The Serbian Movement Against Violence

On May 3, 2023, a 13-year-old boy entered his school in central Belgrade with a gun and opened fire. He is currently in a psychiatric clinic, and his father is in custody, accused of training the teenager to handle weapons and failing to adequately secure the pistol. Only a day later, a young man of 20 randomly fired at people in a rural area south of the capital. Altogether, 17 people have been killed and 21 wounded, most of them children or very young. One injured girl died in the hospital 10 days later.

What followed were three protests: silent marches of more than 50.000 people each. The third, the largest one on May 19, lasted long into the night, without serious incidents. Citizens peacefully walked through the city with the banner “Serbia against violence and blocked Belgrade’s most important Gazela Bridge over the river Sava. Apart from expressing grief over the lost lives, demonstrators are criticizing the government for encouraging a culture of violence and hate speech, which is omnipresent in the official media space and freely used even by the president, Aleksandar Vučić.

Protestors demanded the resignations of two ministers and the withdrawal of broadcast licenses for two TV stations that are close to the state—“Pink” and “Happy”—which promote violence and frequently host convicted war criminals and people from the underworld. Both are famous for their violent reality shows that, by some estimates, make up 60 percent of their recent programming. Protestors also demand that tabloids, sharing the same appreciation for hate speech and violence—such as Informer, Kurir, Blic, and Telegraf—be put under scrutiny.  Nearly 450,000 people have signed a petition calling for concrete actions.

A History of Protest

Protestors from the democratic opposition in Serbia often call their actions “walks.”  Like the Australian aborigines, they are performing a sort of “walkabout” in search of the soul of their country, which the Western media so often portrays as barbaric and brutal. The current “walks” in Belgrade continue a ritual journey started a long time ago. The anti-war movement organized a number of protests in 1991-1992 against Slobodan Milošević’s regime,  opposing the army’s actions in the Battle of Vukovar, the sieges of Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, and military conscription. About 150,000 people took part in the largest protest—the Black Ribbon March—in solidarity with the people of Sarajevo. Somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 people deserted from the Yugoslav People’s Army, while between 100,000 and 150,000 Serbs emigrated as part of their refusal to participate in the war. Despite these numbers, the independent media and anti-war groups from Serbia did not attract much international attention.

During  the winter of 1996–1997, students of the University of Belgrade protested against the electoral fraud attempted by the Socialist Party of Serbia of President Slobodan Milošević and demanded the return of the university’s autonomy. At the same time, opposition parties created the coalition Zajedno (Together) and organized a series of peaceful protests.

But on December 24, 1996, the government coalition Za Srbiju (For Serbia) organized a large counter-protest. Milošević told his supporters that “Serbia will not be controlled by someone else’s hand,” implying that his hand was adequate. To the chants of “Slobo, mi te volimo” (“Slobo, we love you”), Milošević responded with “I love you too.” Before, during and after the rally, supporters of the regime physically confronted the opposition. Police intervened, but not promptly enough. One person was killed, another seriously injured. Serbia seemed to be on the brink of the civil war.

A few years later, the country again approached the precipice. On August 25, 2000, Ivan Stambolić, a former mentor and political ally of Milošević, was kidnapped from his home and later executed. Milošević was accused of orchestrating the assassination. The anti-government youth movement Otpor! (Resistance) led the campaign against the administration and for a transparent democracy. To unify opposition, 18 parties formed the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition, with Vojislav Koštunica as the candidate to confront Milošević. Across two months of protests, several hundred thousand protesters arrived in Belgrade, chanting “He’s finished!” Although there was no larger escalation of violence, 65 people were nevertheless injured in the riots and two died. DOS won the elections in December with a two-thirds majority. On 1 April 2001, Serbian police detained Milošević, and he was later transferred to The Hague.

More Recent Protests

The “walks” are still going on. Promises have not been held and hate speech continues, as does the perpetual reinforcement of old nationalist myths. The rise to power of Aleksandar Vučić didn’t help. At the end of 2018, voices started to be raised against president’s authoritarian rule. First in Belgrade and quickly spreading to the cities across the country, this round of demonstrations lasted more than a year before being suspended in March 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. What provoked anger were numerous scandals involving ruling party members, information about strange arm deals and corruption, questionable electoral practices including the intimidation of voters, and violent attacks on opposition figures. Assaults on investigative journalists and pressure on independent media had again become commonplace. Freedom House reported on legal harassment and smear campaigns. But oppositional parties didn’t come with a convincing alternative program and nothing at the top changed. For his part, Vučić organized a number of rallies under the banner of the “Future of Serbia,” handsomely assisted by a pro-government media that demonized protesters as “fascists, hooligans, and thieves.”

The walks continue amid a growing crisis of democratic institutions. In 2020 Gradjanski Otpor (Civil Resistance) called for a boycott of the elections, while representatives of the academic community demanded a change in the editorial policy of the Serbian public broadcaster RTS. For the next two years the streets were often occupied by one initiative or another:  both pro- and anti-LBGT manifestations, reactions to COVID measures, actions against police brutality and in favor of media freedom. To most of these demands for change, Vučić gave his characteristic answer, calling participants criminal, foreign elements.

The biggest environmental protest (and the only successful one) started in September 2021 and lasted until February 2022. It was held in Belgrade and other locations in Serbia. Tens of thousands of people demanded that the Serbian government cancel the permission given to the Anglo-Australian corporation Rio Tinto  to explore mines near the Jadar Valley and exploit the silicate mineral, jadarite. On January 8, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić announced that the government “was close to annulling all permits given to Rio Tinto” and later confirmed that the plan had indeed been abolished. She didn’t shy away from accusing Western governments of supporting the protests.

What’s Happening Now on the Streets

In 2023, the mass protests are taking place yet again. The pro-governmental TV station Pink has reported that a “handful of haters” are harassing the people. The government proclaims that the protesters are anti-Serbian, unpatriotic, and a danger to the state. For his part, Vučić sent the demonstrators a message: “Serbia is fed up with your destruction of everything Serbian!” He informed his supporters that “sister services from the east told him that these are attempts at ‘color revolutions,’” alluding to the change of government in Kyiv in 2014.

Meanwhile, the government has issued an invitation to a May 26 counter-rally, where, according to the authorities, “the real Serbs” will pledge their fealty to the motherland and its leaders and oppose all inner and foreign enemies that are struggling to influence them.

According to the Miroslav Parovica, the president of the opposition National Freedom Movement:

The government officially announced that the system works well, and to top it all, the president of the state publicly invites his supporters to protest against the citizens of Serbia who did not accept the official version about the responsibility of video games and social networks (for the killings)… it is important to support and encourage the citizens to persevere in this silent march that will eventually win over an aggressive and hysterical government unwilling to take responsibility and show even a gram of empathy and reason.

Prominent copywriter Nadežda Milenković adds, “The authorities support … street demonstration of power, brute force, ignorance, lack of education, lack of compassion, demonization… The only thing they do not support is demonstrating decency. If you try to show the authorities what unadulterated humanity looks like, the authorities will demonstratively pout.”

The government has done one good thing: organized a mass handover of illegal arms. To date, citizens have turned in more than 13,500 weapons), from guns and hand grenades to anti-tank launchers and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. But this is far from enough. Social insecurity, underlying violence, mistrust, manipulation, propaganda, economic problems, and confusion concerning the future are all taking their toll. The president consistently glides between pro-EU and a pro-Putin positions while loudly proclaiming his independent position.

For their part, the democratic opposition and the peaceful citizens of Serbia are hoping to become a serious factor of change. But the clear and present danger is that an organized, obedient, and paid group of protesters will take the stage on May 26. They may well become violent. The government is well aware of it. Indeed, given its consistently violent rhetoric, the government might even encourage it.

Mira Oklobdzija is an independent researcher, activist, sociologist and anthropologist. For the last 12 years, she was a researcher on the team of experts working for the office of the Prosecutor at the UN ICTY. Her books include Revolution between Freedom and Dictatorship and, with Slobodan Drakulic and Claudio Venza, Urban Guerilla in Italy, as well as a number of articles dealing with human rights, political violence, war crimes, reconciliation, migrations, human nature, xenophobia, marginal groups, and outsiders. She lives in The Hague, Netherlands.