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The stage in front of the Serbian parliament was installed the day before, along with fences, loudspeakers, and big screens. As previously reported in Foreign Policy In Focus, two mass shootings in Serbia provoked three waves of protest, the last one attracting more than 200,000 citizens. So, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić decided to organize a counter-demonstration.

On May 26, his supporters started to arrive, many via more than 3,500 buses and some even by foot from Kosovo. Tens of thousands of people gathered around the parliament. The national anthem marked the beginning of the official happening. Among the speakers was the president of neighboring Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik, back from Azerbaijan, who said:

Some people thought that Serbia is weak. She is sad because she lost her children, but she is not weak, and this gathering shows that she is not weak. Those who have gathered the people against Serbia and the Serbian people will not pass. It is in vain for the British to gather satraps and traitors against the Serbian people.

When it was time to take the stage,  Aleksandar Vučić did not use an umbrella despite the rain. He started by praising himself:

For eleven years, I served faithfully and loyally to my country and my people. Perhaps more faithful and loyal than some of you can imagine. For eleven years I have been at the head of SNS, the largest and best party of wonderful hosts and honest people, who have changed Serbia. We won all the elections… This is the last evening that I am addressing you as president of SNS. Tomorrow, someone else will take over SNS, and I will remain a faithful member. From tomorrow I will be the president of all the citizens of Serbia, not a political party. 

Vučić was quick to reassure his supporters, many of whom were already leaving at the beginning of his address: “I’m not going anywhere,” he continued.  “We will win together, we will open factories, give subsidies to agriculture, we will increase salaries and pensions.” He concluded by thanking everyone who stayed in the rain until the end.

Stormy Weather

The government rally was anti-climactic. After less than two hours most citizens had already left, even as they expressed their satisfaction with the rally. They were directed in columns to the parked buses that brought them to Belgrade. The rain continued to pour down…

Before the rally, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić proclaimed that the peaceful “Serbia against violence” demonstrations were a direct influence of foreign services aiming to destabilize the country. She declared that no “new Maidan”—like the one that deposed Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014—would happen in Serbia.

But others felt differently. Boris Tadić, the president of Serbia from 2004 to 2012, stressed that the the government is contributing to further escalation by calling its opponents “scumbags, the wretched ones, traitors.” Psychologist Žarko Korać, a prominent advocate of civil liberties, said: “Even in our region [of ex-Yugoslavia], it is no longer the case that the government completely controls most of the electronic media. It just shows how aware the protesters are of the state of the country they live in. Three times in 30 years they are fighting for the same thing, which is the basis of a democratic state.”

Numerous public figures, actors, singers, intellectuals and even Filip Karađorđević, a member of the royal House of Karađorđević, supported the peaceful protests, publishing statements or simply participating in the walks. Three high standing members of the ruling party (SNS) resigned and one of them, Stanislava Pak, said that Vučić pathologically hates the opposition and personally edits all the media and determines all their headlines. The day before her former party’s counter-protest, she asked citizens not to attend because such events deepen violence in society.

The independent daily Danas published this scathing comment:

The director of the May political farce decided to finally defeat and subjugate us. With our money. He blackmails extras from the public sector, lures them with sandwiches and daily wages, coordinates bus convoys, slogans about his own greatness. He is using our state resources against us.

Nikola Nešić, a member of the party Zajedno (Together), confirmed that the government put pressure on workers in public and private companies to attend the counter rally, which Vučić announced as “the biggest gathering in Serbia ever.” According to reports from Nova TV, daily Danas, and Južne vesti , public company workers received threats and were allegedly pressured with having their contracts terminated if they did not attend.

The Man Behind the Counter-Rally

The main figure behind the present-day turbulent situation in Serbia is Aleksandar Vučić, who has had a colorful but hardly progressive political career. Since 1993, he was a member of the Serbian Radical Party, the most militant nationalist one in the country, deeply devoted to the concept of “Greater Serbia.” Only two years later, he became its  secretary-general and was one of the SRS volunteers who visited the army that kept Sarajevo under siege. In 1998, Vučić was appointed minister of information in the government of Mirko Marjanović. Following rising resentment against Slobodan Milošević, Vučić introduced restrictive measures and fines against journalists who criticized the government and banned foreign TV networks for good measure. At that time, he began to establish a reputation as an authoritarian and autocratic politician.

In 2014, he seemingly repented, confirming that he was wrong on some fronts, adding “I was not ashamed to confess all my political mistakes.” Obviously, it didn’t stop him from being wrong again and making many more mistakes from the moment he became president. According to Reporters Without Borders, “Serbia has become a place where practicing journalism is neither safe nor supported by the state. The number of attacks on media is on the rise, including death threats, and inflammatory rhetoric targeting journalists is increasingly coming from the governing officials.”

In addition to persistently harassing journalists, Vučić has become famous for his deference towards people from the underworld. A May 3 New York Times article revealed many gruesome details of his connections to the criminal world. “The cocaine cartels had become so lucrative that they could corrupt anyone,” says Boris Tadić. “Vucic helped put criminals in power, with the belief that he could control them.”

It is questionable whether Aleksandar Vučić ever read the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, though it is possible he cherishes some simplified summaries of the political philosopher, who was the first to clearly separate ethics from politics. Leaders prone to personal grandeur, including Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, tend to believe in the following Machiavellian precepts: “the end justifies the means,” “the ruler should act according to necessity, and not care about being held cruel, if the cruelty is ‘well used,’” “having a strong state is better than having a good and moral state,” and “it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

But Vučić  would do well to consider another of Machiavelli’s recommendations: “The key is to avoid being hated, which is when people can really turn against you.” The only thing a leader would need to worry about is pushing things too far. It remains to be seen if Vučić, like his former boss over two decades ago, has pushed Serbian citizens too far.

The opposition and citizens fed-up with violence and manipulation are planning their fourth “Servia against violence” protest. One goal this time is to persuade the main TV provider RTS to finally become a public station that objectively reports on all topics. Croatian journalists that attended government rally reported that the two faces of Serbia were clearly on display in the successive rallies: one that blindly follows Vučić and the other that opposes him. The latter are beginning to coalesce around a single message: ‘Vučić, go away.’”

Several presidents have resigned after the violent protests of their citizens: Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia in 2003, Peru’s interim president Manuel Merino and Kyrgyz president Sooronbai Jeenbekov in 2020, and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in 2022. Facing mass, peaceful demonstrations, Aleksandar Vučić is digging in his heels.  But his opponents, in contrast to his supporters, are not scared by the rain. They simply use colorful umbrellas and grow in number.

Source of original article: Foreign Policy In Focus (
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