When Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić announced the reintroduction of Belgrade’s curfew on July 7, it was hard to hide the reaction that immediately welled up in the bottom of the stomach: Does he really take us for such fools?
In March and April, Vučić’s government had introduced rigorous measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, including the complete closure of the entire country. But then it decided, practically overnight, to lift almost all restrictions. Suspicions quickly arose that the reason for the sudden easing of measures was the national and municipal elections scheduled for June 21. These well-founded suspicions only deepened when the epidemiologist Predrag Kon — a member of the government’s crisis staff charged with suppressing COVID-19 — addressed the public less than twenty-four hours after polls closed. Even before the ballots had been counted, Kon went public with the information that the situation in Belgrade was “once again threatening.”
The next day, the crisis staff convened an emergency session, which introduced new measures to fight the resurgence of the epidemic. Information soon surfaced that the health care system of the southern town of Novi Pazar was on the verge of collapse and that large numbers of people were dying every day. Journalists from the independent Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) also published a study showing that the number of deaths from coronavirus far exceeded the statistical indicators that had been made public by the government.
Even if we accept the official statistics as completely accurate, it is difficult to shake the impression that the elections were the trigger for the reemergence of the epidemic. Instead of taking responsibility for their decisions, the authorities, for the umpteenth time, shifted the blame onto citizens. Messaging from both the president’s office and the government tells us that the population have been “undisciplined” — thereby trying to offset the widespread criticism directed at the crisis staff.
On July 2, Vučić announced a new tightening of measures to deal with COVID-19, which included the closure of student dormitories. Students reacted incredibly quickly, mobilizing and taking to the streets that very same evening. Already by the next morning, the minister of education, Mladen Šarčević, had been forced to backtrack. He announced that the president had the wrong information: there would be no closure of the dormitories, and students would be given an extended deadline on their exams.
It’s rare that the Serbian public get to hear that Vučić slipped up — and even rarer that protests have been successful. This precedent electrified the atmosphere in Belgrade, creating the conditions for a new protest. The July 7 announcement of a new curfew, regardless of its justification, sparked a second revolt. That evening, several thousand people took to the streets of the capital to express their discontent.
At first scattered and maintaining distance from one another in front of the National Assembly, protesters quickly began to press onto the stairs leading up to the building, densely packed in a crowd. After several hours of peaceful protest, things began to escalate. Several participants broke through the police cordon and entered the hall of the Assembly but were expelled relatively quickly. Tear gas was fired, and the clash between police and demonstrators turned into a chase through the central city’s streets and parks.
Protests have been taking place every evening since July 7. From the beginning, two things have been noticeable. The first is that the protests have no clear political articulation. However, they have been dominated by the iconography and slogans that are characteristic of the far right, which has filled the vacuum and dictated both the tempo and the narrative of the past few weeks.
Since they were first sparked by the introduction of the new curfew, there has been an attempt by the far right to rearticulate the protests as being over Kosovo, against migrants, against vaccines, and then against the 5G network.
The rapid intensification of violence gave rise to suspicions that this had not been an organic development, but rather one provoked by outside elements. In recent years, a large number of mass rallies have taken place in Belgrade — from those organized by the Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own initiative in 2016, through the so-called protests against Vučić’s dictatorship in 2017 to the “1 in 5 Million” marches that took place last year. None of these gatherings were marked by violence. Even among the most spontaneous demonstrations, there was a noticeable absence of police.
The current protests are a novelty, in this sense. The kind of violence that the police have dealt out has not been seen in Serbia for a long time. The large amounts of tear gas, the attacks on peaceful and passive participants, the use of horses and armored vehicles of the Special Anti-Terrorist Units on the streets, are only some of the aspects that set these current protests apart from the Serbian norm.
And as much as some of those present liked this adrenaline kick, a significant portion of the protesters did not find daily conflicts with police the most desirable scenario.
Already after the first evening, rumors began to circulate that the violence was in fact instigated by the state security services. The reason for this isn’t entirely clear. It could be the obvious attempt by provocateurs to incite a conflict to give the police legitimacy to use force against the protesters. The result would be a further pacification of the peaceful part of the protest but also the delegitimization of every subsequent gathering.
Or, considering the fact that President Vučić was supposed to participate in EU-organized international talks over Kosovo, the violence of the protests and the aggressive right-wing narrative that predominated therein could be intended to serve as a lever in the negotiations. With Vučić seemingly under pressure from the Right inside Serbia, the pressure on him from outside to make concessions over Kosovo would be somewhat decreased.
The government has also played on theories about the infiltration of provocateurs. Media close to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party published reports that opposition leaders and “foreign services” were behind the violence. However, given that the extreme right and football hooligans have become aligned with the governing party — a fact widely reported in the media — if there really were right wing provocateurs in the protests, then they are more likely affiliated with the ruling structures than the opposition. This is further supported by the fact that no opposition leaders were able to sneak into the core of the protest undetected. Vuk Jeremić, the president of the People’s Party and a member of the Alliance for Serbia coalition, as well as Sergej Trifunović, leader of the Movement of Free Citizens, were briskly rushed away from the front lines by some of those gathered.
The dynamics of the third day of protest offer material for still another theory. When faced with violence from the police, some protesters pursued a tactic of radical pacification, aiming to isolate the aggressive elements and thus show that they are a minority of the protest. “Sit down!” was shouted almost all evening; the slogan quickly spread: “Sit! Don’t stand for it!”
On the day of this “sitting protest,” unlike the previous ones, the police did not form a cordon to greet the protest. In fact, apart from crowd barriers in front of the National Assembly, there was hardly any security.
Dedicated conspiracy theorists could see something suspicious in this. They suggested that the first two days of the protests demonstrated that the regime is incapable of dealing with an offensive protest and that the subsequent brutality is an indication that the government was losing control. It could also be said that this radical pacification is an extremely unimaginative action, one that may lead the protests to die out.
But what if the allegations of conspiracy are wrong — and everything about this protest is authentic? What if what seems like a contradiction is, in reality, a consequence of the fact that we have a single protest that brings together several groups that differ both in their political outlook and their class base?
One part of the protests is certainly the far right, or at least that part of it that does not appear to have become an appendage of the ruling party. Already on June 20, the day before the parliamentary elections, the MP and former member of the far-right movement “Dveri,” Srđan Nogo, organized a protest in front of the National Assembly. Having proven too radical even for Dveri, Nogo has set out to build his political force in cooperation with groups that organize anti-immigrant activities.
Nogo is not the only far-right activist to have appeared at the protests. On July 12, the former monk Antonije Davidović, who was defrocked in 2010 for accusing the Serbian Orthodox Church of heresy and who now peddles far-right conspiracy theories, held a public speech. Arriving in front of the National Assembly armed with a car sound system, he spoke about the threat of microchipping and migrants, denied the existence of coronavirus, and wished for the return of, as he put it, the “golden Middle Ages.” Similarly, Mladen Obradović, the leader of the now-banned extreme-right movement “Obraz,” appeared at the protest, as, undoubtedly, have the ultras of some of Belgrade’s football teams.
On the other hand, there are people of a more civic-liberal orientation at these protests, for whom talk of the “betrayal of Kosovo,” migrants, or the 5G network are not the least bit interesting. On any other occasion, they would protest against Vučić’s regime in peaceful and “genteel” ways. Of course, when the police attack them, there are people in this contingent who will be in the mood for a fight, too. But in general, these are parts of a middle class that — however much it is in a phase of decline and however much it hates Vučić’s regime — have not yet reached a point of having nothing to lose. Therefore, the radicalization of the protests and the conflicts with the police have the hardest effect on them.
In the absence of a strong political actor, the protests are, undoubtedly, swinging between two factions. Certainly, those trying to force their way into the National Assembly should rely on more than just bluff and bluster. On the other hand, the civic-liberal option has nothing to offer, having been in complete disarray for years now. For these latter, Vučić appears as some kind of Wizard of Oz who directs all aspects of society. So, even when he is on the defensive, he still imposes himself on them as an omnipotent figure.
It is clear that the Left is a missing element in this whole puzzle. These protests will not bring with them a political alternative. Fortunately, at least, people are not interested in the narratives that the far right are bringing to the table. The protest is slowly dying out and opening a space for something new. We can only hope this something will come from the Left.