Huge crowds protest Serbia shootings as Vucic plans new movement

Aleksandar Vucic steps down as head of governing party and announces plans to form a new movement as tens of thousands take to streets to protest mass shootings.

People attend a protest "Serbia against violence" in reaction to the two mass shootings
Protesters attend 'Serbia Against Violence', a rally in reaction to two mass shootings earlier this month that shook the country, in Belgrade, Serbia, on May 27, 2023 [Marko Djurica/Reuters]

Tens of thousands of protesters have rallied in the Serbian capital for a fourth week, calling for President Aleksandar Vucic’s resignation following two mass shootings in and near Belgrade earlier this month.

The rally on Saturday came as Vucic stepped down as the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) amid plans to form a wider political movement that he hoped would “unite a greater number of those who want to fight for the victory of patriotic Serbia”.

Vucic’s government is under pressure over the back-to-back shootings that left 18 people dead and wounded several others.

In the first attack, on May 3, a teenage boy killed nine pupils and a security guard in Belgrade. It was the first school mass shooting in Serbia.

A day later a 21-year-old man killed eight people outside the city.

The anti-government protesters, many of whom carried flowers and pictures of the slain children on Saturday, were angry at the governing SNS over what they say is a culture of violence fanned by the government and the media outlets they control.

Held under the banner “Serbia against violence” and organised by opposition parties, the protests have culminated into some of the largest rallies in the country since widespread demonstrations triggered the fall of former President Slobodan Milosevic more than two decades ago.

The crowds on Saturday braved heavy rain and wind in Belgrade as they filled the streets around a compound housing the state broadcaster RTS.

“I am here because I am fed up with the lies and corruption,” said Dusan Valent, a protester. “Nothing will change here until people realise it is possible and that we do have a choice,” the 40-year-old told the AFP news agency.

The protesters want the government to revoke the broadcasting licences of television channels promoting violent content and a ban on pro-government newspapers that stir tensions by targeting political dissidents.

They also called for Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic and the director of Serbia’s security agency, Aleksandar Vulin, to resign.

“If they don’t fulfil [the demands] we are not leaving from here,” said Milica Tomic, a Belgrade resident. “We will be here if it need be, every day, every week, whenever.”

Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Belgrade, said protesters blamed the government for encouraging a “culture of violence”.

“They also say the government is not doing enough to tackle corruption and that it’s drifting into an authoritarian direction,” he added.

Vucic meanwhile has accused the opposition of abusing the shooting tragedies for political ends.

Earlier on Saturday, he stepped down from the helm of the SNS and named his close ally, Milos Vucevic, currently the defence minister, as his successor.

The president, who won a new term in office last year by a landslide, has said his new national movement will be formed in June to include other parties, experts and prominent individuals and will promote unity.

“A slightly different approach is needed to unite a greater number of those who want to fight for the victory of patriotic Serbia … a successful Serbia that will focus on its citizens, for a country that will not look for reasons for division, but for unification and togetherness,” he told an SNS congress.

Supporters of Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic take part in a rally in support of his policies
Supporters of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic take part in a rally in support of his policies and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party [SNS], in Belgrade, Serbia, on May 26, 2023 [Zorana Jevtic/Reuters]

Vucic added that he would remain as head of state and continue to be a party member.

“I will never leave this party. I am proud to have led the best party all these years,” he told cheering delegates.

Analysts say the move is a bid to regroup amid mounting public pressure.

The president on Friday also organised a rally of his own supporters in a show of force against the opposition-led protests. Tens of thousands of people were bussed in from across Serbia, neighbouring Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and North Macedonia for the demonstration.

“Those who rallied in the past couple of weeks are, for the most part, good, decent and normal people who want what’s good for Serbia,” Vucic said during Friday’s gathering.

“Those I cannot appreciate are the politicians who will make history with dishonour by abusing the greatest tragedy of our people,” he said, referring to the shootings.

Opposition parties and rights watchdogs have long accused Vucic and the SNS of autocracy, stifling media freedoms, violence against political opponents, corruption and ties with organised crime.

Vucic and his allies deny the accusations.

The 53-year-old became president of the SNS in 2012, replacing Tomislav Nikolic, who had held the post since 2008 when the party was formed as an offshoot of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party.

He first served as the deputy prime minister and prime minister and was then elected president in 2017 and 2022. His second and last term expires in 2027.

Along with its allies, the SNS holds a majority of 164 seats in the 250-member parliament.

A nationalist firebrand during the wars in the 1990s, Vucic later embraced pro-European policies, proclaiming Serbia’s membership in the European Union as its strategic goal. He also maintains close ties with Russia and China.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies