It Has Begun: One in Five Million Protest in Serbia

When ultra-nationalist Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he wouldn’t concede to protestors’ demands “even if there were 5 million people in the street,” the spark was lit. Carrying signs saying “Poelo Je” (It Has Began) and “Jedan od pet miliona” (One in Five Million), tens of thousands of protesters are packing the icy January streets of Belgrade, Kragujevac, Niš and other Serbian cities in demonstrations that began in early December demanding an end to what to they call a dictatorship.

Meanwhile, a mass demonstration is planned for January 16 on the anniversary of the assassination of Kosovar Serb opposition leader Oliver Ivanovi in divided Mitrovica/Mitrovicë. Ivanovi, leader of the Freedom Democracy Justice Party (“Sloboda demokratija pravda”), advocated for peaceful coexistence between people of both Serbian and Albanian ethnicity in Kosovo/Kosova. In other events protesters say were acts committed by the Vucic government to silence opposing viewpoints, Borko Stefanovi of the Serbian Left Party (“Levica Srbije”) was brutally beaten on a street in Kruševac on November 23, while an attempt was made on the life of leftist journalist Milan Jovanovi in Belgrade on December 12. Stefanovi’s bloody shirt has become a talisman during the protests.

Protesters have also borrowed the yellow vests that are being donned in France for that country’s demonstrations against higher fuel taxes that would especially hit the working class. As in France, the protest has brought together diverse causes such as gay rights and actions against gender-based violence, in addition to public distrust of state-controlled TV. A recording of a reporter calling the protesters “violent rapists” was sampled to a disco beat and blasted from loudspeakers at the Belgrade protest on January 5.

Propaganda is a bit of a specialty for President Vucic, who has a long history with Serbia’s far right and nationalists. In his 20s, he was Slobodan Miloševi’s Minister of Information. Later he was Defense Minister and then Prime Minister. Elected president in 2017 with 55 percent of the vote, predominantly from citizens over the age of 55, he has been accused of quashing the opposition through autocratic control of the media, voter intimidation and other electoral irregularities. Protests erupted when he was announced the winner, with 10,000 students gathering in front of the National Assembly and similar events happening across the country. These protests have been growing steadily ever since.

In a statement he made on July 20, 1995 during the Bosnian War which he has never renounced, Vucic declared, “For every dead Serb, we will kill one hundred Muslims.” This was days after the notorious mass killing in Srebrenica, Bosnia, when over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were separated from the regional population and executed. As recently as November 15, 2018, Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, declared that what happened in Srebrenica was a war crime and not genocide, and in December she intimated that the Serbian Army might once again intervene in Kosovo.

Brnabic, female as well as openly gay, was appointed by Vucic last summer in what many LGBT groups in Serbia have come to see as a sly neoliberal tactic to convince the European Union of the new Serbian government’s merits. She was disinvited from Belgrade’s 2018 Gay Pride Parade after her remarks in 2017 that gay rights should only be addressed after more pressing issues were resolved.

Student Jelena Anasonovic’s hennaed hair peeps out from her knitted cap and scarf as she stands on a stage in front of protestors in Belgrade. “We realised that the time had come to do something in the streets,” she told Agence France Presse. “Violence, both verbal and physical, has become the norm” in Serbia, she said. Actor Branislav Trifunovi has also emerged as a prominent spokesperson in the movement, and one of his specific demands is for a set amount of time on national television for opposing viewpoints. He’s asking for just five minutes, and in this climate it could be enough to break the government’s stranglehold on the media.

Right now, young people are organizing themselves on the internet with hashtags like #Protivdiktature (Against Dictatorship) on Twitter and “1od5miliona” on Facebook. But the crowds show faces of all age groups, so the message is getting out.

Vucic learned early on about accruing power through scapegoating and malignant nationalism. But in a country with an average wage of merely 300 euros a month and over 20 percent unemployment, the old tropes have worn thin. A common alienation is uniting the people and hopefully an inclusive unity across economic, gender, generational and ethnic lines can be sustained.

Danica Jorden is a writer and translator of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and other languages.