Anti-government protests gripped Serbia on a weekend of demonstrations across the Balkans, but can they achieve anything?
For more than five months Serbia has been rocked by weekly street protests that have challenged Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s more than six-year grip on power.
The opposition, largely an umbrella coalition of different political viewpoints, marched this Saturday on Serbia’s capital Belgrade, demanding an end to what they say is increased violence towards the opposition and the Vucic government’s increasing hold on the media.
In the past, Vucic has dismissed the protests stating that he would not accept their demands "even if five million people show up on the streets". The comment prompted the movement to adopt the hashtag #1od5miliona meaning "one in five million".
But as the protests begin to lose steam, the opposition attempted to present this weekend’s demonstrations as a turning point - and it may have worked, at least for this week.
Bosko Obradovic, leader of the extreme far-right party Dveri, and one of the groups participating in the protests, recently said: “I do not want to walk around the city for years.”
Srdjan Garcevic, a freelance journalist who attended the latest protest, said: “It was great to see a lot of people - from the whole of Serbia and also a lot of them who have been at the protest for the first time.”
He added: “The main problem in Serbia is not only that the government has bad and un-transparent policies, but that it is almost impossible to hear other opinions about the direction of the country, whether in terms of foreign and economic policy, but even in terms of local issues.”
The opposition has found it difficult to capitalise on the widespread disappointment, cronyism and a lack of public discussion on the direction of the country, which has also resulted in a brain drain.
At least one element of the opposition, however, has sought to capitalise on Vucic’s perceived lack of nationalist credentials.
Obradovic accused Vucic of being ready to accept Kosovo’s independence, the mainly ethnic Albanian and previously autonomous region of Yugoslavia, which faced ethnic cleansing and declared independence in 2008.
“Should any Serbian patriots have a bigger motive to come out on a massive popular protest against this government on Saturday? Otherwise, how can we prevent this high treason?” said Obradovic as rumours swirled that Vucic may agree to accept Kosovo’s independence after more than two decades of resisting it.
Speaking, Lily Lynch, Editor in Chief of the regional Balkanist magazine said: “The opposition is not yet proposing a coherent and convincing set of alternative policies to contrast with the those of the current government.”
In the Balkans, politics operates much like a revolving-door where politicians go out one end and come back in from the other generating a crisis of credibility. Widespread cynicism towards politicians who promise change but once in power more often than not emulate their predecessors is difficult to overcome.
“Many opposition leaders have already been in previous governments and are contaminated by that association. While some of the fresher faces in the movement have shown they have the grit and determination to garner some attention, they still seem to offer little substance beyond correctly diagnosing all the problems associated with the regime,” said Lynch.
Even current Serbian president Vucic has been on the political scene for more than 20 years. As the former minister of information to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, responsible for orchestrating the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Albanians, Vucic in September 2018 spoke highly of him: "Milosevic was a great Serbian leader who undoubtedly had the best intentions, but the outcome [of his actions] was very poor.”
Vucic has been a skilful political operator at the helm of Serb politics since the early 1990s. He started his career as an ultra-nationalist who in an address to parliament in the early 1990s and shortly after the Srebrenica genocide said: “For every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims.”
In 2008 the Serbian leader broke away from the Serbian Radical Party, an ultranationalist and right-wing populist party and founded a new party, the Serbian Progressive Party, with an allegedly pro-European, pro-NATO and pro-Euro Atlantic integration process.
His ability to divide and conquer his political opposition has also created odd alliances for the opposition which is ideologically quite diverse, allowing the protests to become a political movement, says Lynch.
“The positive of this kind of strategy is that they clearly demonstrate that anyone can participate in the protests and that the protests are capable of having wide appeal across political party lines,” says Lynch, “But the negative here is that people obviously remember that it's arguably this lack of coherent political vision that enabled Vucic and other former members of the Milosevic regime to come to power again in the first place.”
For some Serbs, the protests are increasingly seen as part of an opposition attempt to grab power.
Srdan Atanasovski, a member of the socialist organisation Marks21 and the housing rights collective ZA Krov nad glavom (Roof over the head), said on the phone that he believes the protests “have achieved little” to date.
“Serbia is still a divided society, being anti-Vucic is a cultural position rather than a political one; the opposition see it in terms of a civilisation struggle,” says Atanasovski, explaining that social solidarity is relegated to the margins.
When on March 17, the protesters briefly and forcefully occupied the national TV station demanding more coverage of opposition figures, “the main opposition parties tightened their grip over the protests,” says Atanasovski, and that since then “protesters have started to disengage”.
“These protests show that there is genuine resentment amongst the Serbian people,” adds Atanasovski. However, at crucial junctures, he believes they have failed to consolidate a grassroots approach.
When postal workers recently went on strike demanding an increase in wages, which had remained at the same level for six years, Atanasovski points out: “No one from the opposition supported the strikers.”
At around $340 per month, their wages are much lower than the Serbian average of $450 per month, itself, one of the lowest in Europe and in real terms their wages have declined by more than 30 percent.
Jelena Zarkovic, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade, has been looking at poverty and inequality in Serbia and the wider Balkans. She believes that the government austerity programme has lead to a worsening economic situation.
“Income inequality in Serbia has increased since 2000 and is currently among the highest in Europe,” she said.
The problems that Serbia faces beyond day to day politics are also structural, with inequality deeply embedded.
“The underperforming transition process after 2000 can certainly be partly attributed to the events of the 1990s when Serbia saw the destruction of all major formal institutions and the emergence of informal ones, went through wars, economic sanctions and isolation by the international community, unregulated privatisation and misuse of socially and state-owned property,” says Zarkovic.
The challenge for the anti-government protesters in Serbia is to get noticed, and while the protests this Saturday may have been larger than previous protests, polling still indicates that Vucic could win if he called an early election.
“For those not participating in the anti-Vucic protests, this is invisible, one or two hours of protests and a few mentions in some newspapers, but barely anyone notices,” says Atanasovski.
Where the opposition goes after this weekend’s protest is anyone's guess, with Vucic’s government shaken but not critically affected.
“I am honestly not sure how things will go in the future: the opposition leaders had the tendency of failing to use any momentum, but the government seems to be shaken with what happened - with a lot of disinformation in government-affiliated media - and hopefully the government will realise that there is mass dissatisfaction and that they need to be more accountable,” says Gercevic.
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