What were the protests in Serbia really about?

No, they were not against the anti-pandemic measures of the Serbian government.

Protesters gather in front of the Serbian parliament in Belgrade,
Protesters gather in front of the Serbian parliament after the president announced the imposition of a curfew due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Belgrade on July 7, 2020 [File: Marko Drobnjakovic/AP]

On July 7, mass protests erupted in Belgrade after President Aleksandar Vucic announced that the government would reimpose a tough curfew on the country amid a rising number of coronavirus cases. This came just two weeks after Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won an undemocratic parliamentary election, which the European Union readily accepted.

The police descended on the protests with brutal force, teargassing, assaulting and arresting unarmed, peaceful protesters and even beating passive bystanders.

The media in both Serbia and the West was quick to characterise the protests as anti-lockdown riots, but this was far from the truth.

The immediate trigger of the protests was public anger over Vucic’s decision to lift the initial lockdown in May and to portray himself as having successfully tackled the outbreak ahead of the June 21 elections, thereby making political gains but also allowing a new spike in coronavirus cases and deaths.

But the roots of the mass civil disobedience lie in years of political dissent among Serbians of all walks of life, fed up with the rife corruption, media suppression, neoliberal policies and creeping authoritarianism of the Vucic rule. This civil resistance is very much reminiscent of the grassroots revolution that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000.

Sacrificing lives to win an election

At first, Serbia’s response to the pandemic was prescient and systematic. A full lockdown and strict border controls were introduced on March 15, when the confirmed cases were still few.

Less than two months later and in preparation for the June elections, the government ended the state of emergency with no clear epidemiological explanation.

Overnight, Serbia went from one of the world’s strictest lockdowns to permitting and encouraging super-spreader events, including a Serbian Football Cup semi-final match with 20,000 spectators. Together, the sudden shift from lockdown to large gatherings and the falsified sharp declines in COVID-19 statistics served to tell a simple lie: The government had defeated the virus.

As expected, on June 21, the SNS won by a landslide in rigged elections with less than 50 percent voter turnout due to the opposition’s boycott and disillusionment fuelled by a widespread belief that the vote would be undemocratic. Shortly after the polls closed, videos emerged of COVID-unsafe celebrations with party leaders, including Vucic and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic.

Having both criticised Serbian citizens for the boycott and encouraged them to vote in the midst of the pandemic, US and EU officials readily endorsed the election results.

But the day after the elections, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) published an investigation, which revealed that the real number of COVID-19 infection and mortality numbers were three times higher than what the government officially reported. Vucic adamantly denied this but nonetheless on July 7, he announced a new curfew, noting that the health system was overwhelmed due to citizens’ irresponsible behaviour. This announcement triggered protests with tens of thousands of protesters flooding the streets and entering the parliament.

It is important to point out here that the protesters did not oppose government intervention to combat the pandemic. Rather, they were angered by Vucic’s disregard for the lives of Serbian citizens in shifting measures to accommodate his political agenda.

This reckless move reflected the very logic of his long political career: Power by any means and at any cost, even people’s lives and wellbeing.

Although Vucic is now reporting an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths, the numbers are still massively downplayed. On July 18, the official total number of COVID-19 deaths according to government data was 472, way below what BIRN reported in June – 630. Epidemiologically, this can only mean one thing – that the current real number of COVID-19 deaths is substantially higher than any available report.

Vucic’s EU-backed rule

Vucic’s political career has been mired by contradicting ideologies and suppression of speech. He joined the ultranationalist militant Serbian Radical Party in 1993 which was then the second-largest parliamentary party after Milosevic’s Socialist Party (Milosevic allowed the rise and influence of SRS as it was a vehicle for extreme nationalism while making him seem comparatively moderate).

Just five years later, Vucic was appointed minister of information. In the two years he occupied this position, journalists criticising the government faced mobbing, job loss and even murder, while propaganda spreading hate towards ethnic minorities was intensified in what was then left of Yugoslavia. These are considered to have been the toughest years for Serbian media under Milosevic.

After the overthrow of Milosevic, Vucic spent 12 years in opposition: first criticising the corruption, neoliberal profiteering and pro-EU politics of the ruling Democratic Party, then reinventing himself as a pro-EU figure, starting with his switch to SNS in 2008.

In 2014, Vucic became prime minister before running for president in 2017, with a campaign characterised by media dominance and voter intimidation. Vucic’s presidential election victory sparked two months of protests against his authoritarian tendencies.

Despite his criticism of the post-Milosevic transition and capitalist market reforms, since coming to power himself Vucic has continued and expanded neoliberal policies that have earned Serbia a reputation for having “cheap but skilled labour” that is “attractive to business”. The government has given cash incentives to foreign corporations as a way of attracting foreign investment. For example, Korean company JURA and Italian carmaker Fiat have received as much as 10,000 euros ($11,455) per job created.

But these government-subsidised corporations pay monthly wages as low as 250 euros ($286) and now are forcing factory workers to labour in unsafe conditions during the pandemic.

These investments have hardly improved the standard of living of Serbians. A 2018 Survey on Income and Living Conditions found that more than a quarter of Serbs are living on less than 150 euros ($172) per month. A third of university students plan to leave the country after graduation to find jobs within their profession, while some 50,000 Serbs emigrated in 2018 alone.

In parallel, as part of its austerity measures due to loan deals with the International Monetary Fund, successive SNS governments have viciously dismantled social security and the public sector. In 2014, Vucic unconstitutionally cut 700,000 pensions overnight by 25 percent.

The health system, which had been well-developed in socialist Yugoslavia, has been left to crumble, with Serbian citizens often forced to pay exorbitant fees in private clinics and hospitals to receive proper care. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, private hospitals are reportedly further inflating their fees.

Meanwhile, public hospitals are struggling with the growing number of patients and symptomatic cases who need to be tested. Vucic has claimed that Serbian hospitals are better equipped than those in Germany, but there have been continuing media reports of shortages of personal protective equipment and medical staff.

The president has also sought to make political gains with donations of medical supplies from abroad, trying to play competing foreign interests – EU, US, Chinese and Russian – against each other, even amid the pandemic.

Vucic’s unsustainable geopolitical game has resulted in a political agenda that deprioritises burning sociopolitical issues and civil rights in his country in order to focus on foreign policy and investment. While Serbian protesters were being mercilessly beaten up, Vucic was welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris to discuss EU enlargement and Kosovo negotiations, as if no human rights violations were taking place in the streets of Serbia.

For many Serbs, this was symbolic of where Vucic’s and the EU’s priorities lie. The Serbian president clearly reports to outside powers, not the Serbian people. And the EU – along with the US – favours autocratic “stability” over democracy as long as its interests are protected.

Vucic is scared and it is showing

After a week of police brutality, the protests have abated and Vucic has tried to pacify the public. The curfew that he announced on July 7 was scrapped and a dozen or so of the 150 people detained during the protests have been released.

The president has also claimed that Serbia will be one of the first countries in the world to benefit from an effective vaccine this year with the help of an unnamed country that is, according to him, already vaccinating vulnerable groups.

Vucic appears quite desperate but his attempt to placate the people’s anger with more lies is unlikely to succeed. He is right to be scared: This is the beginning of the end of his grip over Serbia.

He surely remembers what happened to Milosevic and is able to recognise the signs better than most. In the face of Milosevic’s tactics to crack down on opposition and media, resistance against his administration grew steadily over the 10 years of his rule. Protests started in 1991 and culminated with the 2000 revolution.

Many of Serbia’s youth grew up protesting with their parents against Milosevic’s dictatorship in the 1990s. They know first-hand that the “beginning of the end” can mean years of resistance and they are ready for it.

These most recent protests might have fizzled out but the youth’s determination to see genuine political change has not. Vucic may have successfully used the coronavirus outbreak to expand his power in parliament, but this will not save him from the inevitable. As public anger simmers, the full economic and public health consequences of Vucic’s mishandling of the pandemic are yet to reach their peak.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.