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Bowling for Serbia: Mass Murder in Times of Transition

The Serbia Against Violence protest in Belgrade, 3 June 2023. Photo by Emilija Knezevic. CCAS.

On the morning of 3 May 2023, Serbian media reported an unusual shooting event in the elementary school “Vladislav Ribnikar” in the center of Belgrade. By late morning, the news became increasingly gloomier: many are dead. In the end, it looked like something we usually hear coming from the USA – a student entered his school with a handgun and killed 9 people, of which 8 were also students. Only a day later, news of another mass shooting broke out: in Mladenovac (some 30 kilometers from Belgrade), a 21-year-old grabbed an assault rifle, sat in a car, and went on a killing rampage randomly shooting picnickers in several locations. He killed 9 people. 

The nation found itself completely startled. This was something completely new. The two events sent shock waves across a society already burdened with numerous stresses, but not equipped to deal with such horrifying events. In fact, the reaction was such that the public – which has been accustomed to 30 years of transitional violence, daily news of criminal activity, a close connection between the government and criminal groups; to all of which the public has been shockingly passive – found itself suddenly in shock. 

In general, Serbian (and European) history does not register a similar event. In addition, the fact the two shootings happened only a day apart suggests that this phenomenon cannot be simply written off as just a mere incident. The public did not have the means to explain to itself what the hell happened and how such a thing is possible. At the same time, the public is also somehow aware that this “incident” is a consequence of some historic processes. It seems that precisely because it may have such deep roots,the public is unable to reconcile with it. Suddenly, in a rare historical twist, it was not possible to ignore that some things and phenomena are connected: maybe this is a long-term consequence of a long-term social reality, maybe even a longue durée phenomenon. And these long durée processes are hard to accept.

Only a week after the shootings, people in Serbia started organizing mass protests: thousands of people began gathering every Friday, doubling their numbers each week, building up to the largest gathering in 22 years in Serbia. Organized under the vague name “against violence”, the protesters demanded the resignations of ministers identified as those most responsible, tighter regulation of the media sphere, and the ousting of several popular reality shows packed with violent content. Obviously, the protesters see themselves pitted against “violence” –  a concept that is very real and very vague at the same time. 

Exactly how vague, but also cynical and ominous, this violence can really be is demonstrated by the government’s questionable reaction to this very case over the last three months. Apart from shortening the school year, the voluntary resignation of the minister of education – here it should be noted that ministry of education is largely seen as one of the “light” and “less important” positions, with the minister drawn from minor supporting parties – and a mild campaign of motivating citizens to voluntarily give up their illegal weapons with questionable results; little (nothing, in fact) has been done. There were no indications of any regulation of the media sphere, and none of the ministers from the (ruling) Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka – SNS) have been held accountable. More importantly: it is becoming obvious that the ruling party is also keen on blocking any institutional process on accountability, as the parliamentary majority regularly denies a quorum for holding a discussion on the topic. Adding insult to injury, the government shows zero intention of changing the general course of its rule.

But such indifference from the side of the ruling party comes as no surprise. The ruling party of Serbia seems like an invincible behemoth, regularly sweeping more than 50% of votes, frequently opting for preliminary elections and relying on its capacity for very aggressive campaigning. In reality, it has little real power (and zero desire) to do anything that contradicts established political and economic processes, the needs of foreign political supporters, or the external and internal fractions of interests and capital. As such, any personal accountability would inevitably undermine the latter. In fact, for a decade now, no blunder has ended with any sign of accountability for members of the ruling party. On the contrary – it seems that blunders are a sure way of advancing in political rank, as the examples of Siniša Mali (now minister of finance) and Bratislav Gašić (now minister of police; and the one whose resignation is now demanded)  demonstrate. 

A day of hope: can rain bring down a dictator? 

So, while the ruling party appears powerless to intervene into structural political and economic process, it excels at faking popular acclamations of its own policies by outright forcing and bribing people into a form of simulacrum theatre designed to simulate unprecedented support for the ruling party and its leader. 

As the protests grew in intensity and number of participants, the political elite identified them as a potentially dangerous movement. Among other options, the elite considered stifling the protests, but then they opted for organizing their own protest on the 26th of May. Whether this was an attempt to organize a government-backed archetypal ritual of reconciliation; to demonstrate the ruling party’s own power to elicit fake popular support as it wishes; or maybe even to cause conflicts between anti- and pro-government supporters; or – in line with the previously noted practice of the ruling party – to attempt to swallow and incorporate contradictory political narratives – it remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that this plan failed. Despite the state and ruling party apparatus using every resource imaginable, including forcing people employed in government institutions and state-affiliated private enterprises (bus companies, transport enterprises, etc) to attend, they managed to gather only a fraction of the anticipated number of supporters. At the main event, there were only a few thousand largely disinterested, bored and frustrated individuals who only wanted to see the end of this spectacle so they could go home and run away from the pouring rain. On that day, it seemed that a simple rainstorm could bring down a dictator. Such a beautiful feeling. 

Politics unfolding

Following this debacle, antigovernment protesters gained strength. With unchanged demands and motives, they continued to evolve, organizing every week with fluctuating – but still quite impressive – numbers, evolving their strategies and constantly drawing a substantial number of participants even in the face of unprecedented heat waves. Yet, power structures continue to… ignore them. 

Whether that’s smart or not – we shall see. Governments betting on the long run is not surprising. Many of the protests in previous years collapsed at precisely this point: failing to maintain numbers for longer periods of time and at the end succumbing to internal divisions over sensitive political issues: Kosovo, Serbia’s role in wars of the nineties, Srebrenica genocide and nationalism, among others. In this sense, all the protests in the last decade found themselves between a hammer and an anvil: starting with a single issue, they face fierce contradictions whenever wider political questions are touched upon. And these latest protests truly are a mishmash of political biographies, groups and individuals with different political and ideological backgrounds, only loosely bonded by a vague idea; and even that idea is not completely accepted by all. 

Politics folding 

The main motive of the protests is as unclear as it is attractive. What exactly would personal changes in government result in if they occur? What does it mean to ask for the regulation of the media sphere in a society in which media are privately owned and profit oriented? What does it mean to be “against violence” in transitional society? And do we mean violence only as physical violence, or will some other forms be considered too? For that matter, is transition itself just a long violent process in which violence is discursively and practically hidden? What does it take to fight “violence” in a society where violence is more than just normalized, but rather structurally incorporated and regularly used? Isn’t violence the mode of transition itself – and how can one resist violence only without at least questioning transition itself? 

All these questions are now more relevant than ever. In times of stress like this, when the reaction of the people is unpredictable, it is the ideological apparatuses that are called upon to give meaning to unbearable situations (or misuse them for political or economic gain). 

The media and the political elites both preemptively formulated the events into more digestible terms early on. Since this anomia and the inability to define and deal with some very shocking events could prove to be difficult to regulate and cause the public to react erratically, the media and political elites called on some older explanatory matrices to aid. The phenomenon was squeezed into mainly two already existing explanatory narratives. The first claims that such events are either the consequence of the Yugoslav wars, nationalism and the three-decades-old incorporation of violence into the social fabric with the goal of paralyzing and anaesthetizing society so it would accept and support the nationalist project without much opposition. The second position claims that such incidents are the consequence of detraditionalization, and of diminishing traditional institutions such as the family, nation, authoritative father, etc. These narratives follow two Serbian political mega blocks – conservative and liberal, locally known as “first” and “second” Serbia. But both are based on one point: everything is the fault of Aleksandar Vučić, ruler of all power structures in Serbia, currently serving as its president. 

It is precisely this narrow point of synchronization that enabled the protests to reach their impressive mass participation. At the same time, it means that the protests did not avoid the trap of culture wars, as the media maintains power to guide and redirect debates towards cultural issues, making them one of the fronts from which to wage local forms of kulturkampf. And it is precisely these forms of identity politics in addition to the inability of not only the opposition but also of other parties to think of any other form of political organizing, which will now claim their sad price. 

Moreover, dealing with structural issues by using established cultural matrices draws some serious consequences. Protests are basically composed of an almost unbearable mix of individuals with different political and ideological backgrounds. Their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness: these protests are “performativity-based”; by “performativity” I mean the power of demonstrating the potential strength of anti-government sentiment. To some extent, this is understandable; the inability of anyone except the ruling party to amass support was a major reason for the opposition’s political defeat. Now, with the help of the protests, it seems that the tables have turned. 

However, the protests’ immediate weakness is precisely in that they are too large to sharply and bravely define truly alternative political demands. They face a difficulty in articulating a joint discourse, and so they end ups drawing on too-broad umbrella terms or concentrating on vague terms. The only thing that holds these protests together is their shared hatred towards the current ruling party and the president Aleksandar Vučić. This hatred comes from both sides: from those who perceive him as a liberal destroying traditional structure, and from those who see him as an anti-modernist nationalist and conservative. 

Reflecting back to the main issue at hand of the two mass massacres, none of aforementioned explanations is fully satisfactory, including the “it’s all Vučić’s fault” discourse. But neither do they fully fail. On the one hand, it is true that through extensive use of violence, bribery, social blackmail, ridiculous level of corruption, protectionism for local thugs, unscrupulous use of manipulation, Vučić has instituted a new form of cynical manipulation and violent authoritarianism. On the other hand, it is also true that due to the wars in the nineties, Serbian society is now one of the most armed societies in the world and one in which violence is systematically embedded in its structure. At the same time, school shootings are not an authentic endemic phenomenon –  they are an everyday event in the global hegemon, and somehow do seem “imported”. In addition, the traditional school system – formed during socialism – has also been failing: for decades, the school system was one of the prime targets of all austerity projects and suffered tremendously at the hands of all governments from the nineties until now, with school staff and the school system itself falling to the very bottom of society symbolically and economically. This remain true, except when schools are transformed into mechanisms of class reproduction. Even in this instance, the two crimes are always mentioned, but it is in fact only the Ribnikar shooting that remains in focus with the Mladenovac crime pushed back. Arguably, not only because the crime involved children, but also because it took place in a prestigious school perceived as an elite elementary school, while the Mladenovac shooting happened in a semi-rural area, 30 kilometers from the center. 

It’s capitalism, stupid 

The fact there is no easy answer or explanation suggests that we have a complicated matter between our hands. In the gap between the apparent arbitrary nature of the crime – “someone just went insane and killed a bunch of people” – and the apparent structural nature of the crime, giving an answer or explanation is rather difficult. 

But even if it is obvious that the events can be primarily explained by structural and long-term causes, structural explanations are nowhere to be found. No thirty-year policies are questioned, no main course reversed, and rarely do people question privatization as a key politico-economic process. Only aesthetic and cultural themes have been put forward as subjects of political discussion. This is because questioning structural reasons would inevitably lead to questioning the whole political course set up over thirty years ago. 

But answering the above-mentioned question (“What the hell happened, how and why?”) from the left perspective seems much more fruitful – and what we should do is to view the problem structurally. 

In the end, the elephant in the room is that all those aforementioned deep processes (the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, militarization of society, return of hierarchy as an organizational principle, the destruction of all non-commodified complex social systems) were part of one mega project: the return of capitalism. What is ignored in the ongoing discussions of the two shootings is how the thirty-year long process of structural changes to society contributed to a situation in which such events were possible. Maybe, just maybe, this is a crime that has returned to the place of its origin, and perhaps is only one chapter of the invisible thirty-year war. 

In other words, what is missing and what is hard to articulate is the radical critique of the politico-economic course. It is no surprise that all political phases in the last thirty years have carried out the same political agenda and its core element – privatization and its associated  political baggage (hierarchical structures, indoctrination, etc) – only via different means. 

The fact is that the school system, as a social mechanism that forms individuals into socialized members of the community is under high pressure for some time: it is forced into “efficacy”; into producing profitable knowledges and cadres that can easily fit into profitable professions, sacrificing along the way all other “unnecessary baggage” – school psychologists, social workers, pedagogues, etc. When transformed into an assembly line for producing the workforce needed for transitional capitalism, it fails in all of its other roles, mainly those that consider forming young persons into socialized individuals, with the task of forming individuals capable of participating in communities and families.

But families themselves have also been transformed by the long process of transition into agencies of values and hierarchies of unregulated capitalism, into small corporations with economic success as the primal motive, competition as the primal strategy, internal discipline as the primal method of organization, and more often than not, into using cruelty as primary means. Let’s just briefly recall that the boy responsible for the school massacre was taught how to use the gun – and probably some other manly things – by his father, while the perpetrator of the Mladenovac shooting took his father’s assault rifle.  

What we should also do is view how violence is embedded in the process of transition and privatization, and how society is the thing we have had to sacrifice to fit into a global market-driven economy. Such a view could connect struggles; for example, incorporate the question of worker struggles and worker positions in society into protests or even any kind of alternative politics. Violence against the working class – and transition is systematic and murderous violence against the working class – is often easily overlooked even though it is precisely this violence which gives the blueprint for other forms of violence and legitimizes them. 

But these contradictions are rarely depicted in public, and protests are no better: they are concentrating on ephemeral phenomena such as “reality shows”, personalized responsibility, and even when mentioning corruption, they avoid addressing structural issues. So, it is questionable whether the protests will manage to structurally undermine the dominant social course that society took some thirty years ago, even if they do manage to undermine the current political klepto-oligarchy. 

Built on somewhat questionable foundations, the protests have had to heavily invest in regulating Discourse. During one of the protests, and in order to underline the vastness of the problem of violence, the number of violent crimes committed during a single week was given. But unlike other weeks, the number was not accompanied with names. Because if they were mentioned, one name would stand out: Noa. And everyone would know who it was. Noa was a trans person murdered (cruelly) that same week. No one could dare to predict how the crowd would react to this mention.  

In addition, considering rising worker deaths at the workplace (a form of violence-made-invisible itself), laborers of the Falkeast company started their own struggle for wage increases, something we did not see for a long time. Realizing their position in the global supply chain, they address their demands not only to their company, but also to the brands that they produce for. During one of the strike days, the Trade union leader was physically attacked and threatened. But when he asked to be one of the speakers in one of the protests – he was… denied. Discursive blindness strikes again, making it seem that violence at the workplace isn’t violence enough

Until we as a society pick up enough courage to stand up to the behemoth of a long political and economic process called “transition” – there will be no solution, and the next incident, well, we only need to wait for it. It takes a long time to identify the production chain of violence and the perpetrators sometimes. But eventually one does. 

Stefan Aleksić (1980) is an anthropologist, writer, journalist and activist in Serbia. He is currently writing for and several other regional and local web portals. He is also the Coordinator for Clean Clothes Campaign network, and is currently working on PhD on the transformation of public transport under neoliberalism. He is also a nuclear energy proponent.