Severe heatwaves are not the only factor boiling up the atmosphere in Serbia this summer. Tens of thousands of people have been taking to the streets in a wave of protests for 12 consecutive weeks. The scale of these protests, erupting in Belgrade and spreading across almost 40 Serbian cities and towns, is the most massive wave over the last 20 years. One cannot help but wonder if the boiling tension on the streets amidst a volatile environment is a prelude to a supercell democratic storm determined to drive social change.
The perfect storm
Protests erupted in May in Belgrade in response to two horrific mass shootings that took place in two days. On May 3, a 13-year old killed nine of his schoolmates and a school guard in Belgrade’s “Vladislav Ribnikar” elementary school, while wounding six more children and a teacher. Still in shock and dismay, Serbia faced a new tragedy the very next day when a 21-year old killed eight and wounded 14, mostly young people, in villages nearby Mladenovac and Smederevo.
A spontaneous gathering of grief-stricken citizens on a small Belgrade square nearby the school in which the tragic shooting took place, soon extended into a wave of large-scale anti-government protests. The shock and dismay triggered the accumulated anger of citizens into civic protests against a chronic lack of political accountability and a prevailing climate of violence, which had been continuously normalised and fostered by the ruling politicians, pro-government media and tabloids. Mass protests united all parts of the society, raising support from schoolteachers, university professors and academia, students, journalists, citizens’ associations and civic activists across the country. The political opposition, mainly from the liberal and left side of the ideological spectrum, joined the citizens’ protests without party flags or symbols, translating their demands into the Parliament.
The fact that the protests erupted comes as no surprise, as there had been numerous earlier instances of civic revolt. So why are these protests important and attention-worthy in the middle of the summer holiday season?
Size matters, and so does persistency
One of the first things grabbing closer attention is the scale of the protests, both with regard to their size in Belgrade and the fact that citizens in almost 40 cities and towns across Serbia have become involved. An endless column of citizens first took the streets of Belgrade on May 8th, marching in complete silence from the plateau in front of the National Assembly towards the Government building where their demands were read, with occasional chants by citizens demanding resignations. Mass protests continued to gather tens of thousands of people each following week, blocking the highway on the busiest “Gazela” bridge in a 2km long column of protesters, rallying in front of the Radio Television of Serbia in the pouring rain, demanding that the public broadcaster reports on the protests and their demands, circling around the office of the President of the Republic, and protesting in front of the building of the pro-government Pink Television to demand the cancellation of its infamous reality shows that promote violence and malign content.
The initial reaction by President Vučić and his ruling party aimed to downplay the power and potential of civic revolt, using techniques ranging from daily addresses via pro-government and tabloid media, discrediting protesters, undermining the scale of the rallies by spreading false information and significantly downgrading the numbers of protestors, to organising pro-government counter-rallies. A rather well-coordinated reaction by the opposition parties, which in turn resulted in an increased support for them, is one of the reasons for cautious optimism. Responding to the prevailing wish to keep the protests civic, opposition politicians managed to display an unprecedented level of political restraint and provide organisational support in technical terms while leaving a space for the voice of select non-partisan speakers. A choir of these speakers has evocated the various scandals of the regime, its failed institutional response and political unaccountability, uniting into a hymn against the ongoing political violence.
According to one of a few independent and trustworthy chronologists monitoring Serbian protests for more than three decades, journalist Aleksandar Gubaš, four out of the seven largest rallies since 1990 took place after the May events. The third and fifth “Serbia against Violence” protests, gathering around 55.000 to 60.000 people each on May 19th and June 3rd, were the two largest political gatherings since the October 5th demonstrations in 2000. Even more importantly, their mobilizing potential to take the streets of Belgrade is unprecedented since 2000, at least five times stronger than that shown by Aleksandar Vučić at his most representative rallies, and comparable only to the Belgrade protests sparked by election theft in 1996/97, as Gubaš underlined. Mass protests surprisingly continue to endure over the hot summer months, albeit with a smaller turnout in the Serbian capital, but still gathering around five times more people compared to the “1 of 5 million” protests held in the summer of 2019.
The spark of citizens’ power spreading across the country
Despite summer holidays, supercell thunderstorms and efforts of the ruling party to undermine the protests, they have not only persisted but even spread to a number of cities across Serbia. Since May, more than 170 rallies of various sizes took place in almost 40 cities and municipalities, as reported by the “Stand against violence” website. To illustrate, during the week of July 17-22 alone, a total of 21 protests took place, the largest one noted in Valjevo. The importance of their expansion to smaller cities and towns can be understood only in a wider perspective, having in mind the pressures faced by citizens in smaller communities when opposing the ruling party, attending protests or being coerced to join pro-government rallies and ruling party events. Citizens’ associations and non-governmental organisations actively engaged in supporting civic activism report on these political pressures, while launching campaigns in an attempt to protect these citizens and their families from reprisal and to foster a sense of openness and freedom for civic engagement.
Those brave enough to take a stand risk, at the very least, becoming a target of a well-established machinery for orchestrated attacks and smear campaigns used by the ruling party to discredit and intimidate critics of the regime. A recent example is such a campaign aimed against student Pavle Cicvarić and his family, one of the speakers at the “Serbia against Violence” protest in Belgrade, who were openly targeted by the Minister of Public Administration and Local Self-Government Aleksandar Martinović. Martinović, a prominent figure within the ruling party, misused the Cicvarić family’s private data amidst a Parliament a session, showing their photos and stating their personal information along with false and partial data about their property, while the Speaker of the Parliament Vladimir Orlić remained disgracefully silent.
Deeply rooted dissatisfaction - No bubbles left to hide in
The devastating tragedies sparked deeply rooted dissatisfaction of citizens across the country, frustrated by a decade-long streak of dismantling of democratic institutions and processes, and centralization of power in the hands of President Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. Citizens’ associations, experts and journalists have been pointing out for years the consequences of democratic decay, diminished system of checks and balances, reduced space for genuine public debate and criticism of the ruling regime, of the (mis)use media for the promotion of hatred and malign content, normalisation of intolerance and aggression in public sphere, and promotion of impunity for lackeys of the ruling regime. Democratic backsliding in Serbia did not go unnoticed by the international public, as reflected in international surveys such as the Nations in Transit report, which reduced Serbia’s ranking from a ‘semi-consolidated democracy’ to ‘transitional or hybrid regime’ since 2019 due to negative developments with regard to media freedoms and the ruling party’s attempts to cement its power, among other issues.
People cannot be fooled (any longer) either - the majority of Serbia’s citizens believe that the country is a deeply flawed democracy, while a quarter do not consider it a democracy at all, according to a recent opinion poll from February 2023. Another one underlines an overwhelming disappointment with the performance of Vučić and the current government, with less than a fifth of citizens evaluating their results as good. While Vučić boasts about the country’s GDP and the Parliament approves extensive international loans, predominantly from China and certain Arab countries, CRTA reports that new economic measures presented by Vučić are no longer met with overwhelming support, even among regime supporters.
Shock, sadness and anger over the mass shootings shook every pore of the society, and revealed all the cracks in the system. While Prime Minister Ana Brnabić has repeatedly claimed that “the system did not fail”, parents across the country faced a dreadful reality – children are not and cannot be safe even in their schools while living in a deeply divided, distrustful society where violence and discrimination dominate the public space, not only in pro-regime media and tabloids, but even within institutions, through slanderous campaigns led by Ministers and MPs in the plenum of the Parliament. The spill-over effect of such a malign atmosphere is reflected in all spheres of society, as in the appalling statistics of 22 femicide cases in the first seven months of 2023.
The perfect storm has torn away any remains of the democratic façade, revealing consequences of stabilitocracy that has metastasized throughout the Serbian society. There are no safe bubbles left for the apolitical to hide in – support for these protests has managed to cross both political barriers and media bubbles. Almost two-thirds of the undecided and every fifth citizen closer to the ruling parties support the protests and their demands that could contribute to reducing violence, as reported by CRTA.
Demands for institutional response
The ongoing protests developed a list of concrete demands calling for political accountability and institutional response to the ongoing state of Serbian society. These could easily be addressed in practice if there were any political will. Along with the pressure of a united civil society and support of opposition MPs, the protests managed to coerce the Serbian Parliament at least a step closer to assuming the active role that a supreme representative body should have in addressing citizens’ demands. Yet the road toward re-claiming citizens’ and Parliament’s power is a thorny path filled with obstructions by the ruling majority.
Protesters are demanding the dismissal of three ministers because of their responsibility for the collapse of the system and their inadequate responses, of which only the Minister of Education Branko Ružić resigned amidst public pressure. The other demands were ignored, including the dismissal of the Minister of Internal Affairs Bratislav Gašić and head of the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA) Aleksandar Vulin, who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for advancing corruption in governing institutions, his implications in transnational organized crime, illegal narcotics operations and misuse of public office to facilitate Russia’s malign activities and degrade the security and stability of the region. Resignation of the members of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM) Council, seen as responsible for allowing aggressive, violent and malign programmes to be aired on TV stations with national broadcasting licenses, resulted with the resignation of only one of its members, Judita Popović. She stated that it had “become pointless to remain part of a body that ignores enormous social turbulence and public dissatisfaction".
The demand to convene a parliamentary session to discuss the state of the country after the two tragic events was met, but with significant impediments and without a worthy epilogue. For instance, the parliamentary committee in charge of education rejected the opposition MPs’ request to discuss the tragic shooting in the elementary school and demands for the Education Minister’s resignation. After multiple requests and pressure from civil society and opposition, Speaker of the Parliament Vladimir Orlić convened a plenary session of the Parliament with four items on the agenda reflecting the protest demands.
Due to an alarming stall to convene a sitting of the Parliament in the framework of the regular spring parliamentary session, the regular sitting had to be followed up by another extraordinary session of the Parliament in order to cover all four items on its agenda. Marathon discussions on these items, lasting more than 20 days, were marked by heated debates, strong politicisations, as well as smear campaigns aimed at delegitimising the opposition and protesters, and obstructions by the ruling majority. The parliamentary majority, and in particular the Serbian Progressive Party, again demonstrated their unwillingness to allow for the effective use of parliamentary mechanisms and to conduct genuinely meaningful and substantive parliamentary oversight and control.
The rest of the protests’ demands remained completely unaddressed so far, including the request to shut down print tabloids and notorious dailies publishing fake news, spreading disinformation and violating the journalistic code; the demand to revoke the national broadcasting licenses of outlets such as TV Pink and TV Happy, known for manipulating their audience and promoting violence and aggression; to cancel reality shows and all programs that promote violence and aggression aired on outlets with national broadcasting licenses; and replacing the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) Governing Board.
In pursuit of an epilogue
Unsurprisingly, the parliamentary session was closed without any significant conclusion. The lack of political will among the ruling majority to genuinely address citizens’ demands was evident from the start.
The majority in the Parliament voted to adopt the report delivered by REM and decided not to support the no confidence vote in Minister Gašić. The establishment of the parliamentary Inquiry Committee, which seemed to be the only productive result of this parliamentary session, was doomed by the ruling majority’s actions even before it managed to begin its work. After immense pressure against the parliamentary inquiry committee in pro-regime media, attempts of MPs and political analysts to discredit this parliamentary oversight mechanism, and deceptive interpretation on the role and functions of the committee as potentially compromising the investigation of the tragedies (which included a politicised appeal from victims’ families against the parliamentary inquiry committee), the Parliament abruptly impeded the inquiry committee with an unprecedented press release. The short life of the inquiry committee is yet another illustration of the ruling majority’s allergic reaction to political pluralism and political accountability, breaching parliamentary rules and procedures to hamper the effective use of parliamentary mechanisms, as well as the opposition from assuming even a small part of the space and role that it should have in a democratic parliament. Nonetheless, the opposition and civil society endure in the fight for an institutional response.
While the ruling majority evidently hopes that the summer holidays will help to cool off the citizens and their protests’ flame, the scale and persistence of the protests, and clarity of their demands, leave space for cautious optimism that the long summer will rather serve to recharge citizens’ batteries.
This article was first published by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Belgrade office. The text was written on 26 July 2023 and does not necessarily reflect further developments.
 The methodology used to determine the size of the protests is publicly available, gaining wider trust and publicity due to the technique of counting the numbers of protesters by hand. Nikola Kojić, “Kako se došlo do procene da je na protestu 3. juna bilo 55.000 građana”, N1, June 6, 2023, available at https://n1info.rs/vesti/protest-srbija-protiv-nasilja/ (Serbian only)
 Aleksandar Gubaš, „Vučića slušalo upola manje ljudi nego Kesića, Bjelogrlića i Ivanovića“, Danas, July 19, 2023, available at https://www.danas.rs/dijalog/licni-stavovi/aleksandar-vucic-zoran-kesic-dragan-bjelogrlic-ivan-ivanovic-miting-protest-srbija-protiv-nasilja-aleksandar-gubas/?fbclid=IwAR1v4JROhlEA5nUwFFF1u10T0Kw1tek_PQF6W89Dc_HpE2LT9G2KxpA3dSE (Serbian only)
 A network of associations of citizens, journalists and media against violence that supports the civil demands of "Serbia against violence" launched a dedicated “Stand against violence” website to inform citizens about
the locations of protests, their demands and their fulfillment. More information is available at https://protivnasilja.rs/en/
 Serbian Progressive Party - SNS is a member of European People’s Party.
 Political Attitudes of Citizens of Serbia, Center for Research Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), February 2023, available at: https://crta.rs/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Political-attitudes-of-citizens-of-Serbia-February-2023.pdf
 Public opinion poll conducted by Demostat in May 2023, available at: “Demostatovo istraživanje javnog menjenja Srbije”, Demostat, May 2023, https://demostat.rs/sr/vesti/istrazivanja/demostatovo-istrazivanje-javn… (Serbian only).
 Citizens on the „Serbia Against Violence“ Protests, CRTA, June 2023, available at: https://crta.rs/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/Citizens-on-the-Serbia-against-violence-protests-_june_2023.pdf
 Third Sitting of the First Regular Session of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia in 2023 lasted for six working days between May 18 and May 29, 2023. For more details, see the official activity report on the website of the parliament at http://www.parlament.gov.rs/Third_Sitting_of_the_First_Regular_Session_of_the_National_Assembly_of_the_Republic_of_Serbia_in_2023.47260.537.html
 Third Extraordinary Session of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, 13th Legislature lasted for 17 working days from May 30 to July 11, 2023. See the official activity report available at http://www.parlament.gov.rs/Third_Extraordinary_Session_of_the_National_Assembly_of_the_Republic_of_Serbia,_13th_Legislature.47320.537.html
This article first appeared here: rs.boell.org