“We march ten to twelve hours a day and only take short breaks to relax,” says Sladjan. Together with a dozen young Serbs from southern Kosovo, he has been moving towards Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, for more than a week.
The approximately 400-kilometer walk is supposed to bring them to the big rally of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, which is taking place this Friday (May 26, 2023) in Belgrade. Vucic wants to demonstrate the strength of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), of which he is the leader. “We feel obliged to support the president – because he has been helping the Kosovo Serbs for years,” says Sladjan.
Serbs from Kosovo march towards Belgrade for a rally for Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on May 26, 2023
But this time it’s not about the ongoing tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. Vucic has completely different worries: after two killing sprees at the beginning of May, Serbia is in turmoil with a total of 18 dead. Above all, the murders at a Belgrade school shocked the country – because the perpetrator is only 13 years old.
Dangerous protest for the government
The fragmented middle-class and left-green opposition essentially blames Vucic and his system for the killing sprees. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have already gathered three times in Belgrade and blocked a motorway bridge – in protest against a “climate of violence” fueled by governing politicians and the media loyal to Vucic.
The opposition is demanding the resignation of some state officials, a ban on reality shows with violent content and the withdrawal of the license for Vucic’s “home channels” Happy and Pink. The next protest is scheduled to take place on Saturday (05/27/2023). Demonstrations are also to be held in front of the headquarters of the Serbian public broadcaster RTS.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Belgrade on May 19, 2023 under the motto “Serbia against violence”.
“The protests have become dangerous for those in power,” Belgrade-based political scientist Vujo Ilic told DW. “People wanted to express their grief after two tragedies, but now everything is taking a political direction. Also because the government made the mistake of calling the demonstrators ‘political scavengers’.”
Most of the media remain true to the Vucic line: members of the opposition are labeled either “hyenas” or “foreign agents” who wanted to take advantage of the killing sprees to seize power. But independent observers in the country are certain that dissatisfaction with Vucic is growing.
Vucic has ruled the Balkan country with an iron fist for eleven years, maneuvering between the EU and Russia. Domestically, he presents himself as the “father of the nation” and hands out jobs to SNS party members and loyal followers. Since he has been in office, elections have been suspected of being manipulated.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at a press conference on May 3, 2023 after a shooting spree at a school in Belgrade
Confronted with the wave of protests – the biggest since he took office – Vucic is now holding his own rally intended to put critics in their place. “He wants to show his supremacy on the street with a ‘counter-demonstration’,” said Ilic. “The message to his voters: We are still more than them.”
Forced to rally?
But there are increasing indications that Vucic’s Progressive Party is forcing public employees to rally or enticing other people with small monetary contributions. Hundreds of buses have already been rented, and the backdrop in front of the Parliament in Belgrade has been carefully prepared.
Marko, whose real name is different but is afraid to reveal his name, works in the public service in a town in southern Serbia and, like most people there, is a member of the Progressive Party. “The boss of my company has ambitions within the party. That’s why he personally calls on employees to take part in the rally in Belgrade,” Marko told DW. “He doesn’t force anyone directly, but he’s the boss. If he promises a day off, then most of them give in,” says the man.
The opposition offers free legal aid to those forced to protest. Seven opposition parties have asked the public prosecutor’s office to react. But the chances of that happening are slim – the judiciary in Serbia is also largely part of the Vucic system.
“I have nothing against the fact that a million people want to go to Belgrade,” says Jelena Milosevic, MP for the Freedom and Justice Party. “But I do have something against people being blackmailed or threatened with losing their jobs.”
Are the protests dying down?
Before the two big demos in Belgrade – that of the government camp on Friday and that of the government critics a day later – it still remains to be seen whether the opposition will finally be able to score points against their overpowering opponent or whether Vucic, as so often before, will flee to early parliamentary elections. He had already hinted at such a thing.
Vucic has called such elections several times in recent years, cementing his power in the process by scoring landslide victories against a deeply divided opposition ranging from pro-Russian nationalists to pro-European Democrats.
“However, it is questionable whether the ruling party really wants to start an election campaign in this unpredictable situation,” said political scientist Ilic. On the other hand, Vucic will certainly not approach the opposition – above all, he will not give up his media dominance.
It is possible that the current wave of protests will subside over time – just like others before it. At least that’s what many in the opposition camp fear and are considering whether the protest should be radicalized.
Marko, on the other hand, simply wants peace, on one side and the other. Although he has to go to the rally for the Progressive Party, he really doesn’t feel like it. “Fighting for supremacy on the street after two tragedies just sucks for me.”