Why protests are roiling Serbia anew, 20 years after Milošević

Why We Wrote This

For more than three months, Serbia has seen peaceful protests against the president over corruption and stifling of the media. The last time of such sustained protest was Slobodan Milošević’s fall.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
People in Belgrade, Serbia, attend a protest rally marking one year since moderate Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanović was killed.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

Critics had been increasingly taking Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to task for autocracy and restricting freedom of the press when he declared last December that a freer press isn’t guaranteed, “even if there were 5 million people in the street.” But his words became a dare.

For 12 consecutive Saturdays since then, “1 of 5 million” protestors calling for Mr. Vučić’s resignation have spread from the streets of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, to more than 40 cities and towns. In Belgrade, they routinely march past government buildings and the Serbian public broadcaster RTS, which has barely covered the protests. “If [Vučić] wants to talk to us, he needs to come to the streets,” university student Jelena Anasonović, one of the protest organizers, tells the Monitor.

The protests represent Serbia’s largest street movement since 2000, when a popular uprising toppled Slobodan Milošević. Vučić is a former ultranationalist who served as one of Milošević’s information ministers during the wars that rent Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s. Critics resent how he’s consolidated power and that his conservative party presides over all but three municipalities.

Serbia’s last mass movement ousted the autocrat Slobodan Milošević almost 20 years ago. But over the last several months, antigovernment protests have jolted the Balkan nation again. Demonstrations in support of an opposition politician who was badly beaten have grown into nationwide marches against the policies of the Serbian government. Today's demonstrators are hoping to push the current president along the same path as Milošević: out of power.

Q: Why are the protests happening?

For 12 consecutive Saturdays, tens of thousands of protesters have marched against Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, calling for his resignation. The demonstrators claim he and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party have muzzled media freedom and spurred political violence. The peaceful protests have spread from the streets of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, to more than 40 cities and towns.

Mr. Vučić, whom critics call increasingly autocratic and corrupt, said in December that a freer press isn’t guaranteed, “even if there were 5 million people in the street.” The protesters have co-opted that statement, arguing that one demonstrator can make a difference. This is how the “1 of 5 million” protests got that name.

The demonstrators have taken Vučić’s words as a dare. In Belgrade, they routinely march past government buildings and the Serbian public broadcaster RTS, which has barely covered the protests. “If [Vučić] wants to talk to us, he needs to come to the streets,” university student Jelena Anasonović, one of the protest organizers, tells the Monitor.

Q: What sparked the protests?

On Nov. 23, masked attackers beat opposition politician Borko Stefanović. The next day at a press conference, Mr. Stefanović held up his shirt from the attack, sparking a “No more bloody shirts!” slogan. That slogan was used on Dec. 8 at the first Belgrade protest.

Students initially organized the protests with the support of opposition politicians. But the movement has broadened, attracting a diverse citizenry as it accumulates grievances against the state.

Solidarity protests have recently sprung up in ethnic Serbian enclaves of northern Kosovo. In January, protesters gathered for a special rally marking one year since moderate Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanović was killed. His murder remains unsolved.

Opposition politicians in support of the “1 of 5 million” events are attempting to gain public trust and distill their demands. Some have boycotted parliament in solidarity with the protesters. Alliance for Serbia, a coalition of opposition parties, has drafted an “Agreement With the People” that includes a fight for press freedoms as well as free and fair elections. Protesters at the Feb. 16 Belgrade march were given copies of the agreement to sign and place in boxes on the street.

Q: Why is media freedom in Serbia so pressing?

A recent report from Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization headquartered in Washington, downgraded Serbia from “free” to “partly free.” International observers see the state’s intimidation of press as a symptom of a backsliding democracy. Serbian journalists and media outlets have faced arbitrary tax investigations, limited ad revenue, and discrediting in government-allied media. Outlets critical of the ruling party have been either “shouted down by [Vučić] personally during press conferences, or ... torn apart for days by tabloids and on social media,” reports Una Hajdari for The New Republic.

In December Milan Jovanović, an investigative journalist, survived an arson attack on his home. The mayor of his town, belonging to Vučić’s party, is suspected of inciting the attack. And N1, an independent TV station in the Balkans, has received death threats against its Serbian journalists. Vučić has called the news outlet “antigovernment.”

Q: Where does Serbia stand in terms of joining the European Union?

Serbia is technically in line to join. It has already benefited greatly from the EU, its key trading partner. But Serbia stands to gain an even stronger economy as well as democracy through integration.

Serbia’s EU entry has stalled in negotiations limbo, with the biggest roadblock being its relationship to Kosovo. Serbia still does not recognize its former province that declared independence a decade ago. The 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia – then Yugoslavia – responded to waves of violence against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Vučić’s close ties with Russia have also complicated his moves to gain approval within the bloc.

Q: How did the Serbian government get to this point?

The protests represent Serbia’s largest street movement since 2000, when a popular uprising toppled Slobodan Milošević. Vučić is a former ultranationalist who served as one of Milošević’s information ministers during the wars that rent Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s. Vučić has been president since 2017 after three years as prime minister and has renounced his previous extreme views. Yet critics resent how he’s consolidated power and that his conservative party presides over all but three municipalities.

Though he’s open to snap elections in light of the protests, Vučić has also said he “will not give in to ‘blackmail from opposition politicians,’ ” reports Maja Živanović of the news website Balkan Insight. Vučić’s newly launched countrywide tour, dubbed the Future of Serbia, is seen as a response to the unrest. The campaign also appears as preparation for potential early elections.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.