Police brutality marks the first two days of protests in Belgrade, while the third protest goes on without incidents.
The protests, which started Tuesday in reaction to the announced tightening of lockdown measures due to the worsening epidemiological situation in the country, continued on Wednesday and Thursday in several Serbian cities. The second day was marked by clashes between protesters and the police, who expressed severe brutality. The third protest went on peacefully.
Same as the first day, on Wednesday the protests were preceded by a press conference by President Aleksandar Vučić, at which he mainly spoke about the riots that took place in Belgrade during the previous night. He deliberately only mentioned the attacks the police suffered, while entirely avoiding answering questions about police brutality. He divided the people into malcontents and representatives of a “decent Serbia”, and caused public revolt by insulting particular protest participants who have in the meantime gained public popularity and support.
While addressing the public, Vučić somewhat softened his previous announcements about the reintroduction of curfew over the weekend and shifted the responsibility for that decision to the “crisis headquarters”. However, everything else he said did not go in the direction of calming the situation.
Protests followed in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš, Kragujevac and Kruševac, attracting thousands of participants.
The catch-all opposition coalition Alliance for Serbia called upon the people to meet in front of the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, while other groups simultaneously gathered in front of the Serbian Parliament. At the beginning of the opposition rally, Janko Veselinović presented the demands in front of the Alliance for Serbia. In short, they asked for shifts at the top of the police force to take place due to the brutality the protesters suffered, and for the appointment of a new professional and “depoliticized” crisis headquarters to fight coronavirus.
After that, that group of protesters left the so-called Philosophy Plateau and spontaneously headed towards the National Assembly. The leadersof the Alliance for Serbia thus disengaged from further influence on the course of protests, even though they called on people to participate.
For a while thousands of people demonstrated in front of the Parliament peacefully (with the exception of an occasional verbal insult to the police and the authorities). The somewhat monotonous atmosphere was interrupted at one point when a small group of protesters attacked the the leader of the Movement of Free Citizens, Sergej Trifunović, who suffered head injuries.
However, around 8 p.m., seemingly unexpectedly, a conflict broke out between the protesters and the police, who were present in large numbers in front of the Parliament. First the rioters picked a low-intense fight with the police cordon near the fence placed in front of the steps of the Parliament, but the quarrel grew in intensity and soon the police fired teargas at the protesters and started a broad counter-attack.
Everything that we witnessed after that, either personally, on the scene, or through live broadcasts on social networks and in the media falls far from the police practicing “complete restraint”, which is how the Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanovic explained their conduct at a late evening conference. The police didn’t merely intervene to supress a group of aggressive protesters; on the contrary, in the next following hours a surprising number of representatives of law and order were deployed, and from various units – from undercover officers, gendarmerie, to anti-terrorist units, shielded by semi-armoured vehicles and the cavalry.
The footage we have been able to see for the second night in a row show extreme and unnecessary use of force. The only motive for the police to push small groups of demonstrators in several directions away from the National Assembly the way it did could have been to train the strictness and combat readiness of the security forces in practice.
The Don’t Let Belgrade Drown (NDMBG) initiative didn’t participate in the protest on Wednesday, but they commented on the events in which they recognized some previous behavioural patterns of the authorities:
Tonight we witnessed a showwell-directed by the regime with the iam to get people involved in conflicts and present the dissatisfaction of the citizens as violent. People are justifiably angry, and the authorities tried to manipulate that anger today by inserting their provocateurs.
Riots and provocations in other cities
At almost the same time as in Belgrade, part of the protesters expressed violent behaviour in Novi Sad. Just like in Belgrade, the perpetrators were members of right-wing groups who first pelted Radio Television of Vojvodina with stones, and then threw stones at the seat of the ruling party.
This group of the protesters’ violent behaviour culminated when they smashed several windows and threw Molotov cocktails at the City Hall. At the moment of these incidents, the police was completely and surprisingly absent from the scene.
They intervened only a few hours later, not skipping the possibility of using tear gas and smoke bombs at the main square of the capital of the province of Vojvodina.
Wednesday’s protest in Novi Sad began with a peaceful gathering of several thousand people on the main square, where Miran Pogačar, member of the Joint Action Roof Over Your Head addressed the protesters and presenting demands which included the resignation of the Serbian President, dismissals of top police officers, dismissal of the crisis headquarters and the redirection of a huge sum that has recently beenappointed to the Serbian Orthodox Church.
In a live broadcast by N1 TV, Pogačar said that: “what is happening in Novi Sad and Belgrade is popular anger”. He also referred to the provocations on the part of the protesters:
I don’t know the people who threw stones. They are probably members of the SNS, and there are also people who become greedy in such occasions, Pogačar said for N1.
Later the police arrested Pogačar, who started to leave the protest when it became clear to everyone that the group of right-wingers, who were violent and who were causing the clashes, were obviously on a mission to act so. Pogačar has been detained for 48 hours and will be brought before the prosecutor to answer for the criminal offense of “violent behavior”, although, to our knowledge, Pogačar did not participate in the turmoil.
During the protest walk, protesters in Niš threw eggs at the SNS headquarters in that city, and egged the police station, too. In the course of the walk they greeted the medical workersat the Clinical Centre, with applause and shouted “Champions!”. Unlike other cities, in Niš there was no police intervention.
Right-wing groups also caused turmoil in Kragujevac by stoning a police station and attacking it with Molotov cocktails, although citizens protested peacefully there as well.
New round of attacks on journalists
Unfortunately, the previous night didn’t go by without attacks on journalists on duty.
According to the Beta agency, the police attacked their journalist in Belgrade:
They beat him with batons, even though he let them know that he was a journalist on assignment, and even after he had fallen to the ground, Beta reports.
The police also attacked journalists of the Nova S portal with batons in Belgrade, although they identified themselves. Milica Božinović, who was attacked the previous evening as well, suffered beating, as well as Nataša Latković.
In Novi Sad and Niš protesters attacked journalists and cameramen of the national broadcasting service, RTS, and several windows of the RTV building in Novi Sad were broken.
Journalists’ associations from the region reacted to these incidents, demanding that the police protect media workers.
Police in riot gear used excessive force, part of the protesters also exhibited violent behaviour, and journalist suffered attacks, too. We call on the police to pay attention and protect the media teams, and advise our colleagues to wear visible journalistic insignia and avoid situations that could endanger their safety, said Željko Bodrožic, president of the Independent Journalists’s Association of Serbia.
While the first two days of protests were marked by police brutality, last night’s protests ended relatively peacefully, with thousands of people dressed in white T-shirts sitting in protest on the streets across Serbia, and a much less significant police presence.
Although Aleksandar Vučić was prevented to hold a (what has turned into a regular) press conference, since he traveled to Paris the same morning to discuss the issue of Kosovo and European integration with the French President Emanuel Macron, Serbian president still found a way to address the domestic public. Through a video message he shot while being on the plane to Paris, he told the citizens of Serbia not to “confront the thugs, because we will do that as a state”.
We will work and we will win. We will keep the peace for our country, surrender was never an option; and now I am flying to Paris, to fight for our Serbia. See you soon. Serbia will win!
In the meantime, opposition representatives gathered around the Alliance for Serbia addressed reporters, too, proposing an introduction of urgent measures such as the formation of a new Crisis Staff, and a transitional technical government that would allow a transitional political period and “normalization of political conditions”. They stated that they would join the street protests, as they did during the previous days:
This is a protest of the people who can no longer withstand the violence, this is a protest against lies, against police brutality, that is, the brutality of the state. This is a protest for the life they took from us, said Dragan Djilas, one of the leaders of the Alliance for Serbia.
For the third day in a row protests were organized in many cities across Serbia. Most of the protesters sat quietly on the city streets dressed in white T-shirts as a sign of recognition, not only in the capital, but also in Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Niš and other smaller cities, too.
The „white T-shirt protest“
Several thousand citizens gathered in Belgrade at around 8 pm in front of the House of the National Assembly and close to the Pioneer Park. Dressed in white T-shirts, wearing the inscriptions “Don’t take the bait, sit down” and “Arrest hooligans, don’t beat your own people”, and whistling in whistles and trumpets, the gathered protesters distanced themselves from those who caused turmoil on previous nights.
They were soon joined by a group of doctors and health workers working in covid-19 hospitals in Belgrade, who arrived from the direction of St. Mark’s Church, in order to express dissatisfaction with the alarming health situation that “the state did not foresee”. Not agreeing to be filmed or photographed, they explained that they took to the streets to motivate other health professionals to come forward and talk about problems in healthcare:
It is too late for requests and epidemiological interventions, because the moves of the state in the last month inevitably had to lead to a catastrophic epidemiological situation and consequently – a complete collapse of health care.
Unlike the previous day, when they did not participate in the protest, the initiative “Don’t let Belgrade d(r)own” joined the protesters last night. They estimate that the atmosphere at the Thursday’s protest was completely different than before.
In their opinion, the absence of the police that has antagonized the citizens two nights in a row shows that the regime has realized its vulnerability and the fact that it can’t allow for images of police brutality to travel the globe. They supported the sit-in, stating that the citizens are acting responsibly.
The Social Democratic Union (SDU) issued several statements in which they have drawn attention to the fact that spontaneous protests in Belgrade and Novi Sad were “jointly disbanded by violent groups and the police”. According to the SDU, these actors provide each other with excuses to contribute to the escalation of violence, while right-wing groups “consciously or unconsciously help this goal”. SDU pointed out that the question of whether they do it in agreement with the police or not is for the time being irrelevant. What is important is that other participants leave such protests because they are prevented to express their justified indignation in an atmosphere of violence.
Together with twenty seven other organizations, SDU sent a request for the release of their comrade Miran Pogačar, who was apprehended after the second day of the protest in Novi Sad and detained for 48 hours under accusation of alleged violent behavior. After interrogation, Pogačar has been released today on his own recognizance.
Peaceful protests in other cities
Last night peaceful demonstrations were held in many other cities in Serbia.
Thousands of people gathered in Novi Sad to march in protest. They started at the Freedom Square and walked to the Police Department building, where Miran Pogačar, a member of the Joint Action Roof Over Your Head, had been held, to express dissatisfaction with his arrest and to demand his immediate release.
In Niš the protesters also held a sit-in at the city centre, in front of the Assembly building. The protest passed without major incidents.
Peaceful demonstrations were also held in Vranje, Kruševac, Kragujevac, Čačak, Bor, Zrenjanin and other cities.
Journalists under attack
During last night’s protests, several journalist teams were again attacked and injured.
Several journalists of the Nova.rs informative platform suffered severe head injuries. A journalist from Nova S television suffered head injuries and was transferred to the Emergency department of the Clinical Centre of Serbia. At one point, a group of so far unidentified young men pelted them with stones.
Earlier, reporter Vojislav Milovančević was also attacked by so far unidentified men in black T-shirts, wearing hoods, while he was reporting from the scene. According to some allegations, he was hit in the back of the head with a boxer or a similar sharp object. His bleeding wound was taken care of urgently by ambulance doctors, and he was later then transported to the Emergency department of the Clinical Centre of Serbia.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was originally published in Serbian on July 9 and July 10, 2020.