Anti-government protests in Serbia continued this week for the sixth week, with protesters marching in silence to commemorate the assassination of Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic this time last year in Northern Kosovo.
Ivanovic, a controversial figure who was battling accusations of war crimes, had become a vocal critic of the government in Belgrade. Kosovar authorities have named Milan Radoicic, vice president of the main Belgrade-backed Kosovo Serb political party, Srpska Lista, as a prime suspect. Radoicic has denied his involvement but on November 23 fled Kosovo and moved to Serbia, where the Serb state maintains his innocence.
The opposition has demanded that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accede to a set of demands, which include an end to corruption and political violence to which Vucic has dismissively said, "Even if five million people show up on the streets" he will not accept the demands, prompting the movement to adopt the hashtag #1od5miliona "one in five million."
The current protests, however, are not just about the slain Kosovo Serb politician Ivanovic.
In November of last year Borko Stefanovic, leader of the opposition Levica Srbije (Serbian Left) was attacked by unknown assailants while attending an opposition rally.
Stefanovic’s supporters have accused the president of being behind the assault, claiming that it was part of a “witch-hunt which Aleksandar Vucic‘s regime wages daily against political opponents.”
The protest movement has also adopted the slogan “No more bloody shirts!” in reference to the incident that sparked the protests.
Mr Vucic has tried to style himself as a progressive, reformed nationalist with an alleged pro-EU outlook in an effort to break away from his past when he was the information minister under the government of Slobodan Milosevic responsible for committing war crimes during the Kosovo war.
Vucic became prime minister in 2012 and went on to win the presidential elections in 2017 with 55 percent of the vote with the support of his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).
Kristof Bender is deputy chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) a think tank focusing on the Balkans. When asked whether he believes that the protests in Serbia would make a difference, he was cautious about overstating their impact.
“These protests are unlikely to lead to the end of the Vucic era. All recent polls suggest that even if new elections were held, Vucic’s SNS would win by a large margin,” Bender told TRT World.
The Belgrade City Assembly elections in March 2018 were comfortably won by Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party with 45 percent of the vote.
Bender, who is also a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, argues that “Serbia’s opposition is fragmented, disoriented and weak.”
The protests are a catchall all for those who dislike Vucic from the Serbian Movement Dveri, a right-wing nationalist party with a focus on Orthodox Christianity, to the Serbian Left party headed by Borko Stefanovic. Policy differences and contradictions make anything beyond an anti-Vucic platform difficult.
“Even many Serbs that oppose the government call the opposition hopeless. Gaining respect among those would be a first step for becoming a serious contender for power,” added Bender.
Srdan Atanasovski, a member of the socialist organisation Marks21 and the housing rights collective ZA Krov nad glavom (Roof over the head) spoke to TRT World about having observed increasing inequality in Serbia and what he calls the EU-aided austerity agenda first hand and its impact on society.
Provided the Vucic government follows an EU-oriented economic and political trajectory, “EU political elites are willing to turn a blind eye on the authoritarian tendencies of Vucic’s regime,” Atanasovski told TRT World.
Atanasovski who is also a Research Associate at the Institute of Musicology for the Serbian Academy of Sciences has been organising as part of the protests to “stop forced evictions and implementing work safety standards, stressing that over 40 people have died at work in 2018, mostly construction workers.”
A recent study by Dr Gorana Krstic from the University of Belgrade found that income inequality in Serbia was “among the highest in Southeast Europe, and higher than in EU countries.”
According to a survey conducted by the Srbija 21 think tank, more than 22 percent of Serbs want to leave the country in search of a better future.
People are joining the protests “because of the mounting social problems, the underlying dissatisfaction with austerity politics, as well as with the authoritarian nature of the current regime,” added Atanasovski
The Serbian government’s reaction to the protests has been largely muted. Vucic’s government has affirmed the rights of protesters to peacefully protest and has tested the opposition by proposing snap elections, confident that he could win them, and which the opposition has said it would boycott.
“The content of the protests is reduced to ‘apolitical statements’ and most of the speakers are actors and similar non-controversial public figures. The demands of the protests are reduced to ending political violence and equal representation of opposition parties on public state television,” said Atanasovski.
The aim of the protests should be to “encourage workers to join protests and bring their demands addressing realities of Serbian society,” including growing inequality, added Atanasovski.
Nemanja Pantovic, a student and an active member in the youth-workers collective “7 zahteva,” the Student Movement of Novi Sad, is part of the “left bloc” in the protests and is not surprised at the government’s wait-and-see approach.
Speaking to TRT World Pantovic said, “The lack of oppression from the police and infiltrated provocateurs, fulfilment of the main demand of the protests and an almost cynical political endorsement of the protests coming from the head of state show that the protests don’t threaten the regime in any way.”
During his time in power Vucic has increasingly centralised power within Serbia while receiving support from the EU and drawing closer to Russia.
Vucic’s SNS party has a membership of more than 700,000, and Pantovic says, “To have a job, even as a janitor, means that you have to be a party member and your only duty, if you want to keep out of politics, is to vote for the party and occasionally attend a rally.”
Scepticism abounds towards the traditional political parties involved in the protests. There is a feeling that parties are interested in primarily attaining power but would continue the policies of “privatization, EU accession and Kosovo as a part of Serbia,” which would not “endanger the profits of foreign and domestic capitalists and local feudalists that hold positions in the power structure,” added Pantovic,
“I doubt that they have the vision, courage and political instincts to make anything out of the gathering that are taking place,” said Pantovic.