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Protests rock Serbia after mass shootings

May 26, 2023

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Serbia following two mass shootings. The protests are directed against the government. Now President Aleksandar Vucic has responded with an event of his own.

Crowds march in a mass demonstration along a Belgrade street
A massive protest in Belgrade with demonstrators who are critical of the government. Image: Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo/picture alliance


"We march ten to twelve hours a day and only take short breaks to recover," says Sladjan. Together with a dozen young Serbs from southern Kosovo, he's been walking toward Serbia's capital Belgrade for over a week.

The approximately 400-kilometer-long march is ending in a large demonstration being held by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Friday, May 26, 2023. As party leader, Vucic hopes to demonstrate the strength of his governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). "We feel obligated to support the President — after all, he's been helping Serbs in Kosovo for years," says Sladjan.

Two young men march along a street, while a third carries a flag.
Serbs from Kosovo march toward Belgrade to attend an event by President Alaksandar Vucic. Image: Jelena Djukic Pejic/DW

This time, however, the issue isn't the ongoing tension between Serbia and Kosovo. Right now Vucic has other concerns. Since the beginning of May 2023, 18 people have been killed in mass shootings and the country is in uproar. Most shocking were the murders at a school in Belgrade where the shooter was only 13 years old

A dangerous protest for the government

The fractured middle-class and left-leaning green opposition has apportioned most of the blame for the shootings to Vucic and his party. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have already gathered three times in Belgrade and blocked a bridge on the freeway to protest the "climate of violence" that has been cultivated by both the nation's ruling politicians and the media, which remains staunchly loyal to Vucic.

The opposition is demanding the resignation of certain government figures, as well as a ban on reality shows with violent content and a removal of the licenses for pro-Vucic television channels Happy and Pink. The next protest is scheduled for Saturday, May 27, 2023. The plan is to demonstrate in front of the headquarters of Serbia's public broadcaster RTS.

A huge group of demonstrators with one holding up a smart phone. High rise buildings are seen in the background.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators gather on May 19, 2023 under the slogan "Serbia against violence"Image: Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images

"The protests have become dangerous for those in power," Belgrade political scientist Vujo Ilic tells DW. "People wanted to express their grief after those two tragic shootings, but now everything has become politicized. The situation has also not been helped by the government calling the protesters 'political scavengers.'"

Discontent is growing

Most of the media remain loyal to Vucic, with opposition figures alternatively labeled "hyenas" or "foreign agents" seeking to exploit the shootings to seize power. But independent observers in the country are certain that discontent with Vucic is growing.

For the past eleven years, Vucic has ruled the Balkan country with an iron fist, cleverly maneuvering Serbia's relations with the EU and Russia. Domestically, he presents himself as the "nation's father," while handing out jobs to SNS party members and loyal followers. Since being in office, elections have been suspected of being rigged.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic gestures with his hands while sitting at a table during a press conference
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at a press conference after a school shooting on May 3, 2023Image: Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo/picture alliance

Confronted with the wave of protests, which are the largest since he took office, Vucic is now counting on a rally of his own to put critics in their place. "He wants to use a 'counter-demo' to show his supremacy on the streets as well," Ilic said. "The message to his constituents is that we still outnumber them."

Forced to rally?

But evidence is mounting that Vucic's Progressive Party is forcing public employees to rally and enticing others with mini bribes. Hundreds of buses have already been rented, while the backdrop in front of the parliament in Belgrade has been carefully prepared.

Marko — not his real name — works for the civil service in a town in southern Serbia and, like most there, is a member of the Progress Party. "The boss of my company has ambitions within the party. That's why he's personally calling on employees to attend the rally in Belgrade," Marko tells DW. "He isn't forcing anyone directly, but he is the boss. If he promises a day off for the rally, most will buckle," the man tells us.

A highway bridge is overrun by a mass demonstration against violence in Serbia.
Demonstrators block a highway during a demonstration against violence in Belgrade on May 12, 2023. Image: Darko Vojnovic/AP Photo/picture alliance

The opposition is offering free legal aid to those who rally. Seven opposition parties have asked the prosecutor's office to respond, but the chances of that happening are slim. The judiciary in Serbia is also largely controlled by Vucic.

"I don't mind a million people wanting to go to Belgrade," says Jelena Milosevic, deputy chief of the Freedom and Justice Party. "But I very much object to people being blackmailed or threatened with losing their jobs."

Are the protests dying down?

Prior to the two big demos in Belgrade — the government camp on Friday and the government critics the day after — the question of whether the opposition will finally be able to score points against its overpowering opponent, or whether Vucic will take refuge in an early parliamentary election (as he has done so often before), remains unresolved. For his part, Vucic has already hinted at such a move.

Serbia's president has relied on such elections several times in recent years, cementing his power by winning landslide victories against a deeply divided opposition, which ranges from pro-Russian nationalists to pro-European democrats.

"It's uncertain, however, whether or not the ruling party really wants to launch an election campaign at such an unpredictable time," adds political scientist Ilic. On the other hand, Vucic is certainly not about to make any concessions to the opposition, nor is he going to relinquish his dominance of the media.

Political scientist Vujo Ilic, a middle-aged man, wears a black shirt while gazing into the camera.
Belgrade political scientist Vujo IlicImage: Marija Jankovic

It's possible the current wave of protests will die down eventually, just as others have done. Many in the opposition camp are concerned about just that, with some even considering turning to more radical forms of protest.

All Marko wants, on the other hand, is peace from both sides. He may have to attend the rally for the Progress Party, but he doesn't really feel like it. "Fighting for control in the streets after two tragic shootings is just stupid."

This article was translated from German.