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Spontaneous protests against Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s announcement of a new lockdown to prevent the growing number of coronavirus (COVID-19) patients overwhelming hospitals appear to have been hijacked by far-right groups and foreign intelligence services.
The protests started on July 7 as a revolt against the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and decision to hold elections during the pandemic. They swiftly turned into attacks on the police and institutional buildings and destruction of public property, mainly because of the involvement of far-right groups, which in turn caused a police reaction and clashes — only to calm down on July 9, then erupt into violence again on July 10.
The protests continued even though Vucic said that he had given up on imposing a new curfew, the purpose of which was to rein in the heavy increase in new coronavirus infections.
This leaves Serbians facing two worrying questions. First, the uncertain future of the protests and how they will affect political stability and the international position of the country. Second, how the spread of the virus will be controlled at such events. Police used a lot of teargas, which made everybody at the protests cough in close proximity to each other, protesters chanted loudly close to each other, they approached police officers to curse and hit them with stones, glass or whatever they could find — even digging out pieces of asphalt for this purpose. Both of these will affect the economy and the lives of ordinary citizens.
Fighting on the streets
After Vucic announced his decision on July 7, that evening, thousands of people went to downtown Belgrade to protest against the new weekend curfew for July 10-13.
The rally started as a peaceful gathering with participants wearing face masks and maintaining social distance. The number of citizens protesting peacefully was growing when extremists joined and started vandalising the city. A group led by far-right politicians broke into the building of the national parliament. As the police weren’t really prepared for a massive protest and as the protest wasn’t an organised gathering, the situation got out of control quickly. Police used force — beat the demonstrators and teargassed them as they tried to keep them out of the parliament. This caused a stampede.
Glass bottles and torches flew through the air as some protesters approached the police cordon and attacked them with whatever they had in their hands, according to N1.
The fight between police and protesters lasted for several hours —whenever the police forced the protesters back with teargas or by rushing into the crowds, the crowd returned to push back. By the end it was not clear what their goal was.
After almost eight hours of clashes, Belgrade’s streets were finally empty but demolished. According to police director Vladimir Rebic, five police cars were burnt on July 7, 43 policemen and 17 protesters injured as well as three police horses, daily Danas reported.
Larger numbers of people came out onto the streets of major cities in the country, Belgrade, Novi Sad, Kragujevac and Nis, on July 8. The July 8 action also started as a peaceful rally, though participants were chanting against the president, insulting the police, singing about Kosovo, glorifying convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic and loudly voicing their opposition to being vaccinated against the virus.
The opposition and its leaders presented their demands to the government related to changing doctors in the coronavirus crisis group as well as for responsibility to be taken by police officers for brutality against citizens on July 7. They also demanded that public broadcaster RTS report on the protests neutrally, N1 reported.
Just like the previous day, the gathering later turned violent and the mood became increasingly politicised. The gathering started at 6pm and ended hours after midnight. That day 10 cops were injured and one had both legs broken, Minister of Interior Affairs Nebojsa Stefanovic said, RTS reported. He didn’t comment on the number of injured protesters.
The protest on July 9, however, was radially different from the first two as it was peaceful throughout with no conflict between demonstrators and police. But violence returned the following night, when protesters again tried to storm the parliament. According to the public broadcaster RTS, 19 people were injured and taken to ER that night while 70 protesters were arrested.
Protesters fear lockdown hardship
The protests started as a spontaneous reaction of citizens mad at Vucic’s decision to impose a curfew again as well as mandatory vaccination for flu in the autumn. On July 10, the country had the largest number of registered deaths from COVID-19 in a single day —18 people lost that battle, covid19.rs data indicates.
Serbia had a strict lockdown this spring, but Vucic canceled the state of emergency and lifted all measures on May 6, likely aiming to secure a larger number of voters in the June 21 parliamentary and local elections as well as to get the economy moving again. This led to a massive re-opening of bars, restaurants, clubs, public gatherings, proms, weddings, football matches and tennis tournaments, without any preventive measures. Simply said, life went back to normal. For their part, citizens didn’t take any personal responsibility and behaved as if the virus wasn’t present anymore, claiming that everything was permitted.
However, infections continued to spread, hospitals started getting packed and the health system faced worse difficulties than during the first couple of months of the pandemic. The very day after the elections, the government started announcing new measures as spikes occurred in a few towns. According to the latest information from the official COVID-19 website for Serbia, 386 of the 8,646 tested in the last 24 hours had the virus. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 370 people have died of coronavirus which is a 2.09% death rate.
The number of positive tests is some way below the real number of infected people as many stopped going to get tested since COVID hospitals are overcrowded and the most dangerous place to be right now. The tests have a high percentage of false negative results so people with identical symptoms often have different test results. Not everybody with symptoms is being tested either and many (mainly teenagers and young adults) don’t feel any symptoms and but still carry the infection.
As the economy opened up from May, more people got infected at work. Several spikes occurred in factories throughout the country. In many towns like Vranje and Novi Pazar, in the south and west, respectively, whole families got infected. Often young people caught the virus first, but being almost asymptomatic unknowingly spread it to friends and relatives.
A couple of infected people who didn’t want to be named in this story said that the COVID hospital was the scariest thing they had ever seen. “This thing is serious! People are dying! This will destroy us! If it doesn’t kill us, it will kill our economy because if the government doesn’t stop everything now, for at least two weeks, this will not stop. We have mainly public healthcare, money for hospitals comes from the budget. There is no budget in the world that can manage this… On the other hand, if the economy stops, people will lose their jobs, their incomes, they will start dying of hunger in addition to corona. These are very tough times and no one knows how [the crisis] will be overcome. We need to unite and protect each other as much as possible. That’s the only way to get time for protests, healthy and safe protests,” one told bne IntelliNews.
People who were already angry with the government because it kept them locked up for two months and then just opened everything back up as if nothing had happened got madder because they saw the attempt to impose a new curfew as hypocrisy and fake care, and thus found it reasonable to protest and risk getting infected. Behind this madness was the fear that a new lockdown would lead to job losses and poverty. Many see it as a better outcome to get infected and recover than to lose their job and never find a new one.
The government launched stimulus measures in the spring — including direct assistance to all adult Serbian citizens of the dinar equivalent of €100 — but these will not last indefinitely. The moratorium for bank loans declared by the government in late March already expired at the beginning of July.
The unemployment rate remained flat month-on-month at 9.7% in Q1, according to the National Bank of Serbia (NBS), but this is likely result of jobs being temporarily ‘frozen’ during March, the first month of the corona lockdown. Worse figures are expected for Q2.
Eight years after his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won its first election in 2012, Vucic remains popular among large swathes of the Serbian electorate. The SNS’s recent victory in the June 21 general election owes much to perceptions of Vucic and his leadership during the pandemic. Serbians have become increasingly polarised under the SNS’s rule and the president’s opponents are angry and frustrated. Others see no realistic alternative to Vucic and the SNS; the latest wave of protests have no apparent leaders.
Some citizens who are worried that protests could go far enough to force Vucic to resign even though he said it wasn’t going to happen, saying: “I’m elected by the people! I am not scared of anyone!”, in his statement to the nation on July 8.
“Vucic is not the nicest person in this country but he is way nicer than those… I don’t even know how to call them. Who will take over the government if they kick out Vucic? [Former Dveri member Srdjan] Nogo and [Dveri leader Bosko] Obradovic? It won’t be good for any freedom lover in Serbia. Because, you know, Russia and China are not the same as the EU. I do not want to live in country that follows the standards of Russia and China and has a wall between it and the EU. They [Nogo and Obradovic] didn’t participate in the elections either, they can’t be put in any governmental position, oh… I’m very scared and worried! The EU boosts our economy not Russia or China! Their loans cost us too much and not only in money,” Boris Nikolic, 38, told bne IntelliNews.
People interviewed by bne IntelliNews on the streets of Belgrade were obviously concerned and very divided about their reasons for worrying.
A bne IntelliNews reporter met A. Djordjevic, a high school teacher, carrying a copy of daily Kurir on the street in downtown Belgrade. He showed the reporter an article about Russian interference and yelled that he is tired of Russian pressure and their attempts to “make Serbia bleed”.
“Until when we will have to deal with this? It is clear who is behind this! Russian student at the protests? Really? How it was not a Danish student? Or Polish? Or German? Look at this [he showed a picture from the paper of the torn up streets after the protest]. These are our streets! No one deserves this! This has nothing to do with the regime and whether it is good or bad… I hope people will cool their heads and stay at home. People are dying in hospitals while some insane brains are destroying streets! That won’t make Vucic leave. It’s pointless as they have no one legitimate and legally elected to put into Vucic’s position! This hurts!” he said.
Mihajlo Z., a young doctor from Belgrade, told bne IntelliNews that even though many citizens of Serbia still remember the brutality of the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s police, this is completely different situation.
“People are ‘a priori’ against Vucic because he was part of that machinery in the 90s and connect him with violence against protesters on the streets conducted by Milosevic’s police. That’s not the truth and not fair. We need to be fair and admit that he didn’t have anything to do with that, nor was he was beating anyone. What we are seeing on our streets the last two days is insane. People are violent to the police, out of control, driven by some madness! Jumping into the parliament building just because I want to? Come on! That’s not normal. And yes, the police need to react to that and protect the institution,” Mihajlo told bne IntelliNews, adding that is very well known who did that and who paid them to do so.
“Dveri and their former big star Nogo! It is not a secret that they get money from Russia to block any development of Serbia into a modern society. These are same people that, together with hooligans [sports fan groups] attack the gay population, hate national minorities, migrants, every non-traditional-patriarchal-Serb! Vucic needs to get rid of them somehow,” he said.
He didn’t comment on the risks of future infections caused by protest saying that, as a doctor, doesn’t even dare to think about that.
Vladimir S., a waiter in a prestigious Belgrade restaurant, told bne IntelliNews that the protests are exactly what Vucic deserves because people are sick of his lies and manipulation. Vladimir was furious during the conversation, claiming that everything bad in his life is Vucic’s fault.
“People are tired of his humiliation! I went to the deepest low by taking this job even though I am an expert in a rare field. But, I can’t do it because I’m not a member of his Serbian Progressive Party. So, I had to humiliate myself and go to work in a restaurant for minimal pay and pray for a good tip! This mess and broken streets is exactly what Belgrade deserves. And that false corona drama! Hey, what corona? I hate this job but I make decent money to live a normal life. I do not really want to lose it too, like I lost the one that I loved!” he yelled.
Asked by the reporter if he voted on June 21, he yelled again saying that the election was “fake BS” and that everybody knew that Vucic would win. Asked again why he still didn’t vote as there were 20 more lists besides the SNS’ that offered options from the extreme right to the extreme left, he responded:
“Why? He would still steal and win! He is a liar and manipulator!”
The reporter further asked him if he is aware that it is not really possible to steal that much as the SNS won almost four-fifths of the seats in the parliament, he reacted:
“Those are votes of idiots — retired retards manipulated by Vucic!”
Asked again if he know that, in the end, citizens will pay for the reconstruction of the destroyed city (though taxes and increased prices), he said:
“They are getting nothing from me!”
Ivan, a manager in an export-import company, has similar feelings. He told bne IntelliNews that he is sick of Vucic and his people and thus wants to express his revulsion on the streets.
“It is my right to protest against a regime I do not like. I didn’t vote because I hoped the people would see what Vucic does and massively boycott the election. This didn’t happen as ‘sheep’ voted. Now we have nothing else to do but to protest for democracy,” he said.
Marija T., an administrative worker, believes also protests are her democratic right and only way forward for Serbia is to get rid of Vucic.
“This is just the beginning and we must not stop! We have to free Belgrade and Serbia. We are stronger than corona. And, no one can play with us — locking us down, then letting us do whatever than again locking us down. Sorry, Vucic, I’m not scared of you and your swindlers in police uniforms!” she told bne IntelliNews.
Sadly, no one at the demonstrations appeared to have thought about the virus, which was likely being spread widely, and how dangerous it could be to join such a mass gathering, especially as on the same day a record number of patients tested positive for coronavirus in Serbia.
The far right joins in
While the protesters had legitimate grievances, a group of far-rightists also turned up to the protest on the evening of July 7. They were led by Nogo, a loud anti-vaxxer and opponent of closer ties between Serbia and the West but a strong supporter of “brotherhood” with Russia. In the 2018 and 2019 “1 of 5 million’ anti-government protests, Nogo showed up with a noose, symbolically trying to express his feelings for Vucic. He was also calling on people to “hunt migrants”. Nogo was in the front line of the violent entrance into the parliament building on July 7.
There are clear signs of conflict between regular protesters and those from far-right groups. Leaders of the right-wing opposition Alliance for Serbia (SZS), for example, tried to join the protesters but other people kicked them out.
The narrative from far-right groups is that the protesters who challenged them weren't ordinary citizens but plain-clothes police who had infiltrated the protests. At the beginning of the July 8 rally, SZS representative Janko Veselinovic warned about “political provocateurs” and claimed “criminals” infiltrated the protest, N1 reported. After the first protest, a warning from a former cop (who is now a partner of Dveri and the far-right) went viral. He told people that when he was a cop in the 90s he learned that the government would put its own people in civilian clothes to cause fights among protesters.
The reprieve on July 9 when the peaceful faction of the protesters seemed to have prevailed didn’t last long. The day after, violence came back to the streets of Belgrade. Protesters and hooligans mixed completely and is not possible anymore to see the legitimate side of the protests because of the violence that the minority — which is much louder than the majority — of protesters chose as its tool to fight against the regime. Open attacks on the police, cursing them, hitting them with rocks and torches was the main picture from July 10. Even media that were fairly reporting on previous days got lost as to who were the protesters, who were hooligans, calling hooligans protesters and protesters hooligans. This made real protesters and their supporters on social networks angry, and they started calling on people to distance themselves from the hooligans and not let them ruin their fight for democracy.
Spotlight on police actions
International media have been reporting mainly about brutality of the Serbian police and not about why a peaceful protest by people worried for their material existence if the new lockdown kills their jobs turned into violent demonstrations and clashes between police and protesters.
For many Serbian citizens too, what hurts the most is the police brutality, even though the president says they were only doing what police in every other country would do: protecting state institutions and property. He claimed the police behaved with dignity in the face of “unbelievable pressure” and only responded when protesters burst into the parliament building.
However, this has been changing as the violent groups keep attacking police but also other protesters who want to show their opinion peacefully. On the third day of protests, which was quiet and civilised, minor incidents occurred mainly led by far-righters who were calling for a violent rebellion. They dominated on July 10 and ‘stole’ the protest from real protesters.
Criminal elements and foreign powers
Speaking after the first night of violence, Vucic said that the protests were politically influenced not only by criminal elements but also by foreign powers, specifically by their intelligence services, in his statement to the nation on July 8.
The president claimed the involvement of foreign powers who want to weaken Serbia’s international position shortly before his two-day trip to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron. This included a video conference hosted by Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, designated to symbolically restart the Belgrade-Pristina negotiation process. Prime Minister of Kosovo Avdullah Hoti as well as the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell took part in the event too.
According to Vucic, those who were doing this were extremists and their protest wasn’t against the measures to contain the coronavirus but against migrants, a deal with Kosovo, 5G networks and government itself.
“Last night, even though some tried to justify it with the story about coronavirus, we witnessed an aggressive political protest not long after the protests had started. Illegal, not announced to the police,” Vucic said in his statement to the nation on July 8.
He added that even if there are no doubts that, at the beginning, some gathered believing they were there because of the coronavirus and frustration because of the potential tightening of measures, individuals with far-right orientation, from pro-fascist organisations, attacked the Serbian parliament and entered its building.
“That political rally was well organised. Part of our security services failed. We saw later that there were influences not only from criminal elements but also international ones, aka, foreign intelligence services. Those are internal tasks that our service will have to work on in a significantly more serious way than it was doing until yesterday.”
He didn’t specify what foreign countries could have had their spies at the protest but added that there were also people from ex-Yugoslavia that are known for their criminal acts who took part in riots and attacks on the Serbian police.
Russian interference suspected
Suspicions that Vucic was referring to Russian interference were backed up by reports from the protests.
A title in a story from pro-government tabloid Kurir read: “Anti-EU forces, led by pro-Russian far-righters, organise destruction of Belgrade”. “Behind the violent protest in front of the parliament are anti-European forces that are close to Russian far-righters. That became clear immediately since main heads of the protest were exactly pro-Russian far-righter — former member of the Dveri movement Srdjan Nogo, current leader of Dveri Bosko Obradovic, member of the Alliance for Serbia and openly pro-Russian adviser of former president Boris Tadic, Mladjan Djordjevic,” the daily reported.
Then there was the video of a female Russian ‘tourist’ talking to a tv reporter during the protests. The woman approached the N1 TV crew and started complaining that a cop with a dog hit her on the cheek with a nightstick. She called him a “betrayer” and said there was no reason for anyone to defend him from the people that were stoning him. The journalist (who reported phenomenally despite all the tear gas) asked her why she was there.
“Because I’m defending justice! I’m protesting, yes. Because what’s going on is not fair or humane, and they say that they have European laws. There is no Europe here, this is dictatorship. I went through all that in Russia. I know what is a dictator … He behaves like a real dictator. I mean, Vucic,” she responded in decent Serbian with a strong Russian accent.
The journalist asked her to explain her reference to Russia and she said that in the 1990s they went through dictatorship under former president Boris Yeltsin.
“This is completely the same thing! They are building these shopping malls that will stand later like skeletons, monuments to that culture… all the same is now going on here. I recognise everything that was happening to us in the 1990s,” the Russian protester against the Serbian president said.
Later, at a press conference on July 8, a reporter from pro-regime private tv station Pink TV asked the president: “From where did Russian and Montenegrin citizens come to yesterday’s protest?”, to which the president replied that he had proof of “certain things” but was waiting for a report from Serbia’s intelligence services.”
A reporter from national Prva TV asked Vucic for a comment about the press release published by Belgrade-based think tank Center for Euro Atlantic Studies (CEAS) in response to the protests, which stated that the protests aim to weaken Serbia’s position and that the Russian stamp is recognisable in all that.
In its July 8 press release, CEAS wrote that in the main leaders of the violent demonstrations on July 7, the public had the opportunity to witness “pro-Russian public figures” who use any means to delegitimise Serbia’s attempts to reach a compromise on a new status for Kosovo through a comprehensive multidimensional agreement, which would take into consideration the arguments of Serbia on the one hand, and keep it on the European path on the other. That is why the protests were timed for just a couple of days before Vucic’s meetings regarding the Pristina dialogue.
“I have no doubts that those who worked on all these last night had the intention to weaken the position of Serbia. We have, for now, proof about the entanglement of officials from some regional services and about everything else we can talk later, when our services conduct detailed analyses. I can only speak about things for which I have proof,” Vucic said.
Vucic was due to meet the Russian ambassador to Serbia Aleksandar Botsan Harchenko on July 8, his cabinet announced day before. However, the meeting was canceled the morning after the protests on July 7.
Russia clings on to the Western Balkans
This isn’t the first allegation that Russians are behind anti-Vucic protests. The Western Balkans are one of the battlegrounds between Russia and the West in their struggle for influence. It is a struggle that Russia has gradually been losing in the region, where for every state the primary objective is EU accession. While Serbia remains militarily neutral, other states have opted to join Nato, with Montenegro and North Macedonia becoming the Alliance’s newest members. This has left Russia using its soft power and fermenting trouble at demonstrations to hold onto some of its influence.
In one curious example reported by Serbian daily Blic on June 11, Yevgeny Primakov Jr., a Russian journalist recently appointed head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation, a federal agency that operates under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has close ties with part of the Serbian opposition — namely the leaders of the Alliance for Serbia (SZS) Obradovic and Dragan Djilas. Blic reported that, in March 2019, Primakov approached Vucic as a journalist and came to interview him but used the chance to suggest that he form a technical government with the SZS. At that moment, protests called ‘1 of 5 million’ in which SZS participated were still taking place. However, Vucic’s SNS had a comfortable majority in the parliament and didn’t need a technical government with other parties, some of which didn’t even have MPs.
Blic reported that Primakov made the proposal without warning. An unnamed source told Blic that it was a very unpleasant talk, and that Vucic told him that he didn’t let anyone choose governments in Serbia.
“Bearing in mind history of relations between Primakov and Vucic, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s decision to name a controversial journalist to a strategically important position can be read differently. Still, it is the dominant opinion that it indicates that increased pressure over the government in Serbia is planned,” Blic said on June 11.
Ambassador Harchenko later demanded an apology from Blic over “defamatory allegations” that Russia aimed to “separate Serbia from the EU”.
Harchenko also vehemently denied any links between Russia and the protests in Belgrade. "Although the CEAS's pointing out absurd, unfounded accusations against Russia is not uncommon, it is surprising how distorted the perception of reality can be among 'experts' who have found a 'Russian trace' in the organisation of the riots in Serbia," the Russian ambassador to Serbia wrote on his Twitter account.
He added in a separate tweet that "it is very unfortunate when, as an instigator of the propaganda of the "Russian threat" and the spread of primitive Russophobic clichés, rejecting all standards of professionalism and objectivity, appears an organisation that aspires to the role of a "centre for studies".
“It is even sadder when the fabrications are recklessly supported by a number of the country's media,” he concluded.
Keeping the Kosovo question frozen
Russian interest in chaos in Belgrade is not hard to see as it has multiple reasons to delay any solution of the Belgrade-Pristina issue that gives the Kremlin room to maintain its so-called ‘soft influence’ over Serbia.
Russia doesn’t recognise Kosovo and blocks its entry to the United Nations through its veto in the Security Council, as does China. This gives Moscow a hold over Serbia, the largest economy among the EU candidate countries in the Western Balkans and a potential future foothold in the EU, that it is reluctant to give up.
While the EU and US have been pushing for a solution to the Belgrade-Pristina dispute, Russia wants it to remain a frozen conflict and weakening the Serbian position just prior to the re-start of talks on July 10, is a tool for reaching that goal.
It can also be seen as hitting two birds with one stone for Russia because slowing down the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue also hurts the US administration that is now, more than ever, keen to solve the dispute and talk to both sides. There has been a shift in position under the current US administration: Washington now wants to hear Belgrade and takes steps that do not unconditionally support Pristina. This is not good news for Russia that has played this card for years in order to manipulate the Serbian public and blackmail the government. In one sign of this, the US embassy to Serbia issued a statement reacting to the protests saying that they “condemn all violence, including what appeared to us to be coordinated attacks on police seemingly intended to provoke overreactions as well what appeared to be the use of excessive force by police”. This is a rare reaction from the US embassy that doesn’t strictly criticise the government of Serbia.
Another strong sign that the violence was deliberately timed to weaken Serbia’s position at the Paris meeting or prevent Vucic from attending at all was the absence of violence (except for a couple of minor incidents) from the third protest on July 9, when Vucic had already landed in Paris.
The return of violence on July 11 also implied that Russia may have its fingers in it. Among the hooligans that, again, were stoning the parliament building and breaking its windows, was a son of Petar Skundric, former adviser of Ivica Dacic, minister of foreign affairs and head of the SNS’s junior partner the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which has close relations with Russia. According to daily Blic, Skundric’s son, also called Petar Skundric, was arrested on July 10. He was in the front lines, wearing a mask and carrying a baseball bat.
Father Skundric was also minister of energy and mining between 2008 and 2011 when the SPS was part of the government with the Democratic Party. Skundric signed a purchase agreement between Gazprom Neft and the Serbian government in 2008.
The website Istinomer states that Skundric senior is considered to belong to the so-called "hard" faction of the SPS, and that he claimed (back in 2006) that “Slobodan Milosevic will forever remain a symbol of the struggle against neocolonialism, a symbol of the struggle for the freedom of small nations and states”. He also has links with sport, specifically the Red Star (Crvena zvezda) football club, according to Istinomer. Hooligans and far-righters are very often football fans in Serbia.
Post-election, it is not 100% guaranteed that Vucic will take the SPS, the SNS’ long-term coalition partner, in the next government. Even though the SNS didn’t need it in the last four years either, it was included and it’s still not clear if that’s Vucic’s strategy to downsize the opposition or if Russian pressure is behind the alliance. Previously, he came under pressure to give the position of minister of energy to the SPS, even though he initially put there one of his most reliable people, Zorana Mihajlovic, the current minister of infrastructure. She served as minister of energy from 2012 until 2014. In 2014, she was moved and her position was taken by SPS member Aleksandar Antic.
Corona, welcome to Serbia
Right now, it is hard to predict how big is the material damage of the destroyed streets and properties, and how badly the riots will strain the health system.
The number of new corona infections is expected to go up. The health system is on the edge as hospitals are already full. Thousands of people are waiting to be tested or treated. This is likely getting even worse. Meanwhile, cops and citizens fight against each other, and streets and properties and goods get destroyed. Corona, welcome to Serbia!
There is also a growing anti-vaccine movement in Serbia that mainly comes from far-right parties that support close ties with Russia too.
On July 7, Vucic announced the purchase of 2mn vaccines for seasonal flu which some groups like medical workers will be obligated to have. The idea was to prevent the bad combination of seasonal flu and corona in the autumn.
Ivan, one of the people vox popped by bne IntelliNews, spoke out against the vaccination programme. “I am young and healthy. It is better to get it [coronavirus] and be done with it instead of eventually being vaccinated by Vucic. Imagine how he would do that? He would probably make the police beat us to force us to have vaccines! That’s why we have to protest now! That’s what we need to stop!” he said.
During his statement to the nation on July 8, reacting to the riots the day before, Vucic said that he had given up the idea of a curfew but still expects protests because those who led them “have political goals and plan to destroy the reputation of Serbia in international circles”. Asked what he will do if the protests and violence continue, he said the police will do their job — arresting.
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic claims that government will be able to preserve the security of all citizens and the constitutional order.
“The elections are behind us and the citizens showed what they think, what the future of Serbia is and who should lead it,” she underlined, and said that attempts to change the will of the citizens will not succeed.
Talking about measures that will be taken to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, Brnabic is against restrictive measures because a chance has to be given to the economy to survive.
“We had a healthy budget in March but now we have spent a lot to support economy and citizens, for more than 400,000 tests [for coronavirus]. From where come money for respirators and PPE? That’s why we are trying to have a balance and I do hope we can do that because of the economy and I do guarantee that we will win this wave, economically too,” Brnabic said, N1 reported on July 8.
V-shaped recovery ahead
Brnabic expressed the difficult choice facing many governments, saying that the government must fight for people's health, but also maintain balance in order to preserve the economy.
Serbia’s recovery from the coronacrisis as well as the political riots depends a lot on the European Union, as the country’s main trade partner and investor. As long as EU economies struggle to recover, Serbia will be negatively affected. On the other hand, if Germany and Italy in particular find a way to recover, it will have a positive impact on Serbia and its industrial production.
The resumption of industrial production in Serbia as demand revives in its main export markets is, however, not without problems given the risk of infection in the workplace.
Tourism, events and other services remain the most vulnerable segments. Bars alone employ over 20,000 people in Serbia where there is a long-standing and deeply entrenched coffee culture. Asked during the lockdown what would be the first thing they would do afterwards, the majority said: go and have a coffee in my cafe.
Despite all this, the National Bank of Serbia (NBS) projects that GDP will decline by just 1.5% this year, which is the lowest rate in Europe, and in 2021 there will be strong growth of around 6%. Originally the central bank forecast 4% growth but naturally the pandemic and necessary health measures slowed down the economy in Q2, especially hitting the service sectors.
“As in most of other countries, we expect to see effects of the pandemic largely in Q2, with V shape recovery thereafter,” the NBS said in a recent report.
Government finances are set to deteriorate this year. The NBS report reads that in Q1 the government recorded a fiscal deficit of 4.1% of GDP, due to lower tax revenue and increased expenditures, particularly for medical equipment for fighting the pandemic. Increased spending continued in Q2.
In the first four months of 2020 public debt remained at a stable level of 52.4% of GDP (52.0% at end of 2019). The government programme to mitigate the negative effects of the coronavirus will lead to an increase in the budget deficit and public debt. However, public debt will remain below the Maastricht criteria level of 60%, claims the central bank.
On a more positive note, the NBS believes that investments will keep coming despite corona. According to its Macroeconomic Development report, published on June 1, during the first four months of 2020 FDI remained strong despite the coronavirus pandemic, with net inflows of €1.1bn, close to 2019 levels.
Investors in Serbia are pretty diversified, with the bulk of FDI inflows coming from euro area countries in 2017-19 but growing volumes from Asia, Russia, Turkey and Switzerland.
If EU economies struggle to recover, Serbia might seek more investment from China (though the benefits are questionable). There are also hopes that reviews of supply chains post-pandemic could see EU firms shifting production — especially of vital items like medicines and PPE — from China to the low cost economies of Southeast Europe.
A more realistic hope concerns the announced intention of the US administration to try and solve the Belgrade-Pristina dispute by boosting their economies.
Back to the 90s?
Comparisons have been drawn between the current protests and the decade-long resistance to Slobodan Milosevic and his regime. But the differences are numerous.
Milosevic usually stole elections against an opponent who could claim victory, and the opposition was united. By contrast, Vucic’s SNS managed to increase its share of the vote on June 21, at least partly because the divided opposition did not manage to offer a more appealing alternative. In addition, the protests in the 90s were non-violent on the side of the protesters even though the police were brutal.
The clashes and destroyed streets in Belgrade touched one of the main leaders of the student protests against Milosevic in the 90s, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Cedomir Jovanovic, who was beaten by the police many times back then. Right now, he is in hospital fighting coronavirus. Reacting to happenings on the streets around his hospital, he wrote a long post on his Facebook profile in which he said that “last night hurt endlessly more than all nights we spent together suffering from the virus, from each ‘swallow’ of a razor when you are getting used to pneumonia on both sides of your lungs, of every respirator, confusion under the ‘trodon’ [strong painkiller], from all our fears for the family at home, from the despair that devoured us while we waited for our children's tests, tearing up that we might have infected them too. Today, aside from them, no one else should think that that they might be innocent. Neither government is not an innocent nor is the opposition…”
He concluded: “We are responsible for everything we have done or have missed to do, responsible because we were silent when a word was all everybody needed, we are responsible because we were biting and growling when we had to hear and understand each other. That's why we're all guilty.”
The day after the fourth massive protests, on July 11, no one in Serbia was talking about Srebrenica on the 25th anniversary of the massacre there… isn’t that one of the things the far-righters wanted?
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