Mood of re­volt as anti-Vu­cic pro­test­ers turn out

Kuwait Times - - Analysis -

Ma­jor op­po­si­tion protests in Ser­bia have been rel­a­tively rare over the past decade, but the icy Jan­uary air has ush­ered in a swelling mood of re­volt. Since last month, thou­sands of demon­stra­tors have ral­lied each Satur­day through Bel­grade’s frozen streets against Pres­i­dent Alek­san­dar Vu­cic, ac­cus­ing him of sti­fling me­dia free­doms and crack­ing down on the op­po­si­tion. This Satur­day, for the sixth time in a row, the marchers again hoisted their flags and ban­ners in a united dis­play of dis­con­tent against Vu­cic’s in­creas­ingly con­tro­ver­sial rule.

“Dic­ta­tor!” cried the crowd at a re­cent demon­stra­tion in the cap­i­tal. “We are with the peo­ple, not with thieves of yes­ter­day and to­day,” a ban­ner read this Satur­day as thou­sands marched along cen­tral Bel­grade street. “This is the coun­try for us and not for thieves,” ac­tor Branislav Tri­funovic, a prom­i­nent ac­tivist of the protest, told the crowd from an im­pro­vised stage set at a truck with loud speak­ers.

Tri­funovic also called peo­ple to protest again on Wed­nes­day to com­mem­o­rate the an­niver­sary of the 2018 mur­der of Kosovo Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic, a fierce critic of Pres­i­dent Vu­cic. Protests were also held in sev­eral other Ser­bian cities, in­clud­ing the south­ern town of Nis and cen­tral Kragu­je­vac. In Bel­grade, more than a dozen peo­ple again car­ried a gi­ant ban­ner read­ing: “Stop bloody shirts” - a ref­er­ence to op­po­si­tion politi­cian Borko Ste­fanovic’s blood­stained shirt after he was beaten up last Novem­ber.

It was that in­ci­dent that trig­gered the first protests. The as­sault was rem­i­nis­cent of the vi­o­lent at­tacks on po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents in the 1990s un­der the rule of late strong­man Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic. The au­thor­i­ties de­nied in­volve­ment in the at­tack on Ste­fanovic, but the Al­liance for Ser­bia, an um­brella group of op­po­si­tion par­ties from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, blamed Vu­cic’s Ser­bian Pro­gres­sive Party (SNS).

Then youth ac­tivists, who in­sist they are not af­fil­i­ated with any po­lit­i­cal party, de­cided to step in. “We re­alised that the time had come to do some­thing on the street,” one of the protest or­ga­niz­ers, Je­lena Ana­sonovic, told AFP. “The vi­o­lence, both phys­i­cal and ver­bal” in every­day Ser­bian life, had be­come “the norm”, Ana­sonovic said. Vu­cic, a for­mer ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist who now says he fa­vors Ser­bia join­ing the EU, has re­jected claims he has be­come au­to­cratic.

And de­spite the protests, opin­ion polls sug­gest Vu­cic’s SNS party dom­i­nates the po­lit­i­cal arena. Ser­bia’s di­vided op­po­si­tion that has lit­tle in com­mon other than an aver­sion to the pres­i­dent. The op­po­si­tion does not of­fer “a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to the au­toc­racy of Vu­cic” even though “he is un­bear­able”, said pro­tester Mi­los Ban­janin, a 27-year old econ­o­mist. The next na­tional vote is ex­pected in 2020 but Vu­cic, who served as premier from 2014 and be­came pres­i­dent in 2017, has hinted he could call early elec­tions. Ob­servers and polls sug­gest he would likely win.

‘One in five mil­lion’

The first anti-Vu­cic protest on Dec 8 drew sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple, but the num­bers quickly grew due to two un­re­lated events - the re­ac­tion of the pres­i­dent and a re­port by a pro-gov­ern­ment TV jour­nal­ist. Speak­ing after the first demon­stra­tion, Vu­cic told the na­tion “even if there were five mil­lion peo­ple in the street” he would not agree to the pro­test­ers’ de­mands. That acted as a cat­a­lyst for the demon­stra­tors, who adopted the slo­gan “one in five mil­lion”.

Then TV re­porter Bar­bara Ziv­otic, from the pro­gov­ern­ment pri­vate chan­nel said that “very few peo­ple” were demon­strat­ing. Those who were, she said, “call­ing for lynch­ing, rape, vi­o­lence and a coup d’etat”. Video of the re­port went vi­ral and was widely mocked on­line. “Thank you Bar­bara” pro­test­ers wrote on Twit­ter, as thou­sands of peo­ple were in­spired to brave the heavy snow and freez­ing tem­per­a­tures to join the protests. The lat­est protests brought out 40,000 peo­ple on to the streets say or­gan­is­ers, al­though po­lice have not con­firmed the fig­ure.

‘Break me­dia block­ade’

The scale of the de­mon­stra­tions “caught many peo­ple by sur­prise, in­clud­ing some (op­po­si­tion) politi­cians,” said Dra­gan Dji­las, an op­po­si­tion leader. Al­though op­po­si­tion par­ties hope to cap­i­tal­ize on the protests, which now in­clude celebri­ties and prom­i­nent ac­tivists, some pro­test­ers are wary of politi­cians try­ing to cash in on their suc­cess. “Only when the op­po­si­tion does some­thing to prove it­self in fight­ing” the au­thor­i­ties “will it get the right to speak,” said ac­tor Tri­funovic, one of the most prom­i­nent pro­test­ers. “For the mo­ment they can walk with us and shut up,” he said.

Pro­test­ers have called for the head of the pub­lic broad­caster RTS to step down. They want “at least five min­utes of air time each day” to “break the me­dia block­ade”, Tri­funovic added. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion last year raised con­cerns about me­dia free­doms in Ser­bia, de­nounc­ing threats, in­tim­i­da­tion and vi­o­lence against jour­nal­ists. But Vu­cic has re­jected such crit­i­cism. Ac­cord­ing to Ser­bian me­dia, the pres­i­dent could use the next week’s visit of Rus­sia’s Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin to show off the strength of his na­tional sup­port. “These are protests of all op­po­si­tion vot­ers who are un­happy with the au­thor­i­ties. At some point it will have to be po­lit­i­cally ar­tic­u­lated,” said in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Boban Sto­janovic. — AFP

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