Serbian protests (2018–present)
|Serbian protests, 2018–present|
|Stop the Bloody Shirts!|
One of Five million
One of the symbols of 2018-2019 protest depicting hashtag One of Five million
|Date||December 8, 2018 - present|
|Methods||Demonstrations, civil disobedience, civil resistance|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
In late 2018, a series of peaceful protests against Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and his governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) began to take place in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, soon spreading to cities across the country. The protests were precipitated by an assault on an opposition politician Borko Stefanović in November 2018.
Since the 2000 mass unrests that ended Milošević's rule, major opposition protests had been relatively rare in Serbia. The country was ruled by a succession of pro-Western coalitions until 2012 when Vučić's SNS formed a coalition government with the Socialist Party of Serbia. The protests commencing in 2018 have been the third series of such mass demonstrations in three years. The previous series of protests took place in 2017 and were also directed at Vučić and his party, denouncing SNS's perceived domination of the media and voicing concern regarding claims of voter intimidation. The 2016 protests were similarly in part also directed against Vučić.
Vučić became Prime Minister after a snap election was called in 2014. He was a longtime member of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, leading to fears that he would "succumb to the temptations of authoritarianism" after his accession to the premiership in 2014. As head of SNS, Vučić however tended to embrace more politically moderate conservative populist and pro-European values, steering government policy toward an eventual entry into the European Union while also maintaining close ties with Russia and China. However, particularly since being elected President in 2017, Vučić had "amassed more power, silenced the press, and undermined opposition", displaying increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Furthermore, Serbia's press freedom rankings decreased sharply during Vučić's rule, with the European parliament admonishing the government to "improve the situation regarding freedom of expression and freedom of the media".
The protests were prompted by an assault on Borko Stefanović, leader of the small opposition party Serbian Left. Stefanović was attacked by multiple assailants wielding steel rods on November 23, 2018. Stefanović, speaking to a New York Times reporter, said he was struck in the head from behind and knocked unconscious, after which the attackers continued battering him with strikes to the head, leading him to conclude the attack was in fact a failed assassination attempt. A day after the attack, Stefanović displayed his bloodied shirt from the night of the attack at a press conference. The image later became a symbol of the protests, with protesters carrying signs and rallying under the slogan "No More Bloody Shirts" / "Stop the Bloody Shirts". Following the assault, members of the opposition asserted that the attackers (multiple suspects were arrested shortly thereafter but denied any involvement) had ties to the ruling party, or that the assault was a result of hateful and vitriolic rhetoric used by the government against its opponents.
On December 11, the house of investigative journalist Milan Jovanović was shot up and bombarded by Molotov cocktails.The attack on the journalist (who "narrowly escaped") further fueled the protests. Jovanović believes that the attack was related to his reporting on corruption in the municipality.
The protests have been organised by various students and activists, along with the Alliance for Serbia, a loose alliance of various opposition parties and organisations. Prominent leaders of the protests have included actor Branislav Trifunović, and Jelena Anasonović, a political science student. The political background of protesters and organisers is diverse, with both far-left, liberal, moderate, and far-right nationalist factions voicing opposition to the government. The protests are formally headed by the group Protest Against Dictatorship which also organised similar protests in 2016.
The protests have been non-partisan in nature (despite opposition parties providing some logistical support), but some protesters and supporters have voiced consternation over the inefficacy of the political opposition, expressing concern that without a viable electoral outlet, the momentum of the protests will simply fizzle out.
The protesters have called for greater press freedom, greater political freedom and plurality, electoral reform, new elections, and more government transparency, and condemned what they perceive as Vučić's increasingly authoritarian tendencies (with manifestations including "hate speech" against opponents, suppression of dissenting voices, and mounting control over the country's media), while also accusing him of creating a climate of fear and violence, and the party he heads of being corrupt. Some protesters and prominent figures also called for Vučić's resignation.
- November 23, 2018 – the leader of a minor opposition party is thrashed by several assailants wielding metal rods.
- December 8, 2018 – the initial rally is held in Belgrade.
- December 11, 2018 – the home of an investigative journalist is shot up and attacked with firebombs.
- January 13, 2019 – rally in Belgrade for the sixth consecutive Saturday, rallies in several other cities.
- January 16, 2019 – protesters stage a candlelit vigil for Kosovan Serb politician assassinated in 2018 whose murder remained unsolved, demanding an inquiry.
- January 17, 2019 – Vučić meets Russian President Putin in a lavish reception that critics label a publicity stunt and distraction. Tens of thousands of attendants are bused in, some are reportedly cajoled into attendance by material rewards or coerced by threatening firing.
- January 2019 – the protests have spread from the capital to several other cities, including Novi Sad, Niš, and several smaller towns.
- January 25, 2019 – Vučić announces an arrest of a mayor belonging to his party in connection to the attack on a journalist's home.
- February 6, 2019 – opposition presents and signs draft of the Agreement with the People. The document outlines plans for profound democratic reform and democratic principles in line with the demands of the protesters to which the opposition pledges to adhere. Opposition also declares intention to begin a boycott of legislative bodies/other assemblies "in which the regime has abolished democratic principles of parliamentarism".
- February 11, 2019 – parts of the parliamentary opposition vow to boycott parliament in an act of solidarity and support with the protesters, with at least 45 of the 250 members of parliament participating.
Responding to the protests, Vučić said that he would not compromise with the protesters "even if there were 5 million people in the street" (prompting protesters to adopt the slogan "One of Five Million" ("#1od5miliona")) but saying he would be willing to call a snap election. Both Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party maintain popularity of over 50% in spite of the protests, and opposition leaders have responded to Vučić's suggestions of an early election by committing to a boycott due to what they describe as "unfair conditions. One of the political opposition leaders justified the boycott plans by saying that no election can be considered legitimate until "normal conditions for elections and living are created". Instead, many of them have called for the institution of a technocratic transitional government which would serve for a period of 1 year after which elections would be held.
In an interview in late December, Vučić declared he was ready to discuss the protesters' demands, saying "I am ready to look at what causes dissent of the people".
In late January, Vučić announced the arrest a mayor (and a member of Vučić's SNS party) in connection to the attack on the journalist's home, saying "A party membership card will not save anyone from responsibility. Journalists will be protected no matter for whom they work for [sic] ... No one will be protected because of being a politician" while also promising a fiercer fight against political violence and cronyism, including legislative actions.
On January 17, 2019, President Vučić received visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin in a "lavish welcome" and a showing of friendship and mutual support. Tens of thousands of attendants were bused to Belgrade from across Serbia for an event that critics labeled a "popularity stunt" and a purposeful distraction from the protests. Indeed, many of those in the cheering crowd of 100,000 were said to have been "offered incentives to attend, including five liters of milk", while others were said to have been threatened with firing by bosses should they choose not to attend, according to media reports. It was also speculated that the reception was an attempt by Vučić to placate and shore up support of conservative pro-Russian sections of the population who are concerned about the pro-European tendencies of the President and his government.
The ceremony was staged at the same location where, just a day prior, tens of thousands of protesters marched for a candlelight vigil to honour the death of Oliver Ivanović, a moderate Serb politician that was assassinated in broad daylight in Kosovo in 2018. The vigil was organised by the same groups that were spearheading the ongoing anti-Vučić protests; the unsolved murder had become a "rallying point" for the protesters, signifying the repressive and sometimes violent political atmosphere of the region.
- Kosovo is the subject of a territorial dispute between the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia. The Republic of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence on 17 February 2008, but Serbia continues to claim it as part of its own sovereign territory. The two governments began to normalise relations in 2013, as part of the Brussels Agreement. Kosovo is recognized as an independent state by 103 out of 193 United Nations member states.
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