An Angry People – Serbia In the Times of COVID-19

by Vukan Markovic

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

Over the last two decades, the square in front of the monumental edifice of the Serbian Parliament in Belgrade has become the site for protests and acts of civil disobedience. This July, it was the location of violent and highly disputed political riots. Non-Balkan media reported these as the first coronavirus-related disturbances in Europe, since their immediate cause was dissatisfaction with the reintroduction of the preventive measures. Even during the first wave of the new virus, many people felt aggravated by President Aleksandar Vucic’s heavy-handed management of the issue and condescending behaviour. After a new increase in the number of cases, caused by the government’s inappropriate decision to lift previous restrictions too soon, the president announced that a police curfew was to be reintroduced. This decision proved to be the initial spark that prompted the people to start gathering in front of the Parliament on July 7.

What started off as a spontaneous gathering of frustrated citizens evolved into wide-scale urban riots, featuring violent clashes between police and protesters, the use of teargas and police cavalry, and excessive brutality unseen in the previous decade. All of this came as a great surprise, since only weeks earlier, President Vucic and his Progressive Party won the parliamentary elections in a landslide, winning 60% of the vote and two-thirds of MP seats. After fierce violence, the riots ended rather unceremoniously four days later without any clear or palpable results and without causing any visible damage to the ruling regime, at least at first glance. Although the police curfew was eventually lifted, relating the July 2020 riots in Belgrade only to the coronavirus pandemic would be an oversimplification. In reality, the riots were an outburst of anger, which has its roots deep in the fabric of Serbian political and social reality. Similarly, the importance of the site at which the riots took place is more than just symbolic. One could even argue that this symbolism lies precisely at the heart of the issue.

Photo by Mihajlo Mrdja

Turning the square in front of the Parliament into a venue where discontented citizens gather to express their anger is a tradition that dates back to October 5, 2000. On that day, Slobodan Miloševic was ousted after a decade of almost absolute power. Angered with Miloševic’s failure to admit he had lost the presidential elections to Vojislav Koštunica, the united democratic opposition candidate, hundreds of thousands assembled in front of the parliament, broke into the building, and burned it down. In doing so, they toppled down the regime that had ruled the country throughout the 1990s, which were marked by the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the horrors of subsequent wars, international sanctions, the NATO bombing, and terrible impoverishment of the people.

As Miloševic became history, the united democratic opposition, a loose coalition of diverse parties, took over. They were to remain in power, in one form or another, until 2012. But from the very beginning, their ideological differences and personal animosities resurfaced, and the coalition started disintegrating. Although there can be no dispute that the situation in Serbia improved under new leadership, the legacy of this ‘democratic’ regime was heavily scarred by extreme corruption, suspicious privatisations, incompetent handling of the economy, and major geopolitical turmoil, like the breakup of the union state with Montenegro and unilateral secession of Kosovo. After 12 years in power, a regime whose symbolic legitimacy lies in the events that took place on October 5, 2000 simply failed to achieve their self-proclaimed historical mission: to resolve all open issues from the 90s, create a modern, liberal society, and most importantly, to lead Serbia into the European Union.

Photo by Antonio Sempere

Therefore, the storming and the burning of the Parliament on October 5, 2000 became both a powerful symbol of people’s ability to take things into their own hands and a symbol of missed opportunities and broken promises. It also became a neat borderline between two different “metapolitical” approaches in Serbia: Miloševic’s “ancien regime,” or pre-October 5 Serbia, with its emphasis on sovereignty and purported national interests, and post-October 5 Serbia, or the “democratic” regime, with its emphasis on Europeanisation and democratisation.

To be sure, the two Serbias shared important similarities. Both were confronted with immense and usually disastrous foreign pressure, particularly when it comes to the question of Kosovo’s independence. Altogether, neither achieved the full extent of their goals. What remains as their common legacy is a deeply and thoroughly divided nation. Serbian society is at odds with itself over many fundamental issues, including the constitutional framework of the country and its geopolitical position in Europe. Similar to other Balkan states, Serbia’s new, reinvented “social contract” is still in the making. In 2012, more than twenty years after the fall of communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbs were still trying to answer the question, “where are we heading?”

Photo by Ana Slovic

These are the circumstances that brought Aleksandar Vucic to power in 2012. Using his formidable political talent and outstanding skills in media manipulation, Vucic managed to progress from the position of Deputy Prime Minister to President of the Republic in just five years. Along the way, he solidified his authority and control over all relevant institutions and most media, becoming Serbia’s paramount leader.

But what allowed him to achieve such power and to increase his popular support over the last eight years? First and foremost, he managed to win over the so-called “losers of transition,” a generation whose youth was lost to the wars, isolation, bombings, and economic downfall. These people entered the 21st century hoping their children would be brought up in a better world, but a decade later, they found themselves still dreaming about it. By 2012, they realised they were destined to spend the rest of their lives in a perpetual transition. Vucic offered them an alternative. In doing so, he hadn’t proposed anything novel, nor had he suggested a different path. His alternative was the overcoming of the aforementioned split that October 5 produced in Serbia’s recent history—basically, he bridged the two sides.

Photo by Sara Kecman

Before 2012, Vucic had existed on Serbian political stage for quite a while. He was a high-ranking member of a fiercely nationalist and right-wing party, but eventually broke away and created the new Progressive Party. In the process, he managed to preserve the radical and nationalist electorate, which still represents the base of Vucic’s support. Additionally, Vucic completely transformed his ideological outlook. Almost verbatim, he adopted the ideology proposed by the liberal urban elites, who until his arrival represented the moral and intellectual backbone of the “democratic” regime. Vucic transformed himself from a right-wing, pro-Russian nationalist to a staunch pro-European, liberal reformist. He did not become one then the other: he remained all of the above, catering to both liberals and conservatives.

This strategy is reflected in Serbian foreign policy. Vucic preserved traditional cordial relations with Russia and is currently steering the country closer to China. At the same time, he took Serbia a step closer to membership in the EU. This is best explained in the recent memoirs of Donald Tusk, who praised Vucic for his commitment to reform the country before the EU. Meanwhile, the EU has been giving Vucic its implicit support, despite his ever-increasing dominance over all aspects of Serbian politics.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic

In short, this is the political equilibrium Vucic established. He never truly reconciled the two Serbian political realities divided by October 5. Instead, he synthesised the two, creating his own regime. It has not been a complete success. Although it’s experiencing some economic growth, the country is still deeply marred by gross incompetence of various officials and enormous levels of corruption. Reforms of the economic system and institutions are very slow, while the underlying problem of the massive emigration of young people has increased. Accumulation of power in the hands of the president necessarily resulted in the deterioration of democratic institutions. Furthermore, the state of media freedoms is rather lamentable. The most pressing issue, that of the status of Kosovo, has been in stalemate for years. To be fair, this has a lot to do with the chaotic and unstable regime in Priština and with an unclear disagreement between the EU and the Trump administration over the future status of Kosovo.

In addition to all of this, the Serbian opposition is disintegrating. Remnants of the previous regime, the current opposition continues to split up into ever smaller political factions led by remarkably unpopular figureheads. Their support has been steadily plummeting until they boycotted the last elections held on June 21, 2020. They hoped the boycott would render Vucic’s imminent victory illegitimate, but the turnout of the election was not significantly lower than usual for the boycott to work. Consequently, Vucic gained more seats than ever, while the opposition is currently unrepresented in the Parliament.

Photo by Srdjan Rakonjac

Eight years into Vucic’s reign, while the country did experience mild progress, most of the pressing issues haven’t been resolved. Nevertheless, to compensate for the lack of results in these key areas, the regime in Belgrade resorted to endless media spinning. Narratives, discourses, or reality for that matter don’t need to exist. The only reality is the one that the current moment dictates. Spinning and propaganda, together with gradual suppression of dissenting voices, are a primary way in which Vucic’s political equilibrium has been maintained so far.

This equilibrium is precisely what was being attacked during the July 2020 riots in Belgrade. The impression that this was going to be a regular protest soon proved to be unfounded, since a group of people managed to break into the parliament building. At that point, social networks exploded—the mere symbolism of breaking into the Parliament was enough to encourage people to start flocking to the square. Unable or unprepared to deal with aggressive citizens, the police resorted to the use of teargas and mounted cavalry in order to push the protesters along the neighbouring boulevards. They were relentlessly beating and detaining those they deemed suspicious, often without good reason. In the meantime, a few police vehicles were burned, and trash cans were torched and turned into provisional barricades.

Eventually, the night ended, but all this violence inspired ever greater masses of people to gather. The day after, more violence broke out in front of the Parliament and spread to the neighbouring squares and avenues. It is unclear how many people participated, but the numbers were sufficient to spread the protests outside the immediate city centre. Teargas, charging horses, marching gendarmerie cordons on one side and running citizens, covering their faces and eyes, throwing stuff at the police on the other could be seen all over the city.

Photo by Andjela Marcicev & Aleksa Banjanac

Of course, the vast majority of people attending were not there to fight. It is speculated that some of those who did were football fans, known for their proclivity to violent outbursts, while the others were adolescent delinquents. Nevertheless, it is the mass that gives power and legitimacy to those who fight. As Elias Canetti wrote, a mass requires its discharge—without it, it cannot be considered a common entity. In the case of these protests, the discharge was precisely the violence against the police. Even those who had no intention to fight were actively participating by giving implicit support to those who fought. Being chased by the police and horses is what allowed the people in the crowd, violent or not, to give a sense of purpose and belonging to those protests.

It is quite interesting that, apart from being the only violent protests during Vucic’s tenure so far, these demonstrations were also the only ones that had no clear goal and no stated purpose. The people were simply releasing an enormous amount of accumulated anger. They refused any political speeches, any agenda; they even chased off opposition leaders who hoped to gain something from joining the protests. The common denominator for all participating was crude rage.

The fact that it was only anger that prompted thousands of Belgraders to attack their landmarks and police is best seen in the composition of the crowd. The vast majority of those who assembled at that symbolic place were people younger than 35. They represented an almost perfect ideological cross-section of the Serbian society. The crowds featured rightists, angry at Vucic because they believed he would recognise Kosovo’s independence, and leftists, angry because of the poor state of their civil rights. It featured anti-migrants and anti-vaxxers as well as environmental activists and those who believe in scientific truths. It included LGBTQ people and Serbian Orthodox Church supporters, who in the middle of all-out violence led a litany towards a police cordon. It featured all of these groups and every possible political and ideological inclination in between.

Photo by Milos Djurdjevic

Naturally, none of this comes without media coverage. Vucic very swiftly employed his entire media machinery to spread his message. The government-inclined media insisted that the riots were organised by the clinically dead opposition, in alliance with far-right extremist groups or foreign secret services. On the other hand, large publicity was given to those who claimed that the authorities themselves were instigating the violence. One of the few opposition-inclined TV networks and almost all opposition leaders came up with a theory that Serbian secret police agents had infiltrated the crowds and were deliberately provoking the police, so that the police can unleash their response in return.

The logic behind both statements remains elusive. Both Vucic and his opponents, quite paradoxically, offer the same narrative, if in different forms—that the violence is provoked and illegitimate and that the other side is responsible. It can be said with reasonable certainty that the July 2020 riots were neither organised nor instigated by any political entity, within or outside the country. Of the established political options in Serbia, nobody considered the possibility that some young people might perhaps be genuinely angry, and that the violence they displayed was a political and moral act, a display of their discontent.

Photo by Anja Mirkovich

The riots ended when the above mentioned narrative presented in media prevailed on social networks. On the third day, #sedidole (#sitdown in Serbian) circulated, pleading with people to show how civilised and well-behaved citizens should protest. Violence was proclaimed illegitimate and insincere, so when thousands arrived on the third day, they performed a massive sit in on the square in front of the Parliament. They booed all others who tried to get closer to the building, effectively expelling them from the protests. This event proved to be the end of it. On the fourth day, although there was some violence, the number of people attending was visibly lower. Almost no one came the day after.

Of course, nobody could have imagined that spontaneous protests without a clear goal could have lasted forever, even less so that they could have toppled Vucic. Whether or not they had any long-term value remains to be seen. However, it is already clear that this was the first authentic blow to the political equilibrium in Serbia, a system that has managed to synthesise the last thirty years of Serbian history into a dubious and semi-autocratic regime. Unconsciously (ab)using the symbolism and the myth their parents generated in front of the parliament building on October 5, 2000, a new generation showed its contempt towards their entire political reality. They are dissatisfied with everything from major geopolitical issues and social and economic policies, to the handling of the coronavirus and the behaviour of their elected officials.

Interestingly enough, the people who took to the streets were deprived of their agency through the claim that violent spontaneous riots are unimaginable in Serbian society. In a very strange twist, Vucic and his opponents alike, all of whom are part of the same historical processes against which the riots were directed, denied the protesters the right to be the people who are infuriated with the regime and the system they are living in. Instead, they were turned into manipulated masses, not realising that someone (secret police, opposition parties, evil foreigners) was forcing their hand. All in all, the least that can be said is that another generation had its chance to taste some teargas and experience the spectacular sight of police cavalry charging the central boulevards and squares of Belgrade. They added a new element to a historical myth that has been dominating Serbian politics in the last twenty years. And that cannot be bad for the state of Serbian democracy.

Vukan Markovic completed his MA/MSc in International and World History at Columbia University and the London School of Economics. He specializes in the philosophy of history. His research is focused on the “crisis of modernity” and the relationship between ideology and the production of meaning in historical narratives. He currently resides and publishes in Belgrade, Serbia.

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