Note from LeftEast editors: This article originally appeared in Dversia on 07.10.2020.
“Tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons against bare-handed youth! Dad, this is for you who died and there was no respirator! (..) This is for you and for my newborn son! There were no respirators in the Zemun hospital while they (the National Crises Team) were talking about giving away respirators as presents to others. Dad this is for you! I know you would be proud. ”
This is a statement uttered by one of the protestors to a N1 TV journalist during the first night of the mass mobilizations that took place in Belgrade on July 7th. Most of the foreign media described the protest in Serbia as a rebellion against the reimplementation of the Covid-19 lockdown but this statement clearly communicates something else. Curfew was just an immediate cause for the protests and the last drop that shattered the glass of discontent that has been accumulating for years among those who chose not to vote for Aleksandar Vučić at the elections held in June (54,5 % of the Serbian voting body). The decision of the Serbian president to backtrack the Covid-19 curfew after the first day of discontent did not stop people from coming out to the streets.
This protest is against the regime of Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party, against the mismanagement of the Covid-crisis by the state, the cover up of dead bodies for election purposes, including the blame placed on people for the speeded up spread of the virus. The protests started as a spontaneous expression of outrage, but was soon to become a polygon for violent state-led demobilisation.
The Vučić regime: Covid and punishment
The regime of Aleksandar Vučić and the machinery of the Serbian Progressive Party managed to almost completely privatise state, municipal and public institutions for their own benefit, starting in 2014 when Vučić became a prime minister for the first time. In the years since, many people left Serbia in pursuit of work and better living conditions. The lives of those who remain in Serbia are instrumentalized by the Progressive Party. For example, employment in Serbia is connected to a membership in the Progressive Party. Those who manage to get jobs through party membership are obliged to “donate” a percentage of their income to the party. With blackmail and promised privileges, the party is also recruiting discourse-markers; the so-called bots that engage in discussions on social media on a regular basis. Since Vučić came to power, everything in Serbia has been degrading even further, including social security systems, healthcare, workers’ rights, wages, public management, public spaces, women’s and minorities’ rights. People are losing their homes due to debt, many have their incomes blocked, and a growing number of people has been forced to live without basics such as electricity and heating. Unable to rely on public healthcare provisions, more and more ill people are forced to finance their medical costs through SMS and online humanitarian campaigns. The Corona-crisis further amplified the injustices that were already in place.
In march 2020, after a brief period of laughing off the virus, Vučić dismissed the parliament and declared a state of emergency. This enabled him to assume the position of the only one in charge for the management of the crisis and to construct an image of himself as the saviour of the nation. He used the media to portray people as being irresponsible and immature individuals to be blamed for everything. During the pandemic life was organised in two parts: during the day with no restrictions in place and during the nights with complete ban on movement. Police curfew was at times extended to a 24- hour-lockdown weekend. Those over 65 were unable to leave their homes at any time. The penalty for disrespecting the anti-epidemic measures was 1 300 EUR or time in jail. During the pandemic 200 000 people lost their jobs in a country with less than 7 million. The state of emergency was revoked on May 7th when the pandemic was declared under control.
The new Covid-regime was meant to set the conditions for the upcoming parliamentary elections and voting procedures. While Vučić was preparing for elections, the cracks in the healthcare system and the state neglect of health infrastructure became even more obvious than before. People were dying in larger numbers. In order to cover up this situation Vučić started manipulating the number of deaths and the newly infected cases in the country. Vučić used all available capacities for the elections, with no real opposition to confront him and with the old opposition boycotting the vote. On the election day, June 21, at a polling station journalists were surprised to see a great number of voters already in the early morning. While conversing with the gathered crowd, it turned out that these were patients who came to the Covid-policlinic, and not voters. After the triumph at the elections Vučić changed his narrative once again. “Irresponsible” people were once again blamed for the situation. For their “light-headedness,” they had to be punished by another round of curfew.
Spontaneous protests and an attempt of violent demobilisation
There is no doubt that the protests started spontaneously. People were frustrated because of the contradictory information they were fed; because they were being unjustly accused of something that has not been their responsibility but the responsibility of those in power; because of the lack of respirators while Vučić arrogantly claimed that Serbia has more than it needed; because the situation in the dorms where students had already moved out and were about to be sent home for the second time; because there were not enough tests available for Covid-19 and because people were layng sick in hospital corridors while medical personnel was yelling at them; because of the collapse of the social and healthcare systems and the fabrication of truth.
People started gathering spontaneously in front of the House of the National Assembly. There were elderly people, students, families with small children. There were sympathisers and activists from the oppositional Alliance for Serbia, Don’t Let Belgrade Drown, activists from the Roof (anti eviction organisation), the New Social Democratic Union, artists and cultural workers, but also alt-right groups such as People’s patrols, Levijatan, as well as workers from the Private Security Agency Protector. It all started peacefully only to be turned into a violent clash between the people and the police after a group of alt-rightists forced their way into the parliament building while singing nationalistic songs. This happened on the first day of the protest around 10 p.m. and after the group managed to knock down the security door. At this point Srđan Nogo – a former MP of the alt-right Dveri party, who was expelled from the party for lack of discipline – tried to impose himself as a leader of the protest. He is well known for his anti-immigration politics and the spread of 5G conspiracy theories. This was the moment when the protest was divided into two groups: those whose agenda was to provoke the police to start acting out against the crowd in order to block any constructive attempt to articulate demands, and the rest of us.
After the police were able to push away the alt-right group from the Assembly building, incidents started to take place one after the other. Angry people started throwing stones at the police and in response, they responded by firing teargas. Many left but groups of young people stayed and confronted the cops. Three police cars were set on fire close to the parliament. Later that evening a retired police officer posted a comment on twitter claiming that the burnt cars are in fact old models that are not used by the police forces for many years now. Others speculated that these vehicles were brought on site and burned by civil police to provoke conflict. The cat-and-mouse game between the protestors and the cops continued until late into the night. The same scenario repeated the next day. The difference was that the police response became even more severe and brutal. Besides dogs, police horsemen were brought in, while the police started using rubber bullets to chase out the protestors. During the whole night, the city centre was full of tear gas, sometimes directly thrown into the crowds of protestors. The images of police brutality travelled around the world on social media.
The same scenes appeared in Novi Sad. There, on July 8th, protestors read their demands that included increase in the employment of medical personnel, re-hiring of the workers dismissed due to the pandemic, announcement of the real number of infected people and deaths caused by Covid-19, redistributing the budget planned for the Serbian Orthodox Church to hospitals, and resignations of the officials responsible for the crisis. The protest in Novi Sad was organised under the slogan “If they give you batons, give them a revolution!” (Ko tebe pendrekom-ti njega revolucijom). Soon after the protest commenced, stones were thrown at the municipality building. In the clashes with the police Miran Pogačar from the anti-eviction organisation, the Roof, was arrested. He was cuffed as many others. The Roof activist will be held in custody for 48 hours and is accused of “inciting violence and engaging in violent behaviour”. Roof made an announcement:
“Miran never made any calls for violence, nor did he involve himself in the ensuing burning and looting of city buildings. In fact, he led the march away from the groups of provocateurs and right-wing hooligans creating mayhem, thus preventing further escalation of violence.”
On July 9th, several activists and left organisations issued a public statement in which they condemned the police violence. New Social Democratic Union condemned the violence provoked by the far right and justified the protestors’ anger:
“The organized violence of the groups of bullies prevents the justified anger of the people from being expressed and concretized. People are angry because of the irresponsible government of Aleksandar Vučić, his neglect of human lives and the cynical blame he placed on the people for the new spread of the infection. This cynicism is supported by various right-wing groups which, instead of searching for the responsible for the collapse of public health system, which would be supported by the majority of those gathered, prefer to talk about migrants and Kosovo, to turn the protest into a parade of nationalism and conspiracy theories, and to put various dubious people at the head of the protest. Thus, these groups become the useful idiots for the thugs and the police, while people’s justified anger is being thinned down and dismissed by the authorities.”
Reclaiming the protest?
On the evening of July 9, the first ones to arrive in front of the parliament in Belgrade were groups of people who were holding signs ‘Don’t be manipulated!Sit-down!’. Those already seated were chanting to the newcomers ‘Sit-down, sit-down!’. On the live broadcast filmed by Don’t let Belgrade Drown we could hear people analysing the situation, expressing their irritation about having to protest during the spread of Covid-19, as well as calls to action against an eviction of a whole building in Niš that is soon to take place due to unpaid investor’s debt. The only conflict reported by the media was a fight that broke down between two groups represented as the “troublemakers” and the “peaceful protesters”. Eventually, the alt-right groups were banned from the main site of the protest after they started throwing cans at the peacefully gathered. The alt-right has lost this battle, but is not defeated.
The first two days those in power were able to manipulate the protests into a spectacle of partially staged violence so as to be able to disavow the protestors as extremists and demobilise the angered crowds. The question here is not to have to choose between peaceful or violent tactics in protests, as some want to frame it, but about who has control over these tactics and what interests are being pursued, as Selforganised University Svetozar Marković rightly noticed on social media. Violence too is a legitimate way to express anger against economic, phisycal and psychological systemic torture that people have ben exposed to, including the violence against racist infiltrators imposing their shovinist naratives while escalating the situation.
On the day of writing this piece – July 9th – it seems that the “peaceful protestors” reclaimed the protest. Nevertheless, after two days of brutal clashes with the police I am left to wonder if this is the triumph of the peaceful protestors or the triumph of the government that managed to pacify the protest. Is this a victory of the (neo)liberal, “civilized” Serbia, the same Serbia that promised changes after the so-called revolution on October 5th, 2001 or it is the beginning of something new and different? I know what I would like to see: popular assemblies everywhere, everybody gathering to discuss the situation at hand and an organised struggle that would last. A struggle in which we will not allow any longer to place our lives in the hands of those who sow politics, economy and culture of death, a struggle in which we will win. I am sure that we, the people who stand in opposition to Vučić and the right-wing thugs, are able to organise meetings and gatherings in a caring, responsible and joyful way(s) that will not expose us and others to the virus.