On 27 November, democracy rolled through the streets and avenues of Serbia in the guise of a long, winding column of disgruntled citizens who for a moment stopped being animals sacrificed in the immediate vicinity of dangerous and destructive industrial plants, i.e. everybody that pollution will reach them sooner or later because there are no privileged people in Serbia today.
A wonderful day, then, to practice democracy, as well as the rally of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party; everything was arranged to show the true face of Serbia. It was dangerous or rather dangerous enough to recall the time when tanks were on the streets of Belgrade, trying to put out the 9 March uprising (‘Peaceful demonstrations for freedom of the press’, as the Movement for Serbian Renewal called them) against Slobodan Milosevic’s propaganda. It was also a good time to recall the 19-year-old protester Branivoje Milinovic, who was shot and killed by the police, and the police officer Nedeljko Kosovic, killed in the stampede by the protesters.
There were also many reasons to remember the ferocity of the uniformed and masked thugs who beat up citizens demonstrating over election theft in 1997, as well as the members of the Otpor organisation who were beaten with baseball bats at the end of Slobodan Milosevic’s rule in 2000. The then modus operandi, devised at the joint headquarters of the Socialist Party and the Yugoslav Left, was based on the intention to intimidate protesters, but also on a visible hatred, a reaction that went beyond the mere struggle for the preservation of power. The thugs were recruited from the police and their commitment to beating meant that there were no safe people in the country and that anyone who rebelled would have a problem with brutal force.
This time around it was right-wingers, educationally neglected delinquents of compromised mental processes, in ‘uniform’, like those in the town of Sabac, with long white sticks; they arrived in the black cars, with government number plates, and went into action immediately after the police had been ordered to retreat. These tugs were civilians, who were granted special official powers that would only be identified a few hours later when the uniformed police arrested the beaten protesters, but not the thugs, for violence. The Progressive gang was led by a certain Ceda Srnic, who will be remembered for his somewhat unusual weapon: he attacked the protesters with a hammer. Srnic manoeuvred the bulldozer through the mass of protesters, but it all went wrong. He was pulled out of the vehicle, in a forceful manner, by the protesters’ new hero, Crni (status – deprived of freedom).
We have seen disturbing images that should not bother us after having so much experience with conflicts – in Zrenjanin (protesters handcuffed), Novi Sad and Belgrade (a girl was thrown across a road fence by the commander from the Vracar police station). The action was led by the Minister of Police, Aleksandar Vulin, who was greeted with a song alluding to his illegal purchase of a flat (“How is your aunt, Vulin?”). He responded in kind, reiterating the mantra of equal rights for all citizens – “Disturbing’ the daily life of one’s fellow citizens, preventing them from moving around normally is not a matter of politics but an attempt to provoke conflicts and an attempt to create riots”, said the Minister.
And the head of the Serbian Progressive Party had given his answer before this exercise of democracy in the streets: “People must understand that by stopping traffic on motorways they are putting themselves in great danger”, President Aleksandar Vucic said the day after the police intervention while quoting the Constitution and the fundamental assumptions that refer to the restricting the freedom through allowing others to be free. All of which he recklessly trampled on.
Serbia has demonstrated a recognisable imprint of the Radicals, Vucic has not strayed far from Vojislav Seselj, the Serbian personification of three decades of fascist experience, of demagogic rhetoric prepared through a barrage and brutal confrontation with reason. And the citizens, let’s not forget, rebelled, because of two laws allowing shorter procedures for the expropriation of privately owned land. The amendments to the Law on the Referendum and Civil Initiative have abolished the 50% threshold of votes needed for a referendum to be successful. According to environmental organisations and experts, the amendments to the Law on Expropriation allow the seizure of the property from ordinary if that is in the state’s interest.
In practice, the government has been given a discretionary right, i.e. at its own discretion and without prescribed criteria and conditions, to declare certain projects as being of public interest, and anyone’s property can be sacrificed for such projects. Landowners have five days to accept or reject the offer to purchase the land and, if they refuse, they can appeal to a higher court. The procedure does not delay enforcement, so they will still be left without property. Their land will be taken from them, their house will be abolished and access to their courtyards will be allowed to anyone. There is a wide range of possibilities for this to fall victim to the construction mafia invasion, but the key moment will be Rio Tinto’s attack on property and the environment in the Jadar region, where the company intends to build a lithium mine, and in doing so, turn green pastures into a wasteland.
On this subject, Premier Ana Brnabić made a comment: “There is not a single land plot that needs expropriation, not a single one”. The President of the Republic is now being asked not to sign these laws. However, the unstoppable development of Serbia, which needs faster expropriations due to investments in the infrastructure, needs to be accelerated. And the rebellious citizens would like to survive and avoid endangering their health and having to endure ecological migration. The message they received, however, was not to protest and not to complicate things, because everything has already been bought and you have nothing left, even if you don’t know that yet.
Of course, the Progressives said that the protesters’ intention was to ruin the party’s rally, where at least 4,000 of Vucic’s followers gathered that day at the Stark Arena in Belgrade. Vucic also stated that: “If you look cumulatively at 2020 and 2021, Serbia is the country with the highest economic growth in Europe”. He also presented the bulldozer called Radisa, as the new symbol of a government that builds, while others on the streets are demolishing.
There is no doubt that we have seen hatred directed at the disobedient, but also nervousness that does not bode well for the people in power. The regime is visibly making one wrong move after another, and the opposition seems this time to be really coming together with a chance to reduce the monolithic nature of Vucic’s edifice a little.
The violence has begun, it will intensify, and this is the last phase of authoritarian rule. It can last and have large-scale tragic consequences. From Vučić’s point of view, thugs with sticks are only a temporary measure. He has recruits, he has other weapons besides hammers and it would not be realistic or wise to rely on his reason.
By Bojan Tončić
(Al Jazeera Balkans, 29.11.2021)
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