BALKAN BLOG: Protests with staying power

BALKAN BLOG: Protests with staying power
Serbian protest movement "1 in 5 million" have been happened every weekend for months
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest March 17, 2019

It has been another weekend of political drama in three Western Balkan states. Albanian opposition supporters tried to storm the parliament in Tirana but were forced back by riot police. Demonstrators in Serbia forced their way into the state television station in protest against media bias. And there were more mass anti-government protests in tiny Montenegro. 

The Western Balkans have a habit of periodically breaking out into thousands-strong protests that erupt in several countries simultaneously before eventually petering out in the face of entrenched local elites. The time around, months of protests in Serbia — that have more recently been mirrored in Albania and Montenegro — show no signs of abating, but the political leaders of the three countries, all elected by landslide votes, have no reason to cave. 

It was this intransigence on the part of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, evident in his swift and decisive response to the initial protests in Belgrade, that gave rise to the name of the movement, “1 in 5 million”, when the president announced that he wouldn’t agree to protesters’ demands even if there were five million people in the street. 

That would be unfeasible in Serbia, whose population numbers just over 7mn, but the protests, which have taken place every Saturday evening since December 8 regularly draw tens of thousands of people and have spread from Belgrade to other Serbian cities as well as Serb dominated northern Kosovo. 

In an echo of Ukraine’s Maidan protests in 2014, the protests were were initially sparked by a single issue, an attack on opposition Borko Stefanovic in the town of Krusevac, but they have since become a lightening rod for the more general dissatisfaction with the ruling party.

Opposition figures claimed Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) was behind the attack, though this has been denied by the ruling party. But from their initial focus on Stefanovic, the protests have expanded in scope to a backlash against what participants say is Vucic’s autocratic regime and the destruction of media freedom in the country. They want Vucic and the government led by the SNS to resign. 

“[T]he protests reflect dissatisfaction with the current regime that goes far beyond the single issue of political violence. The roots for this dissatisfaction lie in broader concerns over Vucic and his party eroding political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media outlets, the judiciary and the opposition, while also suffocating civil society organisations,” wrote Maja Bjeloš of the Prague Security Studies Institute for the LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog

“What started as a protest against state violence and unprecedented state media control revealed all the cracks of a deeply broke system,” wrote Alida Vračić, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), in a comment on the Serbian protests. “Unresolved murders; attacks on political opponents, the media, and free thinkers; decades of restricted democratic freedoms; and the general atmosphere of fear have finally resulted in fully fledged protests resembling those of the late 1990s.” 

“97,500 — resist!”

The trigger for the more recent protests in neighbouring Montenegro, were the accusations of corruption levelled against long-ruling President Milo Djukanovic by the owner of two troubled local banks. In January, businessman Dusko Knezevic claimed a warrant had been issued for his arrest by a “clan” related to the president, who, he claimed further, had been trying to take over his businesses and properties along Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. Knezevic also says he was one of the biggest donors to the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) over the last 25 years, and released a video showing himself giving money to a member of the DPS to support Djukanovic’s campaign in the 2018 presidential election. The DPS has downplayed Knezevic’s importance as a donor, but protest organisers say he gave €97,500 to the party, a figure that gave rise to the name of the movement: “97,500 — resist!” 

At the protests so far, participants chanted “Milo, thief” and carried banners reading “No more crime”, “Rebellion” and “We are the state”. While the main grievance voiced by protesters concerns corruption, they also accuse Djukanovic of undermining human rights and media freedom. 

In addition to Serbia and Montenegro, two more of the aspiring EU entrants from the Western Balkans have been racked by protests this spring. 

Supporters of Albania’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party, have poured onto the streets of Tirana in a series of mass rallies since February 16, most of which have turned violent. On February 16, the main entrance to the Albanian parliament was demolished, and 10 days later clashes with police broke out as demonstrators tried to stop ministers from the ruling Socialist Party from entering the parliament. Protesters even defied a police decision not to permit the rally scheduled for March 5 over fears that MPs’ lives could be put at risk. 

The Democratic Party, which has a highly adversarial relationship with the Socialists, accuses Prime Minister Edi Rama of crime and corruption, and says protests will continue until Rama agrees to an interim government pending early elections. 

Justice for David

The wave of protest in Bosnia’s Serb entity, Republika Srpska, has very different origins. The protests started to gather momentum in December, but the story started last March when 21-year-old David Dragicevic was found dead in the river Crkvena near the regional capital Banja Luka. His father Davor Dragicevic and his supporters have been gathering ever since, seeking to find out the truth about his death. Over time, the number of people attending the protests has swelled into the thousands, and their demands have expanded to encompass protection for the rights of all citizens. 

Police responded by banning their gatherings, and clashes broke out on December 25, which led to arrest warrants being issued for the organisers. David Dragicevic’s body was exhumed from where it lay in a Banja Luka cemetery and will be reburied in the Austrian town of Wiener Neustadt where his mother lives. His parents say they don’t want their son to lie “in a mafia state”. The Justice for David campaign continues. 

The four protest movements in four separate Western Balkan countries have different origins but underlying most protests in the region are corruption, growing authoritarianism and lack of opportunity for ordinary people in an area of widespread poverty, alarmingly high unemployment and mass emigration. GDP may be rising more quickly in the region than on most of the European continent, but from such a low starting point, the catchup process is expected to take decades. And that’s just the economic perspective. On top of that are the politics. 

“The protests share on thing in common. They are directed towards the authoritarian leadership, pro-government state media, corruption, and painful chronic absence of the rule of law,” wrote Vračić. 

The long wait for accession

Part of the problem has been the long drawn out transition in countries in the region and, until recently, the lack of hope that they will make progress towards EU accession — arguably the single greatest incentive for reform in Central and Southeast Europe — in the foreseeable future. While Brussels has sought to change things with the adoption of the Berlin Process in 2014 followed by a European Commission strategy that sets target accession dates for some of the Western Balkans countries, there is a lot of ground to recover. 

“Despite the renewed, albeit limited, focus of the EU on the Western Balkan region, and the odd rays of sunshine piercing the dark clouds here and there, the overall situation has not improved during the past year,” wrote Erwan Fouéré, associate senior research fellow of think tank the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), in a January 2019 policy brief. “Weak parliamentary institutions coupled with the absence of a culture of political dialogues and compromise have rendered society even more fractured and polarised than heretofore. Reforms in the ‘fundamentals’ of the EU accession process have had a mixed record. Despite the progress registered in terms of laws and regulations adopted, there has been little impact in terms of changing habits and mind-sets in societies but on patronage where who you know is the quickest way to get things done.” 

In recent years, however, opposition forces in most countries across the region have struggled to make headway, even given the undoubted problems with the way states in the region are governed. As bne IntelliNews wrote in a 2018 comment “Divided, weak and doomed to fail”, the fact that most states in the region are dominated by single parties and their leaders may be mostly because of the tools successfully employed by the ruling parties, but at the same time numerous small opposition parties seem incapable of setting aside their personal ambitions and working together to beat the status quo.

This resulted in successive protest movements that burned briefly before flickering out. Early 2016, for example, looked much like early 2019, with series of protests in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, followed by the “Don’t Drown Belgrade” protests in Serbia following the furtive overnight demolition of a historic district of the capital to make way for the Belgrade Waterfront development. More protests followed in Serbia in 2017 when Vucic, formerly the country’s prime minister, was elected president. 

In most cases such series of protests eventually dwindled, the recent petering out of the mass protests in Hungary that started with the adoption of the so-called “slave law” at the end of 2018 being a case in point. 

What may be different in Serbia and Montenegro in particular this time is that the protests have drawn in a broad range of opponents of the presidents and ruling elites of the two countries.

Leaders stand firm 

So far, the countries’ rulers have not been moved to bow to the protesters’ demands, despite the high numbers, and it would be wrong to view the protests as a simple matter of good versus bad, campaigners for the rule of law and media freedom against corrupt local elites. 

Firstly, these are all democracies, albeit flawed ones, and the leaders in question won their last elections convincingly: Vucic and Djukanovic were elected to the presidencies of their respective countries in the first round of the last presidential elections. Rama’s Socialists increased their share of the vote in Albania’s latest general election by enough to dispense with their former coalition partner and form a government alone. Both Montenegro and Serbia were classed as Semi-Consolidated Democracies by NGO Freedom House in its latest Nations in Transit report, while Albania was a Transitional Government or Hybrid Regime. 

Secondly, the participants in the rallies range from liberal intellectuals to far-right opposition politicians. “They have brought together people from different social classes and united leftists and far-right nationalists … members of the police, military unions, and lawyers from several cities have also supported the protests,” writes Bjeloš of the protests in Serbia. 

Some of the most vocal opposition to the Montenegrin government comes from the Democratic Front, several of whose leaders are on trial for their role in the 2016 coup attempt with the suspected involvement of members of the Russian intelligence services.

Meanwhile, in Albania, the Democratic Party was repeatedly criticised for its efforts to stall the Socialists’ reforms to the judicial system. More recently, officials from the EU and Albania’s other western partners have appealed to the party to refrain from violence and for its MPs to return to parliament. 

One of the calls made by protest leaders has been for governments to resign. Yet each can refer back to their latest poll victory. This perhaps inspired Vucic’s early avowal that he would not cave to protesters’ demands, although, as Bjeloš writes, the involvement of police and military unions “presents a more worrying problem for Vučić, potentially leading to a less cautious response than he pursued in the early weeks of the protests. However, attempts by the opposition to capitalise on the government’s failures have been far from effective,” she adds. 

Meanwhile, the Montenegrin government has been relatively neutral in the face of repeated protests, while Rama invited opposition leader Lulzim Basha to meet him, an olive branch that was turned down. Yet as a response this was tame compared to Rama’s decision to sack half the cabinet in the wake of student protests last year; specific issue protests that involve the population at large have typically had more impact than anti-government actions until the numbers grow really huge. 

The exception in the region was Macedonia, where protests repeatedly reached the tens of thousands in spring 2015, in a country of just over 2mn. This eventually led to an intervention by the EU, which brokered the Przino agreement between government and opposition, followed by a snap election that eventually — after months of negotiation and the storming of the parliament by supporters of the outgoing government — led to the opposition taking power. 

What got Macedonians onto the street in such huge numbers was “the bomb” a dossier complied from illegally wiretapped conversations among top officials that revealed rampant top-level corruption. So far, the opposition activists behind the protests in fellow Western Balkan countries have not had such a powerful tool at their disposal. Yet this year’s protests still have sticking power. It’s a long way off being a “Balkan Spring” but the protests may yet bring about some changes in the region.