This story was originally published by the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC), part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished by Global Voices with permission.
“Everything has to stop” is one of the slogans of protests that hit Serbia in recent weeks. And that’s exactly what happened. Besides the traffic, as if time stood still, people stopped as well, side by side, in such large numbers for the first time since the fall of the regime of Slobodan Milošević in the 2000s.
Images of Belgrade’s boulevards soon began to circulate around the world, becoming the subject of all kinds of symbolism and illustrations, including Gustav Klimt’s famous painting, Poppy Field, used by historian Agustin Cosovschi to evoke the current atmosphere in the Serbian capital.
Flowers by Klimt / protests in Belgrade pic.twitter.com/9WAbK7NlsT
— Agustín Cosovschi (@cosovschi) May 14, 2023
The protests were triggered by the tragedy that befell the Belgrade elementary school, Vladislav Ribnikar, where nine children and a security guard died. This tragedy also represents the backbone of a society in which violence prevails, and it resulted in weeks of protests that began to spread across Serbia in a domino effect.
On May 8, the first protest was organized under the slogan “Serbia against violence,” formed as a response to the aforementioned school tragedy and the mass murder that occurred just one day after. During the second shooting spree in the nearby municipalities of Mladenovac and Smederevo, eight more young people were killed, and 15 were injured.
In the past 10 years, various forms of violence that are present in every segment of life have become a standard feature of public communication in Serbian society. The culture of violence has been “normalized” on national TV and radio frequencies, media, reality programs, in the family, in educational institutions, in parliament, and even in the statements of high state officials.
Ne gledaju TV… pic.twitter.com/Oz3KkCSeHl
— Slobodan Georgiev (@SlobaGeorgiev) May 7, 2023
Tweet: They don't watch TV.
Photos: Milomir Marić, host of several programs on Happy TV (top)
Jovana Jeremić, host of reality show Parovi and morning program on Pink TV(bottom left)
Lav Grigorije Pajkić, TV personality and MP from the ruling SNS party (bottom right)
The protests united citizens against this trend. They were organized with the help of the opposition, although without an official leader. Since May 8, protests have been held every week with a progressive increase in the number of people, which is unofficially reported to exceed 150,000.
“Samo zajedno možemo napred”, ti u zatvor, a mi ćemo se već nekako snaći.
video courtesy of Beli Bombarder. pic.twitter.com/JhGM2NsXmD
— Stevanović Vladimir (@VladimirStev) June 4, 2023
Tweet: “Only together we can go forward” [quote by president Vučić, and response:] yes, you will go forward to jail, and we'll manage somehow on our own.
Video curtesy of Beli Bombarder.
The government, through the pro-regime media, tried to discredit, devalue, and then mock the number of people at the protests. Pro-government media such as TV Pink reported that there were no more than 2,000 people at the protests, while others such as Telegraf, Informer, kept publishing pictures of about 10 protesters. The editor of the Informer portal regularly reported in his and other media that there were only a few protesters on the streets and that the opposition was trying to abuse the tragedy. In addition, the president himself, Aleksandar Vučić, as well as the prime minister, Ana Brnabić, published a photo showing a crowd, mockingly claiming it was photoshopped.
This resulted in the mobilization of even more of the population, and protests became widespread throughout the nation. On May 10, a protest was held in Niš, with protesters demanding resignations, as well as the abolition of several violence-filled tabloids. Then there was a renewed protest in Belgrade on May 12 with the same message. On May 13, the protest spread to Kragujevac under the slogan “Serbia has risen.”
With the help of farmers, roads were blocked in the suburban areas of Novi Sad, Subotica, Zrenjanin, Nova Pazova, Rača, Požarevac, Kraljevo, and many other cities. Farmers joined the protests on May 16, with additional demands concerning their poor economic situation, addressed directly to the prime minister. On May 17, the farmers’ protest was expanded to include Starcevo, Omoljice, Bavaniste, Mrcajevci, Bogatici and many other mainly agricultural areas. These protests continued on May 18 and 19, after which a framework agreement was concluded meeting certain demands.
The response of the ruling coalition run by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by President Vučić, to the protest movement “Serbia against violence” was to stage counter-protests.
On May 19, a counter-protest rally was organized in Pančevo, which brought together supporters of the SNS to express their support for the president and announce a large rally for May 26 under the slogan “Serbia of hope.” Meanwhile, protests by citizens and the opposition continued in Belgrade and Užice, with a significant number of protesters.
On May 26, the major SNS-organized counter-protest was held in Belgrade. This event included painstaking efforts to use all methods of gathering citizens available to the authorities. This mobilization included free bus transportation and food for participants from all parts of Serbia, and even Serbs from abroad including North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Republika Srpska in Bosnia. SNS even engaged a company to hire movie extras which offered paid engagements for just a few hours spent at the rally. However, the turnout was disappointing as President Vučić had previously announced that it would be “the largest gathering ever in Serbia.”
Those who were not willing to attend the rally faced dismissals, blackmail, and other types of discrimination, as indicated by numerous sources. On the other hand, there were also attempts to prevent SNS supporters from going to the rally, such as an incident of puncturing bus tyres in Čačak, accompanied by insulting messages.
According to pro-regime portals, the rally “Serbia of hope” gathered about 200,000 citizens, while photos indicate significantly smaller numbers than at the “Serbia against violence” protests. Opposition portals report that around 50,000 supporters attended the rally of Aleksandar Vučić, who in his final speech emphasized that he was stepping down as party president in order to found a new movement.
Speeches were also given by the Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó, and Milan Knežević, an opposition politician from Montenegro who is a Serbian nationalist, as well as other known SNS supporters. What is interesting is that Dačić's speech rehabilitated the character and work of Slobodan Milošević, as a great politician and a man whose politics must be followed.
Given that the demands of the opposition protest “Serbia against violence” were still not met, the protests continued on May 27, just one day after the SNS rally. This protest aimed to encircle the building of public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) and, despite the rain, gathered a large number of citizens. Demonstrators demanded the resignation of the RTS leadership and objective reporting on the protests.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the breaking news of RTS, Dnevnik 2, began with reporting on the protest for the first time. Other demands included: the dismissal of members of the Regulatory Agency for Electronic Media (REM), confiscation of national frequencies from Pink and Happy television stations, cancellation of reality shows and other programs that promote violence, the shutdown of tabloids that propagate violence and violate the code of journalists, the resignation of the minister of police, as well as the director of the security information agency.
The next “Serbia against violence” protest, originally scheduled for Friday, June 2, was postponed to Saturday, June 3 in order to avoid coinciding with a rally organized by extremist right-wing groups announced during their highway blockade on May 29. Afterwards, this rally dedicated to Kosovo was rescheduled for June 3. Opposition MP Radomir Lazović warned that the right-wing protest aimed to make the civic protests pointless and create chaos and confusion, claiming that the organizers are under the direct control of the president, who wanted to break up the most massive protests in the past 20 years. Opposition MP Pavle Grbović also pointed out that the right-wing-organised protest named “Stop violence against Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija” used slogans and methods very similar to protests against violence, but without the same aim.
The fifth “Serbia against violence” protest was held on June 3 in front of the Serbian Presidency. Tens of thousands gathered and made clear demands, and, for the first time, an objective broadcast about the protest was aired on RTS. There was a violent incident caused by the right-wing organization “Local Patrol,” whose members attacked and injured a foreign citizen during the protest. The same organization attacked opposition activist Savo Manojlović at previous protests. The most famous representatives of this informal extreme right-wing group are Damnjan Knežević and Ilija Vuksanović, who were often seen at protests with signs of the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group.
At the time of publishing this article, the civic and opposition protests in Serbia, whose ultimate goal is ending the culture of violence stemming from the language and methods of the ruling elites in Serbia — led by President Vučić — are continuing despite smear and disinformation campaigns by the ruling party.