Thousands of people are hitting the streets nightly across Serbia, protesting against the rule of Serbia’s Prime Minister and President-elect, Aleksandar Vucic.
Here, BIRN has prepared a guide containing the main facts about the protest movement.
When and where?
• The protests started on April 3, one day after Vucic won the presidential elections by a large margin in the first round. Thousands of people took to the streets of the capital, Belgrade, the second biggest city, Novi Sad, in the north, and in Nis, in the south.
• The protests have since taken place at 6pm or 7pm in towns and cities across Serbia, with the largest ones being in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis and Kragujevac.
• Between dozens and hundreds of people are also protesting daily in other towns, including Subotica, Sombor, Kraljevo, Krusevac, Zrenjanin, Leskovac, Pozarevac and Bor.
Who and How?
• While some refer to “student protests”, the rallies have in fact drawn more mixed groups. The young comprise a large proportion of the participants, and in many cities students or even high school pupils are behind the social media invitations to events. However, people of all ages and social status have also joined in, including pensioners and workers.
• The first protest was scheduled on Facebook by Nemanja Milosavljevic, who set up an event page, “Protest Against Dictatorship”, calling on Belgraders to take to the streets and protest against Vucic’s rule. Milosavljevic has not spoke to the media since.
• The protests in Belgrade have no official organisers. Those who want to join in agree on where to march each day on a Facebook event page and via a Facebook group, called “Against the Dictatorship.”
• When some right-wing activists attempted to lead the Belgrade protests, they were quickly booed away by protesters who insist they want no leaders and no specific organisers.
• The Belgrade protests gather people from all over the spectrum including liberals, right-wingers, supporters of opposition parties, anti-NATO activists, Russophiles, EU supporters, and more.
• The rallies in Novi Sad, unusually, had an official organizer from the start – the Students Movement, an association of students from Novi Sad University.
• Protests in other towns across are mainly organised like those in Belgrade, via the social media.
What do they want?
• On April 10, the protesters across Serbia issued a joint list of demands they have put to the authorities. These demands were agreed on Facebook, where everyone could suggest requests and participate in the discussion.
The demands are:
Abolition of the ‘dictatorship’ and the complete removal of the political elite headed by Aleksandar Vucic
Fair and Free Elections – the cleaning up the electoral roll, which is widely believed to contain ineligible and deceased voters; removal of the management of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media, REM, and of the State Electoral Commission, RIK; equal access by all candidates in elections to the media; imposition of strict penalties on those putting pressure on voters; obligatory TV debates between candidates; transparency over the costs of election campaigns. The protesters also want the regularity of the recent presidential election to be checked and reassessed.
Free Media – removal of the top management of the public broadcaster, RTS, and of the provincial broadcaster RTV; the sanctioning of all editors who breach media laws and the journalists’ code.
De-party-isation – removal of all party-assigned and corrupt officials from state-owned and public companies.
Decentralisation – direct elections for local government and more power to be given to local authorities.
Shift in priorities of economic and social policies
Protection of labour rights and improved status of all workers – changes to labour laws to improve the conditions for workers and uphold their rights; increase in the minimum wage
Protection of living standards – pension and wage cuts to be scrapped; reform of the welfare system; agricultural reform and increases in subsidies for farmers; revision of agreements with the IMF; no further privatization.
Entirely publicly financed educational and health services that are available to everyone
• In the first couple of days, the protesters made no specific demands of the government.
• On the third day, however, students from Novi Sad and Subotica came up with demands that included the immediate resignation of Maja Gojkovic, the speaker of parliament, the removal of the top management at the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media, REM, the State Electoral Commission, RIK, and the public broadcaster, RTS.
The also called for the cleaning up of the electoral roll that is said to contain the names of more than a million ineligible voters.
The Students Movement of Novi Sad has submitted additional demands in the socio-economic field, such as ending austerity measures. These demands were quickly accepted by the protesters across Serbia and were later expanded.
• Other groups that have joined forces with the protesters, such as the police and army unions, have made their own demands concerning improving the livelihoods of their members.
• In the presidential elections on April 2, Vucic won 55 per cent of the votes cast while the runner-up, former Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, won 16 per cent.
• Observers noted few irregularities on election day. However, the campaign that led up to it was marked by Vucic’s dominion over the media, his alleged abuses of his post as PM to campaign and by vicious attacks in the pro-government tabloids on opposition candidates and on people close to them.
The Centre for Electronic Media and Communications, CEM, an NGO monitoring the campaign in the media, published a report ahead of the vote highlighting Vucic’s “absolute dominance” of all national TV stations between March 2 and 22.
In its report, CEM said that whether the media gave Vucic a lead over the other candidates was not in question. The only issue was which media gave him the bigger advantage.
The day before the “election silence” started, all major dailies in the country featured a large advert for Vucic on their front pages.
• Prior to the election, watchdogs reported that lists of “safe votes” were being compiled by Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party. Cases were reported of civil servants and even some workers in private companies that cooperate with the state being made to support Vucic rallies or give financial support.
• Ahead of the elections, the RIK also ruled that the votes from Serbs in Kosovo would be transported to Serbia for counting, a move that the Serbian Constitutional Court deemed unconstitutional in June last year.
• The protests, however, have focused more on Vucic’s rule – which the protesters term a “dictatorship” – than just on the election. The authorities are accused of eroding freedom of the press, running campaigns against government critics, and introducing laws and measures that affect the workers and erode their rights. The ruling Progressives are accused of holding a tight grip generally over everything in the country and of corruption.
• Three rival presidential candidates Sasa Jankovic, Bosko Obradovic, Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli, as well as most opposition parties, have expressed support for the non-violent rallies. The ultra-nationalist Radical Party leader, Vojislav Seselj, has also supported some of their demands.
• Vucic has said the protests are legitimate as long as they remain non-violent. “There are always people not satisfied with election results. It’s a democratic process. Nobody intervened, we allowed them to protest,” he said on April 6.
By Filip Rudic
(Balkan Insight, 12.04.2017)
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