Day three of protests against fuel price hikes – No solution in sight

It’s the third day of the protests against fuel price hikes, with drivers continuing to block the roads throughout Serbia and the police trying to prevent them from doing so.

Dušan Ivanovic is one of a hundred people from Mladenovac who is participating the road blocks. Since seven o’clock this morning, lines of trucks, tractors and cars have blocking the traffic on the Kragujevac – Belgrade main road, including Dusan’s tiller.

“Maybe it’s funny, but I have neither a car nor a tractor, so I decided to use my tiller,” says Ivanovic for the BBC.

At age 63, he is unemployed and earns his living from farming three hectares of land.

However, he says, after the last increase in fuel prices “he does not know whether he will be able to continue.”

“It’s the price of oil, my friend. Write this down. These are not political protests. We are interested only in the oil price, and to be able to farm until the city government puts a stop to that too”, says Ivanovic for the BBC.

For three days, disgruntled farmers throughout Serbia have been protesting against growing fuel prices and have been blocking important roads in cities and across the country.

Several roads in Serbia today were blocked for traffic and for several hours.

Protests are held on the main roads around Kragujevac, Mladenovac, Indjija, Sid, Nis and in many other municipalities in Serbia, as well as in the streets of Novi Sad and Belgrade. Police have prevented drivers to block the Gazela Bridge in the capital, and according to the informal sources, several demonstrators were arrested in Belgrade and Kragujevac.

The public company Putevi Srbije reported that due to the protests, the traffic on several routes in Serbia was suspended.

The traffic was suspended at the intersection of Sremska Mitrovica – Sabac, Sremska Mitrovica – Drenovac, and the Licka toll booth, , as well as on the Smederevo – Kovin route.

The traffic was also suspended in Ljubovija, on Mali Zvornik – Rogacica road, Ruma – Sabac, the bridge near Sabac, the Kragujevac-Kraljevo road, and in the village of Gruža, as well as on the Bela Crkva-Kovin road.

As we unofficially find out, a few people were arrested in Kragujevac, Mladenovac and Belgrade, with the police arresting several demonstrators near the Sava Centre in their attempt to block the road. The police have not yet confirmed this information.

All of the protestors want just one thing from the Serbian government – to reduce fuel prices. Fuel prices rose from the beginning of the year by almost nine dinars per litre for petrol and eleven dinars for diesel.  After the last increase, the 95-octane petrol costs 152.02 dinars per litre, Eurodiesel 161.71 dinars while more expensive fuels cost 167 dinars per litre.

How did the protest start?

It all started on social media with the hashtag #nestalomigoriva and it was on social media that the protesters decided to assemble and start blocking the roads.

After the first protest on Friday, the traffic was stopped for an hour in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Kragujevac, Zajecar, Nis, Pancevo, Sabac, Novi Pazar and several other cities with protests and blockades continuing across the country.

The protestors stopped cars at the agreed time at a designated location, claiming they were “out of fuel”, and thus stopping the traffic.

The traffic on the Mladenovac-Belgrade road was interrupted almost the entire day.

“The guys are in a good mood. Emergency cases and pregnant women are being let through. But we are very determined because they we why we are here, “says Ivanovic for the BBC.

“We are not interested in politics, we are only interested in living in this area because Mladenovac is the most undeveloped municipality that saw all of its industry. Agriculture is our only source of income”, he says.

“The Facebook group was created to assemble the dissatisfied citizens. On the first day of the protest we had 200-300 people gathered blocking the entrance and the exit to the city,” said the 26-year-old Djordje Bubanj from Kragujevac.

In addition to the main Facebook group, every city made a group for themselves, for easier organization.

“The momentum is growing and more people are gathering together. If our demand for reduction in fuel excise is not met, we plan to take the protest a step further, namely to block the roads all night. There is also a plan to block the road leading to Belgrade”, says Bubanj.

How did the government react?

The reactions from the Serbian government to the protest are mostly negative.

Interior Minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic said that the Serbian government was ready to discuss any issues, but not under the pressure.

“No-one protesting in the streets will dictate how the government should behave,” Stefanovic said.

He also warned the protesting citizens that “they must be aware that they are in violation of the Law on Public Gathering,” and added that there will be misdemeanor charges if the law is violated.

Transport Minister, Zorana Mihajlovic said that the traffic blockade was also intolerable and should be condemned.

“We are talking about blocking the traffic where the cars carrying babies, children or the elderly cannot pass through, and in this hot weather that means endangering their lives. This has nothing to do with fuel prices, but with creating chaos in the country”, Mihajlovic added.

The Ministry of Mining and Energy says that blocking traffic roads in cities across Serbia is not a way of expressing dissatisfaction with any issue and that it is illegal.

“The fuel price is an issue that we can always discuss, and there is no reason to interfere with the traffic,” said the ministry.

At the time when the protests were announced on social media, Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic called the protest organizers as “politically crazy”.

After the protest, he said that everyone has the right to protest in Serbia, but in accordance with the law, and added that it was probably the opposition that was behind the protest.

“How come nobody says – “well done, Vucic, we have the cheapest bread in the region”? Or the cheapest electricity? We are being lectured about fuel prices by the very people who sold the Petroleum Industry of Serbia. Whoever wants to protest is welcome to do so, but there is a law on public gathering that should be respected. You can hear Djilas and Jankovic criticizing the government too, as well as Zivkovic, Jankovic and Borko Stefanovic. It has all been organized beforehand”, says the president.

What can the government do?

Ljubodrag Savic, a professor at the Belgrade Faculty of Economics, told BBC that the state could lower the excise on fuel, but the question is whether the citizens would then have to cover this decrease.

“If we don’t pay this much fuel excise, that can cause a budget deficit, which will be then funded either through issue of state securities or new borrowing. This will hit those people who do not drive cars and are just trying to survive,” says Savic.

He points out that the problem is not simple and reminds that the excises went up in 2014 in line with the austerity measures, as recommended by the IMF, while this year, there has been no increase as such, but the excise was rather aligned with the annual inflation growth.

Savic says that in Serbia some 30 percent of taxpayers still do not pay taxes and contributions regularly, and if they were held more accountable, the excise tax would probably be lower.

“I am not trying to defend the state here, and I do not think that we have a responsible and efficient state. But I think everybody should start with themselves. Citizens are under the impression that fuel is too expensive, but statistics show that our prices are somewhere in the middle compared to other regional countries”, he adds.

Professor Savic adds that even though we are operating in market capitalism, “in our heads, we still have this attitude that when the things are tough, the state is always there to bail us out”.

“In principle, this is the right attitude, but only in the wealthy, socially responsible and market efficient countries. Since we are not, the situation is more complicated here,” concludes Savic.

(BBC Serbia, 11.06.2018)

Photo credit: BBC Serbia

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