The European Protests You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Serbians have been demonstrating against their increasingly autocratic president for the last six months.

Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić listens to German chancellor Angela Merkel during a news conference in Berlin, March 15, 2017
Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić listens to German chancellor Angela Merkel during a news conference in Berlin, March 15, 2017 (Bundesregierung)

Large demonstrations have been taking place in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, every week since the end of November against the government of Aleksandar Vučić.

Vučić has been in power since 2014, first as prime minister and for the last two years as president. He leads the Serbian Progressive Party, which, despite its name, is right-wing. He started his career in the far-right Serbian Radical Party, which was founded by the convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj in 1991.

Divide

The 2017 presidential election revealed a deep divide in Serbian society. Vučić won 56 percent support on the first ballot, avoiding the need for a runoff. The Associated Press and Reporters Without Borders found that Vučić received ten times the airtime of all the other candidates combined.

Unsurprisingly, he did well with those segments of the population that rely on television for their information: the elderly and those without an advanced education. 41 percent of Vučić’ voters were pensioners. 73 percent had only completed high school.

The runner-up, Saša Janković, received most of his support from college graduates and the Serbian diaspora.

This divide is exacerbated by an exodus of young and educated Serbians, who seek a better life for themselves elsewhere in Europe.

Opposition

Opposition to Vučić’ rule centers on his autocratic style of leadership, the silencing of critical media and corruption in his government.

Most of the country’s advertising agencies are owned by a handful of tycoons who are loyal to Vučić. They buy advertising space only in newspapers and on channels that report favorably on him, choking critical outlets of income.

When newspapers refuse to toe the government line, they are harassed by officials and threatened with violence. That happened to the only independent newspaper in southern Serbia, Vranjske novine, which shut down in 2017.

An example of corruption involves €2 million spent on Christmas decorations in Belgrade last year. Requirements in the public tender were so specific that only one retailer could possibly meet them.

For comparison, the Croatian capital of Zagreb, which has been voted Europe’s best Christmas market for three years running, spends under €800,000 per year on its decorations.

Protests

The current protests started when opposition leader Borko Stefanović was attacked in November 2018. Although there is no evidence Vučić was directly involved, many blame him for creating a poisonous political climate in which people can no longer feel safe to speak out against the government.

The demonstrations, represented under the slogan #1of5million, call for Vučić’ immediate resignation and his replacement by a one-year transitional government.

Muted reaction

The reaction from the rest of Europe has been muted. Vučić at least provides stability in an unstable region. He has created favorable conditions for Western multinationalism operating in his country. And he has made concessions in the case of Kosovo, Serbia’s ethnic-Albanian breakaway province, which is high on the EU’s list of priorities.

Vučić knows how to play the West, which is keen to avoid being sucked into another Balkan quagmire. But the stability he projects is built on fragile foundations. Without a competitive democracy and the rule of law, there is no guarantee Serbia won’t slide back into authoritarianism.