Recent developments in the Balkans are returning Serbia to international focus. President Aleksandar Vučić, whose conservative-populist Progressive Party holds near-absolute power in Serbia, is currently embroiled in negotiations with Kosovo and the European Union. Yet at the same time, he faces a domestic backlash over the way his authoritarian rule is affecting Serbia’s own political life.
Every Saturday over the last seven weeks thousands of people have taken to the streets of Belgrade to express their outrage at the beating of left-winger Borko Stefanovic, one of the leaders of the opposition bloc “Alliance for Serbia.” These peaceful protests have also denounced increased media repression after a shady acquisition of the two national TV stations by figures close to the government, and the burning of an investigative journalist’s house with Molotov cocktails in the middle of the night.
It remains to be seen whether the protests will continue to grow. Yet in voicing their call for democracy, press freedom, and an end to political violence, the demonstrators are breaking through a blanket of silence imposed by Serbian political leaders and media alike.
The immediate spark for the protests came in late November, with the beating of oppositionist Borko Stefanovic and his associates. They were brutally attacked by a group of masked men before a scheduled panel discussion that the Alliance for Serbia was due to hold in the city of Krusevac. Stefanovic is the leader of the Serbian Left, a left-wing party that was one of the founders of this Alliance — an umbrella organization that has brought together around thirty parties and groups stretching across the entire political spectrum.
The Alliance does not seek to govern in the long run, but rather promotes the idea of a transitional government that would, it argues, pave the way for free and fair elections in the future. Consisting of radically different political orientations, members have agreed to hold common ground on issues such as Kosovo (upholding UN Resolution 1244, for a negotiated solution) and pro-Europeanism.
The iron rods used by Stefanovic’s attackers were widely described as having “painted” his shirt red. As a result of the assault, social media was flooded with #StopKrvavimKosuljama (#StopTheBloodyShirts), the slogan which now symbolizes the mounting street protests. Indeed, this event marked the beginning of spontaneous demonstrations in the streets of Serbia’s capital, which are now run by student groups with no political affiliation.
The protesters have made it clear they do not wish to be represented by any parties, and the Alliance for Serbia and other nonmember parties have thus far respected this choice. However, their shared goals focus on greater media freedoms, an end to political violence, and results in the investigation into the murder of Kosovo-Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic.
Indeed, the deterioration of media freedoms represents a key issue in Serbia today. Last year, publicly owned telecommunications giant Telekom acquired cable operator Kopernikus for around €195 million, a deal that was characterized by lack of transparency and a questionable market evaluation. Publicly available data tells us that Kopernikus has a market share of only 3.3 percent, or around 50,000 users, but Telekom argues that the number stands at around 200,000 users, making this acquisition worth roughly €1,000 per user. Experts argue that Kopernikus is worth much less, and that Telekom did not provide sufficient evidence to support the economic logic behind their evaluation, suggesting the possibility of a serious mismanagement of public funds.
One part of Kopernikus was owned by a Polish investment fund Abris, and the other by Srdjan Milovanovic, a Serbian businessman whose brother is an official in the ruling party. Milanovic’s part in the sale took place through his offshore fund in Cyprus. To make things more controversial, a month after the sale, Milanovic used the money to buy the two remaining nationwide TV stations under foreign ownership, Prva TV and O2, for around €180 million. The protests have raised concerns of a total media blackout following the acquisition, with many claiming there are no independent TV stations left in Serbia.
For an example of this we need look only at an incident involving TV Studio B, also owned by a businessman with close ties to the government. It sent a journalist to report live from the scene of the first protest. However, the report was conducted after the protest was already over, and there were no crowds to be seen. That did not stop the journalist from fabricating the report and stating that “barely anyone is out protesting,” while also directing several insults at the opposition and protesters. This report reminds many of the inaccurate reporting during protests against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in the 1990s, where the government used a similar style of reporting as a propaganda weapon on a daily basis. It is interesting to note that President Vučić was at that time the minister of information.
Lastly, an investigative journalist for a local website Zig Info, Milan Jovanovic, was targeted by unknown persons while sleeping at his family home at 3.30 AM. The attackers threw a Molotov cocktail through a garage window, while firing shots at his front door to prevent his escape. He and his wife were lucky to escape through a back window. Disturbing images of his burnt house circulated online, and a fund was set up to help him buy a new home. The international community condemned the attack, notwithstanding the passivity of the European Union, which consistently praises Serbia’s progress on the path of European integration. In fact, “on the ground,” the situation certainly does not seem to be improving with regards to the safety of journalists and their ability to report freely and independently.
Five Million Strong?
Across the last seven weeks, each Saturday more than ten thousand people have rallied in Belgrade to demonstrate against this authoritarian climate. Recently, the protests also emerged in other cities around the country, sending a clear message that not everyone’s voices are heard equally despite the government enjoying constant electoral support.
Yet even though thousands of people are protesting every week, media bias prevents their further popularization. The protests are either ignored completely or vilified. In any case, the authorities have shown their disdain: President Vučić claimed he will not fulfill any demands even if there were “five million people in the streets,” labeling the protests “political” gatherings orchestrated by his political enemies, the opposition leaders. Yet most of all the demonstrations are giving voice to forces unable to express themselves through established institutional channels.
And this is connected to the aims of the protests themselves. The people in the streets are asking for fair elections, free and independent media, and an end to the pervasive violence in Serbian society. Whether these demonstrations will continue to grow or slowly fade away remains to be seen. For now, heavy snow is not preventing thousands from gathering in squares around the country, peacefully marching for their values and their rights.