Pink’, ‘Alo’, ‘Informer’ and ‘Srpski Telegraf’ claiming that the protesters are planning to kill the president.

Current extent of media control in the country is strikingly reminiscent of Milošević’s regime, which the Serbs toppled in 2000 with wide international support. "The Bulldozer revolution” –or “the October 5 Revolution”, as it became known in Serbia, ended with Milošević being handed over to the Hague in 2001 where he was tried on war crime charges by the International Criminal Court of Yugoslavia. Milošević died in his cell in 2006 however, before his trial could be completed.

Serbia and the European Union

President Vučić, formerly a nationalist politician, has been attempting to remake himself as a liberal and pro-European Union candidate while maintaining the country’s traditional ties with Russia. Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009 and Vučić has been actively working towards fulfilling the country’s accession agreements.

One of the main requirements for Serbia’s accession into the EU has been the stabilisation of its relation with Kosovo. As part of EU-mediated talks, Serb and Kosovar politicians are currently trying to agree on a re-drawing of Kosovo’s borders, which would mean that the country’s Serb-dominated region surrounding the city of Mitrovica would go to Serbia, and Serbia’s predominantly Albanian Preševo valley would go to Kosovo.

The president’s clasp of the country today is enormous. Out of 170 municipalities and towns in the country only six local self-governments are not led by an SNS majority.

Kosovo, a former Serb province, was an ‘autonomous socialist province’ under SFRY. It was granted further autonomy in 1974, which aggravated the Serb faction of the Yugoslav Federation. In 1989 Milošević unilaterally revoked Kosovo’s autonomy, an act that became one of the triggers for the eventual break-up of Yugoslavia.

Serbia’s relation to Kosovo has been a political conflict with great symbolic connotation, which culminated in a highly asymmetrical war between 1998 and 1999 and included ethnic cleansing of both Kosovar Albanians and Kosovo Serbs. In 1999 NATO bombed several Serbian and Kosovar targets, thus ending the conflict on the surface, and in 2008 Kosovo eventually declared its independence. It has since been recognised by 118 countries, which include the US (but not Russia nor China), and most European states, with the significant exceptions of Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia.

Any successful dialogue with Kosovo will eventually have to lead to Serbia’s recognition of the country, which has angered the ultranationalist faction of the protests while others have criticised Vučić for using his position on Kosovo as a political tool to ensure the support of the EU and his position in power.

1 of 5_2.jpg
Serb protesters gather in Belgrade. Photo by: Marija Janković. All rights reserved.

The future of the protests

Many protesters have been determined in their mobilisation, recalling the strength of “the Bulldozer Revolution” when anti-war protests finally ousted president Milošević in 2000.

So far the demonstrations have been relatively peaceful. On March 16 some of the protesters - predominantly far-right factions including the leader of the extreme-right Party Dveri - occupied the Radio Television of Serbia’s headquarters, the country’s public broadcaster, to demand airtime to voice their opinions. Police arrested around 7 protesters amongst them also Pavle Cvejić, an 18-year old pupil of Belgrade’s Filological gymnasium. On the following day the protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace demanding that the demonstrators be released. The riot police responded using tear gas to disperse the protesters and arrested around ten further people according to local witnesses.

Some have also been skeptical about the potential success of the protests, which, as they say, lack sustainable organisation. Indeed, as of now the protesters have but one point in common: whom they are mobilising against. Demonstrations have brought together people with various different opinions including the extreme-left and extreme-right. The latter’s participation, which amongst other is also severely anti-LGBT (in protests one can for example hear chants such as ‘Vučić = Faggot!’) has alienated many, particularly the young.

Far-right groups have been particularly keen at giving a structure to the protests, and many have lamented the fact that they are trying to co-opt the demonstrations for their own benefit.

Moreover, although some have praised the protests for lifting the youths out of their apathy, their lack of participation in the protests is glaring. Many young people in the country simply do not believe that the situation will change or that it concerns them, as a great deal are looking to emigrate from the country instead.

Since 2012 at least 320,000 people have already left the country of 7 million.

A 2018 survey conducted by a local organisation Srbija 21 showed that 22% of interviewees wanted to leave Serbia, identifying low standard of living, low pay and bad situation in the country as main reasons for leaving.

Out of these the biggest part is represented by people aged 18 to 29, which represent the 34% that responded they would like to emigrate from Serbia. In point of fact, one of the slogans widely circulated in the current protests is “As soon as I graduate, I emigrate”.

Far-right groups have been particularly keen at giving a structure to the protests, and many have lamented the fact that they are trying to co-opt the demonstrations for their own benefit.

Meanwhile protests have also been taking place in Albania and Montenegro. It is clear that the people of the region have become tired of the old way of doing politics and the status quo they have lived in since the end of the Yugoslav Wars. While democratic practices become eroded, crime flourishes and for many being a part of the EU is the only way out.

At the same time, it is precisely the promise of a future EU membership, which the Union has been using to influence political shifts in the region that is holding these states in a limbo. Without any clear answers on behalf of the EU it is unlikely that this will prove a viable path for the non-member ex-Yugoslav states much longer. Moreover, there is the fear that vague promises will only further augment the already widespread anti-western sentiment in the region.

The 1990s Yugoslav Wars gained widespread international attention but soon after the peace agreements were signed the ex-Yugoslav countries disappeared from the radar once again. Exhausted by the war, international isolation - particularly in the case of Serbia -, facing a severe brain drain and critically low standards of living while living on the edge of the European Union, the people of Western Balkan states have a right to be exhausted by their situation. The problem is when a few, who have actively fostered the status quo, can make great gains from the hardship of others.

This article has been produced in partnership with CIVICUS in the context of the International Civil Society Week conference 2019, held this year in Belgrade, Serbia.

The partnership developed a blog for the ICSW 2019 that is not particularly Latin American but tackles Global Civil Society which is one of DA’s thematic axis.

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