For two days in a row Serbian citizens have been protesting against their government and the new anti-pandemic measures the president had announced. Both on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon the protests started peacefully, only to turn into a havoc of protester-police clashes and police brutality as the night fell. The alt-right is trying claim the lead and steer the riots according to their agenda. Meanwhile, some left wing organizations see the demonstrations as a spontaneous expression of people’s justifiable dissatisfaction with the government and long accumulated anger.
The demonstrations were triggered by the way the president of Serbia had addressed the citizens at a press conference he had held Tuesday afternoon. Namely, he announced a decision to reintroduce a curfew in the capital over the weekend to come and possibly also pronounce a new “round” of state of emergency. He also blamed the citizens directly for the heavy coronavirus outburst Serbia has been struggling with during the last few weeks, i.e. since the parliamentary elections.
Immediately after the press conference citizens took to the streets.
Psychologist Sarita Bradaš believes that the spontaneous protest represented the citizens’ reaction to the fact that the president accused them for the acute crisis: “I don’t think that the [people] reacted that much against the announced curfew. They were provoked by the fact that the authorities held them accountable, while it was obvious that the state is, in fact, responsible for the current situation”.
She explained that from the point of view of social psychology, the government managed the coronavirus crisis terribly. Namely, the authorities provided the population with insufficient and contradictory information. This, according to her, typically leads people to assess the dangers they face either far too dramatically, or to dismiss them – or revert to both, intermittently or simultaneously. The resulting cognitive dissonance disables cold reasoning and paves the way for purely emotional reactions. In the end the citizens felt disoriented, distressed, lost any trust they still had in the authorities, and gave in to justifiable rage.
Bradaš also pointed out that the persons in political power have much better access to medical prevention and medical care in relation to coronavirus, while the general public is left wanting since the public healthcare system is overburdened and faces collapse:
People are sick and tired of such injustice, Bradaš concluded.
Alt-right in protest
On the first night of the protests, around 10 p.m., a group of demonstrators separated from the crowd and stormed the Home of the National Assembly of Serbia. They spent some fifteen minutes there before the police intervened and threw them out. The security door was knocked down, but no major damage was done. A former MP of the alt-right Dveri party, Srđan Nogo, entered the Assembly together with the protesters and (unsuccessfully) tried to impose himself as the leader of the protest.
On several occasions lately Nogo appeared as a leader of right-wing protests. He is otherwise known for his extreme right-wing and extremely anti-immigrant views, and for spreading 5G conspiracy theories. He used to be a member of the extreme right-wing Dveri party, from which he was expelled in 2019, and an MP since 2016.
Just a few days earlier, more precisely July 2nd, together with members of an ultra-right group called No Surrender of Kosovo and Metohija, Nogo tried to take over a students’ protest held at the same location. The students held a rally protesting announcement that they were going to be evicted from students’ dormitories due to epidemiological risks. During that protest, two female students and activists of the Joint Action Roof Over Your Head called for the removal of right-wing symbols from the protest. Since then, they have both suffered daily insults and numerous threats of sexual and other violence.
Preliminary reactions of activists and leftist organisations
Several activist and leftist organisations, including Don’t let Belgrade d(r)own (NDMBG), the Socialdemocratic union (SDU), Joint Action Roof over Your Head, Marx21, and others, issued public statements in which they advocate a view of the protests as being a spontaneous expression of people’s justifiable dissatisfaction with the government and long accumulated anger.
Representatives of NDMBG have so far been present at the protests, reporting on it through live footage via Facebook. NDMBG activist Radomir Lazović, stated for Mašina:
We do not take part in the protest’s organizing, or call for mass gatherings. People gathered spontaneously, and we just covered it through our communication channels. Nevertheless, we do support the dissatisfaction which citizens express within the limits of our capabilities. It is clear that the criminals in political power sacrificed the lives of our fellow citizens (i.e. eased the coronavirus related measures, editorial remark.) to hold the elections. The medical system collapsed, and the only point of the newly introduced measures is to cover-up the government’s incompetence.
Our initiative will fight this dictatorship with all available means. We need to be cautious and put citizens’ health first, which is exactly why we don’t call for mass gatherings. Still, we will oppose the dictatorship through civil disobedience, small scale activities, petitions, law suits, dialogues, talks, each day and everywhere.”
President of the Socialdemocratic Union (SDU), Ivan Zlatić, a party hoping to succesfully gather several existing left wing organisations under its wing, also stated that he believed the protest to primarily be a spontaneous erruption of accumulated rage. He said that SDU will observe the happenings closely, adding that all well-meaning political actors and organisations with an emancipatory agenda must, naturally, stand against the police and state violence which has obviously „gone too far“.
Media coverage of the protest
Many people commented that the national broadcasting service, RTS, failed to provide any information whatsoever on the dramatic events in Belgrade. Thousands of people on the streets, an intrusion into the parliament, clouds of tear gas, fierce clashes between police and demonstrators, dozens of injured, police vehicles set on fire – and all that in front of RTS’s central studio – were not enough for this television to report on the events in time.
Printed editions of the pro-regime media either ignore the protests entirely or demonize dissatisfied citizens. This includes media such as the Informer, Večernji novosti, Kurir and Srpski Telegraf, all of which have a large audience.
The media heroes of the protest are female journalists from the N1 informative platform.
They were present at the eye of the storm, inspiring awe, and setting an example for professional reporting. From the very beginning of the protest they stood in the front lines, together with the protesters, shedding light on what was happening in front of and behind the police cordons; they swallowed tear gas together with the people and explained ways to fight its effects, explained police field formations and the protesters’ movement and talked without hesitation about police brutality.