Serbia’s Authoritarian President Is Exploiting School Shootings to Expand Police Control

Last week Serbia was rocked by two mass shootings. President Aleksandar Vučić has responded by announcing a vast expansion of police powers, using “war on terror” rhetoric to ramp up his assault on civil liberties.

Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić during a panel session on day three of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 19, 2023. (Stefan Wermuth / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Serbia’s capital Belgrade was shocked by a rare shooting in one of the city’s elementary schools. The shooter, aged just thirteen, killed eight of his peers and a security guard before calling the police to report himself.

A day later, apparent copycat crimes began in five other schools: four in Belgrade and one in Bihać, in neighboring Bosnia, where children either drew up kill lists, made threats with toy guns, or assaulted their teachers and peers with knives. Then, on Friday, a second shooting spree occurred, this time to the south of the capital, killing another eight and wounding fourteen.

In both cases, some survivors are still in critical condition and it’s not yet clear if the death toll will rise. In total, the police intervened in twenty-five alleged cases of copycat crimes in Serbia alone. Two further threats were reported in Trbovlje, Slovenia, and two others in Skopje, North Macedonia — confirming fears that the crime will spread across the Western Balkans.

Previously, mass school shootings had never occurred in Belgrade, nor were they common in the region. But these events have changed everything. From Zagreb to Priština and Novi Sad candlelit masses for the victims were accompanied by warnings that the same could repeat itself outside of Belgrade. And authoritarian politicians are now using this to their advantage.

For nonlocal readers, it should be kept in mind that violence itself isn’t so new: mass shootings by adults have previously occurred, and Serbia has experienced several wars in the last few decades, starting with the breakup of Yugoslavia and Slobodan Milošević’s effort to maintain control. His friends and colleagues run the country even today; Aleksandar Vučić, the current president, was minister of information in Milošević’s government, through which he suppressed free reporting, especially during the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. In line with its belligerent record, Serbia is third in the world for gun ownership, right after Yemen and the United States.

Social Decline

However, this isn’t just about guns, but also a society torn between extremes. Serbia is one of Europe’s most unequal countries by income, with 85 percent of the population receiving less than the average wage. It also boasts, by far, the largest ruling party in Europe, with over 750,000 members. The media are not free but party-controlled, much like the public utilities, and even schools.

The country’s educational institutions have also faced market-oriented reforms, which include priming children in “entrepreneurship” from an early age. High-school kids are subjected to so-called dual education, in which they may be posted to a private firm (in Bor, they even send teenagers to work in the mines) in which they have little to no legal protection, given that they are underaged. If the age of criminal responsibility is lowered, as proposed following the first killing, we may expect this already-vulnerable group to be liable to selective state manipulation.

But beyond the data, if you ask any teenager about their experience of Serbia, you will get a story of social decline. Today’s teenagers are those that were brought up with nothing but the post–2008 crisis period. They’ve seen not only falling social standards but increasing political tensions due to the ruling party’s attempt to strengthen its grip on all aspects of society and to restore power to the ruling classes — often meaning those that profited from armed conflicts in the wars following Yugoslavia’s destruction. It is thus no wonder that May’s events have been recognized by an association of high-school students as a consequence of a broader social malaise.

One might think that government leaders would be shaken by all of this. But President Vučić, a corrupt career politician, found a silver lining: free rein to strengthen police surveillance and state control, all in the name of children’s safety.

When the first shooting took place, the president dedicated special attention to how “well-off” the Belgrade school was, how well the perpetrator did in class, how respectable his father (a physician) is, and announced several measures on gun control. The reaction to the second shooting on the periphery of Belgrade, however, was in complete contrast. In this second case, the Minister of Internal Affairs Bratislav Gašić labeled the attack a “terrorist act,” albeit without any legal justification. Vučić soon followed, and the state media began widely using this label.

The police then arrested a member of the Muslim community in Belgrade, describing him as an Islamist terrorist, because of a few ambiguous Facebook statuses (such as “Sometimes you have to take justice into your own hands”). But, an association of professional legal practitioners from the Belgrade Chamber of Advocates spoke out against labeling the second shooting as a “terrorist threat” without any official reason. That was a quick escalation which, as we shall soon see, led to unheard of levels of state control, even compared to those reached during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second Killer

The suspect in the second killing, a twenty-one-year-old living on Belgrade’s periphery, was captured wearing a “Generation 88” T-shirt (the number eighty-eight labeling the eighth letter in the English alphabet — HH, a shorthand for “Heil Hitler”). The police found several firearms such as bombs, an automatic rifle, and ammunition in his grandfather’s apartment, where he went into hiding while fleeing from the police. Few details about his past have been made public, but he admitted his guilt during interrogation.

While he was not formally apprehended on terrorism charges, both the government and the police were quick to label the attack as an ideologically motivated act of terror: that is, a political action requiring a strong political response. It can indeed hardly be ruled out that he is a Nazi. But legal experts and criminologists have pointed out that mass murder and an act of terrorism are not the same crime and ought to be treated differently. According to the law, the prosecutor’s office should initiate the classification of a perpetrator as a terrorist, which means that it proposes to put him on the state’s list of terrorist organizations, similar to what happens in the United States. The state should then issue a decree that he be designated as such, and the judge should accept or reject such an appellation.

What has instead happened is an ad hoc labeling of the crime by the president and the interior ministry. This had, indeed, happened already. Even the recent arrest of a Muslim — who had no relation to the crime — on terrorism charges was based on his Facebook posts (no public information has been shared since). This tells us that the Serbian state currently allows for a fairly liberal interpretation of what constitutes an act of terrorism. This leaves much room for a possible abuse of the category “terrorist,” as for instance practiced by the United States. For now, much depends on whether the state can extract sufficient information to legally label the second shooting as a terrorist act.

Repressive Apparatus

For now, it is likely that we shall see a rise in short-term policing measures in response, with longer-term “solutions” to be expected in the future.

From this point of view, we can understand the state’s initial reactions. Following the second shooting, Vučić announced several measures, including increasing police-force numbers by 1,200 people, stationing them “at all times” in each and every school in Serbia, and carrying out a “disarmament” of the population, with illegal firearms expected to be confiscated without consequences by mid-June, and with legal persecution afterward. On May 5, the government rapidly accepted most of these measures. On May 8, the interior ministry began to issue internal communiques to schools, asking them to draw lists of pupils considered a) possible perpetrators, b) possible targets, and c) to be expressing “asocial behavior.” It has also announced teams to be dispatched for school inspections.

But more will likely follow: Vučić has also announced that the members of the police force would be able to enter into people’s homes at will and without a court order — something that was repelled twice in the previous attempts to reform policing law. In response to the first shooting, the age of legal prosecution will also be lowered from fourteen to twelve, which caused widespread opposition. Yet, it seems that Vučić has the upper hand, in arguing that the security concerns now require increased measures. Moreover, recent proclamations of the Serbian police union also go in the same direction, with short-term demands for the introduction of a police curfew.

The role of the media in escalating these concerns should also not be forgotten. In reporting full names of victims, pictures, data, and bombastic headlines, the majority of the sensationalist media has portrayed the crime as another commodity to be sold on the market of information. According to some, this has only added fuel to the fire, as the likelihood of copycat crimes increased to the extent of “generalized imitation” — thus helping to escalate the situation in reality, and not only in reports. Hence, the fear and concern that the liberal media had spread then, in turn, fueled Vučić’s ambitions for state control.

Vučić’s “Anti-Fascism”

Vučić’s desire for more state control has its obvious roots in his formation as a politician. As mentioned, he was an active politician already during the war of the 1990s, and was even a member of Milošević’s government.

Nor did his repressive ambitions wane over the years. Following his last election, he put the pro-Russian Aleksandar Vulin at the head of the secret services (Bezbednosno-informativna agencija, or BIA). Vulin is simultaneously the head of the so-called Serbian Socialist Party — in reality, the residue of Milošević’s cadres from the 1990s, with a friendly eye toward Moscow. Vulin was put at the head of the secret services based on his supposed specialism in preventing “color revolutions.” According to local media, he has even established a “working group for suppressing color revolutions” with Russia’s Security Council, with whose high representatives he has previously met. In addition, pro-state media have started to target individual journalists and activists just a few years back, and there was already an escalation of mass police repression under the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, Serbia has the only ruling party in Europe that has openly supported Putin and not induced sanctions on Russia, and the country has also seen pro-Putin protests.

It is worth noting that Vučić’s “police state” agenda would have been set in place even sooner, had not an earlier police-reform bill — allowing police the right to remain anonymous, the right to use more personal data more freely, and even legalizing police informants — been repelled faced with both criticism by experts and public protests.

As social tensions grew stronger in recent years, the lack of such extra policing powers repeatedly hurt Vučić. The peak came with the massive protest movement against lithium mining, right after a host of laws were changed to accommodate multinationals like Rio Tinto at the expense of local populations. Faced with this movement, this government was visibly shaken — and almost brought down entirely. While the Rio Tinto project was thwarted early in 2022, there were fears that Vučić might set it back on track, even by means of increased repression.

It seems this tragedy has afforded Vučić the chance to do what he failed to achieve with the police-reform law, offering him a pretext to step up earlier attempts to expand the repressive apparatus.

Regional Significance

If the labeling of a school shooting as an act of terrorism is accepted — as justified by Vučić’s alleged fight against fascism — it can set in motion a US-style war on terror, with a Russian-style justification. In the long run, it is not unrealistic to assume further experiments of this kind. This is especially important since last week Vučić reportedly asked prime minister Ana Brnabić to reintroduce the death penalty. His request was apparently denied, and it currently seems that he will not go through with introducing a state of emergency. But this still speaks volumes about what his intentions are.

All of this happened within just a few days, and the full array measures and their implementation will become clearer in some days’ or weeks’ time. However dangerous the short-term escalation of the state response may seem, the measures taken so far do point to a more long-term development of untrammeled police powers, which we have reasons to fear will become the new norm.

There is an added danger in this: that he may influence other states to follow in the same direction. To grasp this trend, one doesn’t need to travel further than neighboring Hungary, or further west to Slovenia. This latter country’s former premier, right-wing leader of the Slovenian Democratic Party Janez Janša, has used the shootings as a pretext for attacking — of all people — the Slovenian left. He made his comments while he was a guest of Viktor Orbán at a meeting of global conservatives in Budapest, Hungary, at which Steve Bannon also gave an online keynote.

Ultimately, this week’s events again pose questions about which direction Vučić plans to steer Serbia. Given the pro-Russian mood in the police and the rise in repression in recent years, it is not hard to imagine a dystopian future for Serbian citizens, with stagnant wages, rising inflation, and increasing social tensions.

Whether Vučić does indeed need more police repression will be decided soon enough, especially with mounting opposition. Over the weekend he raised talk of possible future elections — promising a “fateful decision” for Monday, May 8. It would appear that raising talk of his resignation so as to appease the opposition was a media stunt to do some damage control — the same thing Vučić has traditionally done before each previous election, only to play dumb afterward.

The following day, however, the Serbian minister of education, Branko Ružić, resigned — which was what the opposition wanted, meaning that Vučić had sacrificed at least one minister. Other demands by the opposition also included the resignation of the head of the secret services, Vulin, and a ban on tabloids’ and pro-state media’s promotion of violence. On Monday, instead of Vučić’s announcement, one part of the opposition and the so-called Sloga trade unions held a mass protest in Belgrade, marching in silence through the capital’s streets (about fifty thousand people, according to media estimates). Yet, Vučić did not announce his decision as to who would resign, despite his promise to do so, alongside building tensions.

Ultimately, much will depend on how this month’s events are interpreted — and if further escalation follows. But ultimately, if these attacks are labeled as terrorism, at a time when several Balkan states are already laying the groundwork for targeting other political actors, the future for the wider population is uncertain, at best.

No matter how stressful the situation, we must resist the temptation to call for a “state of emergency.” It is worth underlining that at least some effort is being devoted to concrete help and solidarity (some individuals have offered blood donations and financial help to victims’ families). With professional educational organizations already organizing pressure and protesting violence, a message of mutual aid could go a long way. In any case, it will do much more than reactionary calls for state interventionism that fuel the violence they seek to prevent.