Turbulent weeks on the streets of Serbia

May 2023

As part of the Regional Initiative in Combating Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.

Turbulent weeks on the streets of Serbia

“Everything has to stop” is one of the slogans of the protests that hit Serbia in recent weeks. That’s exactly what happened. Besides the traffic, as if time had stopped, people stopped as well, side by side, for the first time in such large numbers since the fall of Milosevic in the 2000s. The 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 Kosovci to evoke the current atmosphere in Serbia. The protests in Serbia were triggered by the tragedy that befell the elementary school Vladislav Ribnikar, in which 9 children and their custodian died. This tragedy also represents the backbone of a society in which violence prevails, and as such it resulted in weeks of protests that began to spread across Serbia like a domino effect.

On May 8th, the first protest was organized under the slogan “Serbia against violence”. This protest was created as a response to the aforementioned tragedy, and the mass murder that occurred the day after the massacre at the school, in which 8 more young people were killed, and 15 young men and women were injured. In the past ten years, various forms of violence that are present in every segment of life have become standardized in Serbian society; on national frequencies, media, reality programs, in the family, educational institutions, parliament, and even in the statements of high state officials. The protests, as such, united all citizens with the help of the opposition, although organized without an official leader. Since May 8th, protests have been held every following week with a progressive increase in the number of people, which is unofficially reported to exceed the number of 150,000.

It was the number of citizens that worried the government, which through the pro-regime media tried to discredit, devalue, and then mock the number of citizens at the protests. Media such as Pink reported that there were no more than 2,000 people at the protests, while others such as TelegrafInformer, and similar regime satellites 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 mocking picture, claiming that the number of people who gathered at the protest was photoshopped.

This resulted in the additional mobilization of the population throughout Serbia, and protests became widespread throughout the nation. On May 10, a protest was held in Nis, where resignations were demanded in accordance with the main conditions of the protest, as well as the abolition of tabloids. Then a renewed protest in Belgrade on May 12 with the same message. On May 13, the protest was extended 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 the poor economic situation of the peasants, which were addressed directly to the Prime Minister of Serbia. On May 17, the farmers’ protest was repeated, now expanded, additionally including Starcevo, Omoljice, Bavaniste, Mrcajevci, Bogatici and many other parts of Serbia focused primarily on agricultural activities. These protests continued on May 18 and 19, after which a framework agreement was concluded meeting certain demands.

Realizing that the protests create a serious problem and cause a headache for the ruling coalition, the leaders of the Serbian Progressive Party, led by Aleksandar Vučić, decided on a method known in Serbia, as a protest against protest. This decision, although contradictory considering that it is directly focused against protests organized under the slogan “Serbia against violence”, certainly did not prevent the organization of several smaller and one main gathering of the ruling coalition.

On May 19, a rally was organized in Pancevo, which brought together supporters of the Serbian Progressive Party to express their support for the President and prepare the organization of a large rally for May 26 under the slogan “Serbia of Hope.” Until May 26, protests by citizens and the opposition continued in Belgrade, joined by the city of Užice, with a significant number of gathered citizens.

For SNS supporters, the long-awaited May 26, which was preceded by a painstaking organization, and which included all the methods of gathering citizens available to the authorities, happened with results that were not at all expected. Namely, the mobilization of citizens throughout Serbia included the organization of bus transportation from all parts of Serbia, and even Serbs from surrounding regions such as Macedonia, Kosovo, and Republika Srpska. The organization included paid transportation, food, and even certain agencies dealing with film staging were hired while people were offered paid engagements for just a few hours spent at the rally. For citizens who were not willing to attend the rally, dismissals, blackmail, and other types of discrimination were prepared, as indicated by numerous sources. On the other hand, there was also a revolt of a certain number of citizens who tried to prevent being sent to the rally, such as the recorded incident of a tire puncturing of buses in Čačak accompanied by insulting messages to SNS supporters.

According to pro-regime portals, the rally “Serbia of Hope” gathered about 200,000 citizens, while the pictures indicate a significantly smaller number of people gathered 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. In addition to the President’s address, the speeches were given also by the Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter Sijarto, Milan Knezevic who is an opposition politician and a Serbian nationalist from Montenegro, as well as other known SNS supporters. What is interesting is that the narrative of the speaker, especially Minister Ivica Dačić, rehabilitated the character and work of Slobodan Milosevic, 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. Unlike the previous ones, which were directed towards the “Gazelle” bridge, the aim of the protest was to create a ring around Radio Television of Serbia. The route included occupying all the streets around the RTS building, which despite the weather circumstances gathered a large number of citizens. Demonstrators in front of the RTS building demanded the resignation of the leadership and objective reporting on the protests that have been taking place in the capital of Serbia for weeks. Perhaps unexpectedly, the breaking news of RTS, Dnevnik 2, began with reporting on the protest around the RTS building. Other demands include: 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, the resignation of the Minister of Police, as well as the Director of Security Information agency.

The next “Serbia against violence” protest, originally scheduled for Friday, June 2, was moved postponed to Saturday, June 3 due to the organization of a rally called “Stop violence against Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija”, announced during the highway blockade on May 29 by hundreds of supporters and members of extreme right-wing organizations. It is interesting that the organizers of the rally dedicated to Kosovo, as a reaction to the postponement of the protest against violence, decided to also move their protest to the same day and time.

Member of Parliament and opposition politician Radomir Lazović indicated that the mentioned right-wing protest aims to make the protests pointless and create chaos and confusion. He claims that the organizers are under the direct control of the President, Aleksandar Vučić, who wants to break up the most massive protests in the past 20 years. It is necessary to additionally mention that the name of the protest of right-wing organizations, organized under the slogan “Stop violence against Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija”, is named that way for a reason. The slogan itself, as well as the choice of method of protest, is very indicative, is pointed out by MP Pavle Grbović, who states that blocking the highway is a copy of the protest against violence.

The fifth “Serbia against violence” protest was held on June 3 in front of the Serbian Presidency. Tens of thousands of gathered citizens made clear demands, and for the first time, an objective broadcast of the protest was provided on Radio Television of Serbia. The protest was accompanied by an incident caused by the right-wing organization “Local Patrol”, whose members attacked and injured a foreign citizen. The same organization attacked opposition activist Savo Manojlovic at previous protests. The most famous representatives of this informal extreme right-wing group are Damnjan Knezevic and Ilija Vuksanovic, who were often seen at protests with Wagner signs.

Authors: Đorđe Terek, Tanja Plavšić